10 Tips to Make Healthier Versions of Foods You Love

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Close-up of pretty girl eating fresh vegetable salad

By Julie Wilcox, author of The Win-Win Diet: How To Be Plant-Based and Still Eat What You Love

With the popularity of plant-based eating on the rise, supermarkets, specialty food stores, and even some boutique bodegas have lined their shelves with high-quality healthy ingredients. What makes this so exciting is that you can make foods previously considered forbidden or labeled “bad” beneficial to your health. From whole grain to nut flours, plant-based milk to vegan egg replacements, there are endless swaps for preparing your favorite foods. It’s time to enjoy the foods you love while saying goodbye to those that are highly processed, high in trans-fat, saturated fat, and sodium.

Substitute refined grains with whole grains.

We all love baked goods, pasta, rice, and cereal, yet hear they’re bad for our health. But here’s the thing: the foods themselves aren’t bad, it’s the refined grains of which they are comprised that are the problem. 

Refined grains undergo chemical processing that strips them of their bran and germ, which contain all the nutrients including fiber, protein, healthy fats, vitamins, and minerals. What’s left is the endosperm, the part of the grain with the fewest nutrients, and which is high on the glycemic index, meaning it causes blood sugar to spike. Over time, high blood glucose can cause insulin resistance, weight gain and a host of other chronic diseases. 

While you want to avoid eating refined grains, you can still eat the foods you love guilt-free, if you use high quality whole grain ingredients. Next time you’re craving a muffin, waffles, or pancakes, try using corn, spelt or oat flour. Hankering for pasta? Make whole wheat spaghetti or Banza pasta (made with chickpea flour). Stir fry over rice? Steam some brown rice, millet quinoa, or bulgur. A bowl of cereal? Have a bowl of steel cut oatmeal, amaranth porridge, or breakfast grits. Top them with some organic maple syrup, berries, and walnuts and I promise, you will not miss your Lucky Charms.

Use plant-based butter and oil rather than animal-derived fats.

Plant-based butters and oils are trans-fat-free and contain less saturated fat and cholesterol than animal oils (Trans and saturated fats are what cause elevated LDL cholesterol and high triglycerides, which in turn increases risk of heart disease, stroke, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and cancer, among numerous other chronic diseases.). In addition, plant-based butters and oils contain healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, which lower LDL and raise HDL, the good cholesterol. They can also improve blood vessels, and benefit insulin control and blood sugar levels. Omega-3 fatty acids, especially DHAs, are important for cognitive, immune, and cardiac functioning, and may reduce the risk of many diseases including heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s, age-related macular degeneration, and rheumatoid arthritis.Additionally, the body uses omega-3s for energy and tissue growth, specifically for the brain, which makes them critical for fetal development. Several studies show that mothers who consume adequate DHA have babies with improved health outcomes compared to those who do not. 

Choose Earth Balance and Smart Balance over butter, and plant-based oils such as extra virgin olive, safflower, sesame seed, canola, peanut, walnut, sunflower seed, avocado, or flax seed oil over animal-sourced oils. 

Avoid processed meat from factory farms and choose organic, local, pasture-raised, grass-fed varieties instead.

Processed meat is produced on factory farms, which are incredibly harmful to the environment and animals. Moreover, the animals are injected with hormones and antibiotics, which ultimately end up in us. What’s more is, processed meat contains nitrates and nitrites (used mostly in cured meats like salami, sausage, bacon, and roast beef to give them the pinkish red color), which studies show can be cancer causing. So, if you’re going to eat meat, eat less of it, and spend your extra dollars on high-quality, organic, local, pasture-raised, grass-fed cuts. Supermarkets abound these days with organic varieties of ham, bacon, sausage, chicken turkey, really any meat you’re craving. 

Substitute red meat with white meat, fish, and vegetarian proteins. 

White meat, fish, and vegetarian proteins are lower in saturated fat and sodium and higher in polyunsaturated fats and omega-3s than red meat. Red meat dishes are also frequently served with sides such as french fries, onion rings, and creamed spinach, which are also rich in saturated fats. All this makes red meat a perfect driver of chronic disease. Studies show that regular and excessive consumption of red meat is associated with heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke and numerous other chronic diseases (eating small amounts—three ounces—four to five times a month is not typically associated with these illnesses). It’s time to start swapping as much red meat out of your meal plan as possible. Healthy mornings set the tone for the rest of the day and breakfast is, for many, the easiest meal to modify. Most red breakfast meats have white-meat or vegetarian alternatives, so if those foods are part of your morning routine, try swapping bacon for its turkey counterpart or regular sausage for vegetarian sausage. Furthermore, many popular healthy breakfast options such as oatmeal, eggs, and smoothies are naturally vegetarian and would be the best substitutes for red meat of all. 

Once you have breakfast down, apply the same approach to lunch. If your regular weekday lunch is a salami sandwich, substitute the salami with turkey, smoked salmon or Tofurky. Then, consider making similar swaps at dinner. Rather than steak frites and creamed spinach, have roast chicken or a piece of grilled fish with sautéed kale and roasted new potatoes or bulgur on the side. In addition to all the other health benefits, your gut will thank you, because eating healthy in the evenings reduces the amount of digestive work, which in turn, can yield a deeper and higher-quality sleep. 

Use natural sweeteners like maple syrup, coconut sugar, honey, date paste and agave rather than processed white table sugar.

Studies show processed sugar to be one of the top contributors to the laundry list of chronic diseases including obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, cancer, high blood pressure, stroke, and depression among others. Whether you’re making a smoothie or granola, muffins or cookies, a bowl of oatmeal or a yogurt parfait, replace the processed sugar with a natural sweetener. My favorite replacement is organic maple syrup. With natural sweeteners, you will still be consuming sugar, which will elevate your blood glucose levels, but the spike and consequences will be less dire than with processed sugar.  

Choose plant-based milk products over dairy.

Like processed meat, non-organic dairy is produced on factory farms. While studies are mixed about whether dairy is associated with chronic disease and weight gain, it’s certainly best for the environment and animal welfare to choose organic dairy or plant-based milk products. Plant-based milk beverages and yogurts abound these days in grocery store aisles. Experiment with several types to find the ones you like most (soy, coconut, almond, cashew, and oat, are all very popular). You can also use these as cooking and baking ingredients, but make sure to learn the tricks of the trade. Plant-based milks do not act like dairy so use recipes (such as the ones in this book) to help you get a hang of them before you try them out on your own. In addition, depending on your strategy for meeting your individual nutrient needs, you will likely benefit from fortified products. 

Use herbs and spices for flavoring rather than salt or other sodium-rich additives.

It’s well established that salt drives hyper-tension, heart disease and stroke. Herbs and spices, however, are not only incredibly flavorful but also give food beautiful vibrant color and aroma. Still, most important is their health-promoting medicinal properties. Evidence shows that they have anti-inflammatory, anti-carcinogenic, antioxidant, mood boosting, and glucose- and cholesterol-lowering, properties. Next time you’re tempted to reach for salt to enhance the flavor of your soup, cooked vegetables, stews, or casseroles, try cumin, turmeric, curry, rosemary, sage, ginger, garlic, thyme, or oregano instead.

Swap eggs with flax egg, Just Egg, chia seeds, or applesauce.

In the past, eggs have been vilified for increasing cholesterol, but current studies show that most healthy people do not need to worry about this. The latest research concludes that: a) dietary cholesterol (cholesterol in food) does not adversely affect the body’s total cholesterol levels or risk of cardiovascular disease; and b) that the consumption of one egg per day, or up to seven a week, is perfectly acceptable for those not genetically predisposed to elevated plasma cholesterol and who do not have type 2 diabetes (which interferes with cholesterol transport). Those with diabetes, however, should consider eating less than three eggs per week. So, for those who do want curb their egg intake because their diabetic or simply trying to eat a more plant-based diet, for baking, try replacing your eggs with flax egg, Just Egg, chia seeds, or apple sauce. They are all great substitutes. If you need recipes that incorporate these, there are many resources from which to choose. In addition to my book, The Win-Win Diet, I recommend bluezones.com, thefullhelping.com, and veganricha.com (these are all great sources to execute on all of these points!).

Replace animal-sourced protein foods with plant-based protein foods.

Having covered why it’s important to reduce consumption of animal-sourced foods, it’s time to try replacing meat, dairy, and eggs with plant-based alternatives. Tofu, tempeh, and seitan are the typical “mock” meats vegetarians and vegans consume. Rather than choose the highly processed and flavored varieties, buy them in their purest form and use recipes to make delectable dishes from scratch. Swap scrambled eggs for a tofu scramble, beef tacos for tempeh tacos, and seitan piccata for chicken piccata. Tofu curry and tempeh stir fry are two more of my favorite plant-based protein dishes. Legumes are yet another wonderfully healthy protein food that stand in very well for ground meat and they are also full of iron, fiber, and many other vitamins and minerals. Next time you want a hamburger, look up a recipe for a delicious black or lentil burger.

Trade mayonnaise in for Vegenaise.

Mayonnaise is full of saturated fat and cholesterol, which we know can contribute to chronic disease. Vegenaise is a vegetarian substitute for mayonnaise. It has less saturated fat, no cholesterol, and is preservative- and additive-free. It spreads perfectly on bread for a sandwich and is a wonderful component with which you can make delicious dips and condiments. If you’re a fan of lunch salads like tuna, egg, or chicken salad, Vegenaise does the same job as mayonnaise and many non-vegetarians feel, tastes even better. As Katherine Goldstein once wrote in Slate magazine, “The flavor was much lighter than regular mayo, and had a pleasing balance of flavors that made regular Hellmann’s taste both too sweet and too sour by comparison. Vegenaise’s texture is pleasantly smooth and airy, and much less goopy than store-bought mayo.”

Julie Wilcox is the author of The Win Win Diet:  How to Be Plant-Based and Still Eat What You Love

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