Tag Archives: Substitutions

An Easy Way to Start Eating Healthier

Here on ThreeApplesADay, I often recommend cutting out processed foods and adding more whole foods to your diet as much as possible: munch on veggie sticks instead of chips for the same crunch or sip green tea instead of soda for the same energy boost. Other websites, magazines, and nutrition experts offer the same advice with quick fix headlines: Cut out 100, 200, even 500 calories a day! But unfortunately, it’s not so simple or easy.

According to Dr. David Kessler, the combination of fat, salt, and sugar that is so prevalent in packaged and processed foods alters our brain chemistry in a way that makes us crave these foods more. “The salt-fat-sugar combination will stimulate the diner’s brain to crave more…and the food industry manipulates this neurological response, designing foods to induce people to eat more than they should or even want,” says Kessler. In fact, according to a study published by the National Academy of Sciences, going cold turkey on sweets and high-fat food results in the same withdrawal symptoms that junkies go through. In the study, rats who were accustomed to a diet rich in sugar and chocolate and then had those treats taken away showed five times the normal levels of corticotropin-releasing factor, the same stress factor that is released when drug addicts try to quit.

So what is a sugar-fat-salt addict to do? It’s all about the baby steps: instead of quitting your favorite packaged and processed foods immediately, swap them out for healthier and healthier versions until you reach healthy, nutritious, clean foods. Spend about three weeks at each step; obesity researchers from New York Presbyterian Hospital determined that 21 days is the minimum time required to properly form a habit and stick with it.

Unhealthy: Potato chips
Potato chips are a dangerous snack food: their small serving size (one ounce, about 12 chips) and high calorie, sodium and saturated fat counts makes it easy to go overboard. But potato chips also contain acrylamide, a carcinogenic byproduct formed when foods are heated to high temperatures.

Healthier: Flax or bean chips
Chips made with wholesome ingredients, like Beanitos Black Bean Chips, are still processed — but they provide far more nutrients than potato chips. Beanitos Black Bean Chips, for example, offer 4 grams of protein and 5 grams of filling fiber per 1 ounce serving — making them satisfying enough to stop at one serving.

Healthier: Kale chips
It would be difficult to overindulge in kale chips: one cup has just 34 calories. Plus, it boasts considerable amounts of vitamin A, C and K, as well as lutein and zeaxanthin, two carotenoids that boost eye health. If you want a vehicle for your favorite dips, pick carrot chips — all the flavor is in the dips, anyway!

Unhealthy: Sugary cereal
According to the Environmental Working Group, 56 popular cereals contain more than 25% sugar by weight. These cereals are also refined and stripped of their nutrients, including satiating fiber, so you start your day off with uneven blood sugar levels, low energy, and a poor mood.

Healthier: Half sugary cereal and half whole grain cereal
By cutting your portion of sugary cereal in half and adding in half a serving of whole grains, you cut out half the sugar and add in satiating belly-filling fiber. Look for cereals that list a whole grain as its first ingredients, at least five grams of fiber, and fewer than 7 grams of sugar.

Healthier still: Instant oatmeal
Oatmeal is rated as one of the top satiating foods — it’s filled with fiber and a surprising amount of protein. It’s also praised as a weight-loss food: researchers from the University of California at Berkeley found that people who ate cooked cereal for breakfast had a lower BMI than any other breakfast-eating group. Instant oatmeal is an easy transition from sugary cereals, as it’s often sweetened and comes in tasty flavors like Maple Nut and Chai-Spiced.

Healthiest: Steel cut oats
Steel cut oats are the least processed type of oatmeal (as opposed to instant oatmeals, which are chopped, flattened, pre-cooked, dehydrated, and flavored with sugar and salt). With plenty of protein and fiber, steel cut oats are lower on the glycemic index than other oatmeals — so you’ll get through your morning with plenty of energy. Plus, they contain all B vitamins, calcium, magnesium, and antioxidants.

Unhealthy: French fries
An average order of French fries adds about 430 calories to your meal; that’s a lot of calories, considering they’re just a side. But calories alone don’t make French fries unhealthy. In supersizes, their excessive amount of starch is quickly converted to sugar, which causes a spike in insulin production and ultimately increases your risk for metabolic syndrome and diabetes. Plus, fries contain the same dangerous carcinogen (acrylamide) as potato chips, as well as saturated and trans fats.

Healthier: Sweet potato fries
Sweet potato fries offer up just as many calories and unhealthy fat grams (and the aforementioned acrylamide) as regular French fries. But they have some redeeming qualities: they have a lower glycemic index, making them a better choice for maintaining steady blood sugar levels and satiety. Plus, they’re high in vitamin A and fiber.

Healthier still: Baked sweet potato fries
Without sacrificing flavor, the difference between restaurant sweet potato fries and homemade baked sweet potato fries is huge — 270 calories and 15 grams of fat. Those calories come from saturated and trans fats, leaving you with the nutrient-dense calories of a sweet potato.

Healthiest: Baked butternut squash fries
Sweet potatoes are a root vegetable, whereas butternut squash is technically a fruit. Although their tastes are similar — and they both contain high amounts of skin-boosting carotenoids — sweet potato contains more than twice as many calories, carbs, and sugars as butternut squash. One cup of butternut squash packs just 63 calories, 16.4 grams of carbs, and 3.1 grams of sugars; it’s also rich in calcium, magnesium, potassium, and vitamin E. With fiber and high water content, butternut squash is also filling — much more so than 430 calories of French fries!

Unhealthy: Buffalo Wings
Healthier: Baked Hot Wings
Healthiest: Homemade sesame chicken

Unhealthy: Soda
Healthier: Natural sodas
Healthier still: Sweetened tea
Healthiest: Green tea

Unhealthy: Kraft Macaroni and Cheese
Healthier: Annie’s Shells & Creamy White Cheddar
Healthiest: Butternut Squash Macaroni and Cheese

Unhealthy: Fettuccine Alfredo
Healthier: Shrimp Scampi
Healthiest: Linguine Fra Diavolo


Pick a Healthier Pizza

Pizza originally hails from Italy, but it is an absolute American favorite. Each second, 350 slices of pizza are eaten, resulting in a $30 billion industry. For most Americans, it’s tradition: birthday parties include cake, ice cream, and pizza; guys’ night out consists of beer and pizza; and football games aren’t the same without wings and pizza. With all this pizza consumption – 23 pounds of pizza per person a year – it’s a good idea to pick a healthier pie. Read on to find the best and worst picks for restaurant pizza, takeout/delivery, and store-bought, plus tips on how to make any choice healthier.

Restaurant Pizza

Ordering pizza at a restaurant leaves room for lots of variability: some pies are meant to be eaten by one person, others by the whole family; some are deep-dish and loaded with cheese and meat, while others more closely emulate the thin, delicate pizzas from Italy.

Worst: Uno Chicago Grill Chicago Classic Deep Dish
This pizza, meant for one person, contains an astounding 2,310 calories, 165 grams of fat (54 grams saturated), and 120 carbs – all of which are refined.  That’s more calories than most people should eat in a day, and more saturated fat a person should eat in almost three days. This pizza goes south for a couple reasons: first, it’s deep dish (Uno Chicago Grill is apparently “the birthplace of deep dish pizza”), meaning a good portion of the calories come from the thick dough – made entirely of quick-burning, blood sugar-raising refined flour. It also provides a strong foundation for heavy, hearty toppings, including meats and plenty of cheese. Traditionally, lots of oil is used in and on a deep-dish crust, creating a fried effect – and even more calories. The meats and cheeses provide most of the rest of the calories, as well as the saturated fat and sodium.

Best: Margherita Pizza
If you can hit up an artisanal-style or Neapolitan-style pizza place, do it. As opposed to all-American eateries that serve everything from burgers to nachos to pizza, these restaurants serve light pizzas with simple – i.e., not hypercaloric – toppings. Instead of using the crust as a thick base to carry as many toppings as possible, the crust is another ingredient that adds to the flavor of sauce and toppings. The Margherita pizza, with a tangy tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella, sea salt and basil, is probably the most iconic version, and comes in at a relatively light 600 calories. For a balanced dinner, combine it with a salad, or put the salad on your pizza: ask for arugula on top. And for a protein hit, order a pizza napoletana (also sometimes called pizza romano) – it also has anchovies that provide healthy omega-3s.

Tips: If you can, order your pizza thin-crust. You’ll save around 200 calories – possibly more – just on the dough, and likely hundreds more in the toppings that don’t fit on a thin-crust.

If you’re going out with friends, share a few pizzas so you can try a variety of flavors (and be satisfied) – but also share a few salads and lean protein-based appetizers. If everyone wants their own pizza, order a salad and your own pizza – but save half to take home.

Make substitutions. Ask for light cheese: most restaurants pile it on too heavily anyway. You’ll also be making more room for healthier toppings, like vegetables and protein. Also ask for a whole wheat crust; many restaurants offer it now.

Avoid red meats like sausage, bacon, and pepperoni – especially if all three are included. They add too much fat and sodium to offset the benefit of their protein. Pick chicken, anchovies, sardines, or mussels instead, which add a hit of lean protein with minimal saturated fat; seafood options also provide heart-healthy omega-3s. One exception to the red meat rule: prosciutto, paper-thin, dry-cured ham from Italy, is an indulgent topping, but it adds rich, quality flavor for about 70 calories and five grams of fat per ounce.


Most big-chain delivery and takeout pizzas are relatively similar: a puffy, white-flour crust, mozzarella cheese (sometimes with cheddar, provolone, feta, or American cheeses), and a basic tomato sauce. A regular cheese slice will pack between 220 and 340 calories.

Worst: Pizza Hut Stuffed Crust Meat Lover’s Pizza
With 480 calories and 11 grams of saturated fat, this is America’s unhealthiest slice. It has five different types of meat – pepperoni, ham, beef, bacon, and sausage – which also contribute to the 1,380 mg of sodium it contains. Pizza Hut’s dough also contains partially hydrogenated soybean oil – meaning that all of their pizzas contain trans fats. In addition to the high-calorie, high-fat pizzas, Pizza Hut tempts its customers with gut-busting sides like Stuffed Pizza Rollers (220 calories each), Fried Cheese Sticks (380 calories), and Apple Pie (330 calories).

Best: Papa John’s Thin Crust Garden Fresh
All of the vegetables piled on this pizza – onions, peppers, mushrooms, olives, and tomatoes – displace some of the cheese, making this a lighter option. One slice contains 220 calories, just 3 grams of saturated fat, and 9 grams of fiber. While their meaty slices do carry a pretty hefty amount of calories, their ingredients are markedly better (apparently the slogan “better ingredients, better pizza” rings true): there are no trans fats or MSG in any products; no animal fats in the dough (some doughs use lard); no fillers in the meat; and no preservatives used on the fresh vegetables. Papa John’s also has a “Create Your Own” option online, allowing you to customize your order with plenty of fresh vegetables, light or no cheese, and grilled chicken or anchovies.

Tips: Ordering delivery pizza offers even more customizability than in a restaurant – most delivery and takeout joints allow you to make as many substitutions as you like, or, in some cases, a build your own pizza. The same healthy substitutions from above apply here: less cheese, more vegetables and lean protein, and a whole wheat crust.

Avoid white pizzas: these pizzas come without tomato sauce; instead, the crust is covered with either a heavy dousing of olive oil, a cream- or cheese-based sauce, or pesto. This, of course, increases the calorie count of your pizza drastically – but it also denies you the nutrients found in tomato sauce, like lycopene, as well as fresh herbs.

Skip the desserts. Often, coupons for delivery and takeout joints offer a free dessert. But these desserts – Domino’s CinnaStix, Pizza Hut’s Cinnamon Sticks, Papa John’s CinnaPie – can pack as many calories as your pizza. Domino’s CinnaStix contains 1,210 calories, 51 grams of fat, and 79 grams of sugar – and you’re probably not sticking to the recommended two-piece serving size.


Store-bought and frozen pizzas offer as much diversity as pizza restaurants. They range the gamut from deep-dish, meat-loaded, and cheese-stuffed to vegetable-packed thin-crust and from organic to preservative-packed meats.

Worst: Totino’s Party Pizza with Hamburger
Although it’s not listed as a personal pizza, most people would finish this pizza in one sitting. One serving (half of the small pizza) contains 370 calories and 20 grams of fat, which isn’t terrible – except for the fact that 4.5 of those fat grams are trans fats. Totino’s Pizza has some of the unhealthiest and most unnatural ingredients in the frozen food aisle, including “mozzarella cheese substitute” (containing partially hydrogenated soybean oil), titanium dioxide, an artificial coloring agent also used in paint, plastics, and sunblock, and caramel color, an additive that has been linked to lung, liver, and thyroid cancer in mice.

Best: Naked Pizza Superbiotic
With store-bought and frozen pizzas, ingredients are just as important as calorie and fat counts. Many have reasonable nutritional stats but also contain lower quality ingredients, preservatives, and additives. This pizza, which comes from a chain that also makes three other frozen flavors, wins in both areas. Half of the pie contains 350 calories, 10 grams of fat, 9 grams of fiber, and 18 grams of protein, making it a dinner or lunch with lasting hunger-quashing power. Its crust packs ten different whole grains as well as probiotics that help improve digestion, and its toppings include artichokes, roasted bell peppers, red onions, spinach, mushrooms, garlic, basil, and cilantro. Noticeably absent are preservatives and additives that are on most other frozen pizzas.

Tips: Scan the nutrition label. Per serving, look for pizzas with less than 400 calories, 4 grams of saturated fat, 0 grams of trans fat, 600 mg of sodium, and at least 3 grams of fiber, and 14 grams of protein. As for the ingredients, the fewer, the better. More ingredients generally mean that the foods have been processed and refined; manufacturers then add in preservatives, chemicals, and sugar to make up for the taste. Bonus points for organic ingredients, which generally offer more vitamins and minerals.

Avoid pizzas with the words “deep-dish,” “pan,” and “supreme,” which generally contain more calories and fat than regular or thin-crust pizzas. “Supreme” will always mean “covered with sodium- and fat-laden processed meats.”

If you don’t find the flavor combination you want, or you’re bored with a regular cheese pizza, don’t settle: you can doctor it up at home. Buy a basic margherita pizza and add herbs, olives, capers, vegetables, nuts, beans, chicken, anchovies, or arugula. Try artichoke hearts, roasted red peppers, chicken, and pine nuts or arugula and a few slices of prosciutto. For a whole meal, consider pizza insalata by building an entire salad on top of your pizza.

30 Days to Better Health: Part IV

23. Add yogurt to your diet. If you’re not already eating yogurt regularly, start today: research shows that it improves digestion, strengthens the immune system, lowers cholesterol, protects against osteoporosis, promotes fat loss, and may reduce the risk of ulcers, arthritis, and colorectal cancers. Yogurt’s health-boosting properties come mainly from its probiotics (the live and active cultures like Lactobacillus acidophilus) and calcium content. In numerous studies, high calcium intake is correlated with lower body fat accumulation; it does so by limiting the ability of fat cells to store fat. Look for yogurt with “live and active cultures” on the label to get the most benefit, and avoid fruit-on-the-bottom flavors or brands with added sugars.

24. Think of food in terms of its nutrient density. If you think of food as fuel your body can use – to repair damaged skin cells, to power you through a workout – instead of simply in terms of taste, you’ll naturally begin to choose healthy, functional foods. Compare 100 calories of an avocado and 100 calories of candy: in terms of just numbers, avocado might lose out because it has much more fat. Even so, the avocado will give you lasting power until lunch, while the candy will immediately spike your blood sugar and then send you into a crash, leaving you more hungry and more irritable than before. But food can do more than keep you satiated. The lycopene found in tomatoes, watermelon, and papaya, for example, literally adds SPF to your skin by preventing DNA damage from the sun. And research shows that a balanced diet of healthy fats, fruits and vegetables, fiber and lean protein can reduce the risk of heart disease by up to 80% – a number that is certainly tangible.

25. Embrace carbs (of the whole grain variety). Ever since the Atkin’s Diet, an eating plan that emphasizes protein and fat and places the weight gain blame on carbohydrates, Americans have come to fear carbs. In a refined flour and stripped-of-their-nutrients state and in vast quantities, carbs can lead to blood sugar spikes and dips that leave you fatigued, moody, and hungry for more. But whole grains are as much a part of a healthy diet as vegetables, fruits, omega-3s, and proteins. Whole grains contain filling fiber, B vitamins, magnesium, iron, and selenium. Whole grains may also be the key to happiness: whole grains trigger the release of serotonin, the feel-good neurotransmitter responsible for regulating mood. Look for breads and cereals that contain 100% whole grains; lables like multigrain, 10-grain, and wheat only signify the presence of some whole grains. Breads that are brown in appearance may also be deceitful: food manufacturers use caramel coloring and molasses to tint their loaves, making them appear whole grain.

26. Give in to your cravings…every once in a while. Cravings range from mild to all-encompassing. When a craving strikes, give yourself 15 minutes to try and forget about it (go for a walk, call a friend, read a book). If it passes, your craving was likely a consequence of boredom. If it doesn’t, give yourself permission to have a reasonable portion of the good stuff. By allowing yourself an indulgent treat every so often, you maintain power over your diet by making the conscious decision to eat your treat without guilt. A study from Tufts University found that those who gave in to their cravings were better able to manage their weight than those who always deny their cravings, most likely because abstainers go overboard when they do lose control. When you really crave something, give yourself the green light to enjoy the real thing. If you crave ice cream, don’t settle for no-sugar-added fro-yo; get a cup of real, full-fat ice cream.

27. Experiment with grains. Wheat toast for breakfast; cornbread with your chili at lunch; fish served over rice for dinner. If you’re like most Americans, you’re most likely restricting your grain intake to wheat, rice, and corn. But these grains are often highly refined, removing most of the fiber, B vitamins, and up to 90% of its vitamin E. Next time you’re in the bulk foods section, look for other grains like amaranth, quinoa, teff, kamut, farro, and buckwheat. Each supergrain (or seed) has a unique nutritional profile that contributes to the health benefits of eating whole grains: decreased risk of heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and some type of cancers, as well as increased satiety and energy. Quinoa, for example, has two times the protein and eight times the fiber as white rice, and teff, a tiny grain native to Ethiopia, is high in calcium and iron.

28. Sub out sour cream for Greek yogurt and coconut milk. Greek yogurt and sour cream offer the same creamy tang, but with far different nutritional profiles: a ¼ cup dollop of sour cream adds 120 calories, 10 grams of fat (7 saturated), and 2 grams of protein; the same amount of Greek yogurt adds 37 calories, 1 gram of fat, and 5 grams of protein. By cutting out sour cream and using Greek yogurt instead, you can cut out unnecessary calories and fat and add muscle-building protein in dips, soups, burritos, pasta salads, and on baked potatoes. You can also use Greek yogurt as well as coconut milk – which helps maintain stable blood sugar levels and increases satiety – in baked goods like muffins, breads, and cakes to strip calories and add moisture.

29. Go meatless once a week. Even if it’s not a Monday, you’ll still benefit by cutting out meat every now and then. Numerous studies document the health benefits: a Harvard University study found that cutting out foods high in saturated fats, like red meat and full fat dairy, and replacing them with foods high in polyunsaturated fats (like nuts and seeds) can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease by 19%. Another study from Imperial College in London found that vegetarians and those on limited-meat diets had significantly lower body weights and BMIs; and numerous research points out that the consumption of red and processed meats is correlated with increased cancer and cardiovascular disease mortality. Cutting out meat also allows you to add otherwise forgotten beans, legumes, and other alternative sources of protein to your diet, which are nutritional powerhouses loaded with fiber, folate, zinc, potassium, iron, magnesium, and antioxidants.

30. Discover what other cultures are eating. Experimenting with different ethnic cuisines gives you the chance to cook with ingredients you wouldn’t otherwise use. Indian cuisine, for example, uses turmeric (one of the ingredients in curry) in many of its dishes. Turmeric acts as an anti-inflammatory to help control rheumatoid arthritis and other chronic illnesses; its active compound, curcumin, decreases the risk of cancer, improves liver function, and protects against cardiovascular disease and neurodegenerative diseases. The Mapuche, the indigenous people of Chile and Argentina, regularly eat piñones, large, protein-rich pine nuts with a host of nutrients (iodine, manganese, copper, zinc, vitamin A, B complex vitamins, and alpha-linolenic acid) and maqui, berries that have more than three times the antioxidant capacity of açai berries. You can also benefit from the eating habits of different cultures as well. Instead of stuffing yourself every night, practice hara hachi bu, a Japanese phrase that means “eat until you’re 80% full.” Experiment with international recipes to discover tasty and healthy new ingredients and to develop healthier eating habits.