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Healthy Food Swaps: Little Impact vs Big Impact Changes

A new diagnosis can be a big motivator to make nutrition changes and healthy food swaps. It can be scary or shocking to find out you have diabetes, hypertension, or high cholesterol, and that heightens the desire to quickly make an impactful change. But many people are unsure which changes will make the biggest difference in their health and if a change is a healthy food swap or not.

person deciding between 2 food options

Are these Healthy Food Swaps or Not Worth the Effort?

Here are a few changes people often choose to make and a rating of their impact on health. These are changes that I frequently hear from my patients that they have made or are considering making. While all come from good intentions, I want my patients to have good outcomes, not just good intentions.

Coffee: Healthy Food Swap?

  • 1 teaspoon of sugar in your morning coffee to no sugar in your morning coffee. At one cup of coffee per day, this is a savings of 4gm sugar and 16 calories. I'd rate this as 1 out of 10. The decrease in sugar is so insignificant, it is not likely to make much of a change in blood sugars, even if you have diabetes.

  • 1 Venti Caramel Macchiato to 1 Venti brewed coffee with 1 sugar and a splash of milk. This swap takes you from 42gm sugar to 4gm sugar. This difference every morning is enough to see a difference in your post-breakfast blood sugar values. I'd give this a 9 out of 10.

Instant Ramen: Healthy Food Swap?

  • Instant ramen without veggies to instant ramen with freeze-dried veggies. While I always prefer to celebrate even small changes in nutrition habits, it would be against my patients' best interests for me to perpetuate the belief that those few rehydrated freeze-dried vegetables give any vegetable benefit. This is a 1 out of 10.

  • Instant ramen with seasoning packet to instant ramen with half of the seasoning packet. This change can reduce sodium intake by more than 400mg! For someone with salt-sensitive hypertension, this reduction in salt intake is helpful, but the half-packet of seasoning is still not a low sodium food. I'd give this a 6 out of 10.

Tortillas: Healthy Food Swap?

  • Regular tortilla to spinach tortilla. Unfortunately, spinach tortillas are a marketing gimmick, not a vegetable. Spinach tortillas do not have more fiber or vitamin C than the regular tortillas, and those nutrients are famously in spinach. This is a 1 out of 10 in my book.

  • Regular tortilla to 100% whole wheat tortilla. This swap is definitely worth it. When comparing tortillas of the same size, you can get 3x more fiber with one that is 100% whole wheat. For someone with diabetes, this can help slow the rise in blood sugar, and for someone with high cholesterol, adequate fiber over time can help lower cholesterol. I'll give this a 9 out of10.

Cereal: Healthy Food Swap?

  • Honey Nut Cheerios to Multigrain Cheerios. This change does not give you more fiber. Both have 3gm total fiber. The Honey Nut Cheerios actually have more soluble fiber at 1gm versus none in the Multigrain Cheerios. The Soluble fiber is the the type that gives the best cholesterol reducing benefits. It is found abundantly in oats, and there are less oats in Multigrain Cheerios due to them containing a mix of grains, and not just oats. This swap is a 1 out of 10.

  • Honey Nut Cheerios to Original Cheerios. This change is 11gm lower in added sugar, 1 gm higher in fiber, and 2gm higher in protein per serving. If, like most people, your portion is larger than the serving on the box, the lower sugar content in the Original Cheerios is even more meaningful. I think this is an 8 out of 10.

Changes That Make an Impact

Sometimes it is hard to know which changes will make an impact. To start with, it can be difficult to parse out the differences between various options of a type of food. Additionally, the best nutrition changes for your specific health needs can be complex. Ideal nutrition is personalized nutrition. To understand which food swaps are health for you, make an appointment!

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