After last week’s in-depth post on eating real food, why dieting doesn’t work and what to do instead – I wanted to follow up with something simple and practical.
I love digging into the science, and I love mindset stuff – but it means little until you back it up with action. And I’m a huge fan of small, simple actions that will create change – because that’s how you get momentum.
One of the easiest ways of improving your diet is to swap certain items you use in cooking.
This process of swapping ingredients over can take a bit of trial and error, and some time to discover what will stick versus what feels like more hassle than it’s worth.
I don’t have much tolerance for things that taste like feet, so if I can tolerate a swap then the odds are you can too. Most of the ingredients I list below taste just as good as what you’re swapping them for – or in many cases, taste better!
I’m vegetarian but not vegan, so one or two of my swaps below won’t be suitable for vegans. Also my aim is not to become gluten-free, although the flours and breads I recommend are lower in gluten – which I believe is a good thing.
I haven’t included buying organic in the list below, but if you have a limited budget and would like to buy more organic fruit and vegetables – have a look at the Dirty Dozen and Clean 15. The Dirty Dozen are crops which absorb a greater amount of pesticides, so you should prioritise buying these organic. The Clean 15 are least affected by pesticides.
So, here are my top ten cupboard swaps. They are easy to find, you’ll have heard of most of them, and they taste good. A whole load of more obscure ingredients graced my kitchen cupboards for a while, but these are the ones I am still using a couple of years on!
The best thing is, once you have bought these ingredients, you will effortlessly cook healthier food – without even having to think about it.
1. Get rid of margarine and use butter
Since the 1970s people have been advised to cut back on butter and use margarine instead, as a heart-healthy replacement for butter. As studies had associated saturated fat with heart disease, butter – a saturated fat – was considered an unhealthy food.
It is now recognised that margarine is anything but healthy! The biggest problem is with margarine made using an older process known as hydrogenation, which hardens vegetable oils into margarine and forms unhealthy trans fats.
More modern margarines are made using a different process which doesn’t produce trans fats. However, margarine is still a highly processed product. It’s debatable whether the body even recognises it as food, and it is known to cause an inflammatory response.
On the other hand, butter is basically concentrated dairy fat – so it is a food close to its natural state. Butter is also more nutritious, especially if it is from grass-fed cows.
There is a huge amount of debate over whether we need to avoid saturated fat, and the association with heart disease is nowhere near as clear-cut as was previously thought. In addition, the cells in our body are made from saturated fat, and we certainly need to include it in our diets.
Whilst the debate over saturated fat rages on, it’s fair to say that no strong evidence supports claims that a high intake of saturated fat is directly responsible for heart disease. My take-out is that butter, and saturated fat in general, are nothing to be scared of.
Where to buy? If you want grass-fed butter, Kerrygold is the most readily available and you can find it in most supermarkets. Yeo Valley butter is organic and the cows are grass-fed for part of the year.
You might also want to get a butter dish like this one (large enough to hold a full pat of butter) so that you can keep it outside of the fridge for easy spreading. I refrigerate butter when I first buy it, but I keep it in a dish once I start using it. I’ve never had any problems with butter going rancid.
2. Get rid of vegetable oils and use olive oil and coconut oil
In all likelihood, you have heard the following advice – vegetable oils contain beneficial polyunsaturated fats, and they have a high smoke point so they are good for high-heat frying. Rapeseed oil is often recommended for this purpose.
In fact, there are a number of problems with vegetable oils and I prefer to avoid them altogether, using mainly olive oil and coconut oil.
Extra virgin olive oil is essentially the juice of pressed olives, so it is minimally processed. Vegetable oils, on the other hand, are extracted at high temperatures using a process that involves toxic, petroleum-derived chemicals. This processing can significantly raise the oil’s concentration of harmful trans fats.
Vegetable oils are advertised as suitable for high-heat frying because of their high smoke point. In fact, suitability for high-heat frying should be determined by the oil’s resistance to oxidation rather than the smoke point.
Polyunsaturated vegetable oils are actually highly unstable, so when heated, they react with oxygen forming dangerous compounds and free radicals.
A monounsaturated oil such as olive oil is more stable for medium-heat cooking. If you want to cook on a really high heat, a saturated fat such as coconut oil (or butter, ghee or lard) may be the best choice.
Personally, I got rid of all the vegetable oils in our house except for sesame oil which I use occasionally if I want to cook a Chinese style meal. (Which to be fair, I don’t do often, so I really should check whether the oil is still fresh enough to keep…)
Where to buy? You can find a list of high-quality olive oils here. If some of the price points scare you, keep reading as there are more achievable options too, including Sainsbury’s Taste The Difference 500ml for £5.00. When it comes to coconut oil, you get much a better deal if you buy it online – I buy this extra virgin coconut oil on Amazon.
3. Keep your wheat flour but also get some spelt flour and buckwheat flour
Unless you want to go gluten-free, I’m not suggesting you ditch wheat flour altogether – but it is well worth adding in a couple of other flours.
Spelt flour is made from spelt, an ancient form of wheat – which remains exactly as it was before wheat was selectively bred for better crops. It is lower in gluten, higher in protein, and more digestible than wheat flour. You can usually swap spelt flour for wheat flour, although it doesn’t work in every case.
Spelt flour is great for cakes, and I don’t think you can taste the difference at all (cakes tend to have their own stronger flavours). I make Yorkshire puddings with spelt flour, and again, you wouldn’t know (although my Yorkshireman grandad would be turning in his grave!)
You can bake bread with spelt flour – some people like the taste better, others aren’t as keen. I don’t mind the taste, but spelt flour absorbs more water so the middle of the bread can be claggy. When my dad makes spelt bread, I quite like it – but I never mastered the technique properly myself.
One recipe that just doesn’t work is the white sauce for macaroni cheese. Because spelt flour absorbs more water, the texture is just off – when I tried this a while ago it was completely vetoed by my kids.
Another good flour to have in your cupboard is buckwheat. It has as fairly neutral taste and you can use it for cooking pancakes. It is gluten-free, which means it won’t rise as well so baking with it can be tricky.
I also have rye flour in the house for feeding my sourdough starter (I bake the sourdough bread with wheat flour though). Rye flour has an acquired taste, so it’s not a great substitute for wheat flour (if you’ve had Pumpernickel bread, that is what rye flour tastes like).
Chickpea or Gram flour is a great option for Indian cooking and for specific recipes. It is particularly high in protein, which is great for keeping you feeling full.
A note on gluten. Much like whether saturated fat causes heart disease, gluten is a contentious topic in health circles. The conventional advice would be if you’re not coeliac, you don’t need to avoid gluten – but in fact, there is a lot of evidence for non-coeliac gluten intolerance.
If you try to cut out gluten for generic ‘health’ reasons without giving it much thought, you can end up buying foods that are less healthy overall. Gluten-free processed foods are lower in fibre and nutrients, with lots of additives to help get the desired texture without gluten. This trade-off is worth it for coeliacs, but the average person probably ends up worse off.
That said, I don’t think gluten is particularly good for anyone. It can cause an inflammatory response in the body, alongside various other effects. I am not attempting to go gluten-free, but every time I can switch normal wheat flour for a lower-gluten or gluten-free option, I consider that a win.
Where to buy? I buy Doves Farm spelt flour and buckwheat flour in Sainsbury’s, but these flours are not available in all supermarkets. You can easily get them online if your local supermarkets don’t carry them, although you may need to buy in bulk. I buy Doves Farm rye flour online. Chickpea/gram flour is widely available in supermarkets, usually in the World Foods section, or try an Asian supermarket (also a great place to buy coconut oil and coconut water – which are suddenly, miraculously, not overpriced!)
4. Ditch regular pasta and replace with spelt pasta
As someone who experiences issues with blood sugar levels, if I have a big bowl of pasta I can feel quite unwell afterwards, shaky and lightheaded with a gnawing feeling of hunger (although I’m fine if there is plenty of fat or protein alongside it). I don’t think carbs are something to be avoided at all costs, but they are definitely something to limit.
Spelt pasta is a good alternative to regular pasta as it’s higher in protein, as well as being lower in gluten and more easily digestible. Although it tastes slightly different, it’s really quite nice – and the fact my kids will readily eat it is testament to this fact.
I am also keen to try chickpea pasta, which is even higher in protein, although this is not as readily available and can be quite expensive.
Where to buy? I buy spelt spaghetti in Sainsbury’s, but it’s not available in all supermarkets. You can buy alternative pastas online, but you often have to buy them in bulk to get reasonable prices.
Ocado is a good place to go for more niche foods, and they have chickpea fusilli for £2. I share Ocado deliveries with my parents as it’s a bit more expensive to do a full shop there (not as expensive as I’d imagined, though). But it’s ideal for stocking up on certain items that you can’t buy locally, and which Amazon would make you jump through hoops to buy (often you either have to buy in bulk or through Amazon Pantry).
5. Upgrade your bread to sourdough, spelt bread or homemade (breadmaker counts)
Modern bread and bread made using traditional methods are worlds apart. Years ago, I thought if I bought wholemeal bread then I was doing OK – but in fact, the difference between white and wholemeal is not as marked as you’d imagine.
The absolute best bread to eat for health is sourdough, and I have written a full post about it. I make my own sourdough bread in a breadmaker, and whilst it doesn’t taste as amazing as hand-baked sourdough, I’m very happy with it. I do have plans to make my own sourdough by hand, and I have the necessary equipment ready and waiting in my kitchen…
For my kids, I bake normal wheat bread in a breadmaker. I’d love to get more consistent with this, and we do often revert to buying sliced wholemeal bread – but I’m much happier making my own because it’s much lower in additives. I read a book about bread a while back, and there are some truly weird additives that go in.
You can also bake your own spelt bread. If you like the taste, it’s a great option. For all the reasons that spelt flour and spelt pasta are healthy options, spelt bread is also a healthier option – higher in protein, lower in gluten, more digestible.
The ultimate healthy option would be spelt sourdough bread, and spelt works really well for sourdough baking. This is the closest you’ll get to bread as it was made thousands of years ago. If I could only convince myself to like the taste, this is definitely what I would be eating.
Where to buy? I make my own sourdough bread and normal wheat bread in a breadmaker. If you can buy sourdough at your local supermarket, make sure it is real sourdough bread. (In a lot of cases, ‘sourdough’ bread is actually normal bread with some sourdough starter thrown in for flavour. Not the same thing!) If you’re lucky, you may be able to buy proper sourdough locally in a bakery or health food shop, although it doesn’t come cheap.
6. Keep your vinegar and also buy apple cider vinegar
There’s nothing wrong with normal vinegar, but apple cider vinegar has some great health benefits.
- Organic, unfiltered apple cider vinegar containing the ‘mother’ (the colony of beneficial bacteria that ferments the vinegar) contains proteins, enzymes and friendly bacteria
- Apple cider vinegar can kill many types of harmful bacteria
- It improves insulin sensitivity and lowers blood sugar, which is beneficial for everyone but particularly those with Type 2 Diabetes
- It has been shown to help people lose weight, by increasing satiety and helping you eat fewer calories (although the effects may be modest)
- It has even been shown to kill cancer cells and shrink tumours, although this was in test tubes and rats rather than human studies
It’s an impressive list, and some people choose to drink apple cider vinegar on an empty stomach to help strengthen stomach acid. I have tried this, both neat and diluted – but unfortunately it made me feel quite sick (and it could be harmful to tooth enamel if done regularly).
However, I love using apple cider vinegar in salad dressing. I think a great aim would be to have a salad or some raw vegetables with a dressing containing apple cider vinegar every day – some great combined health benefits, and really tasty (unlike drinking the stuff, whether neat or diluted).
Where to buy? I order this raw, unfiltered apple cider vinegar with the mother on Amazon.
7. Ditch cereal and have porridge, a milk alternative and homemade granola (or chopped nuts)
Cereal just isn’t the great start to the day that it’s made out to be. I have avoided high-sugar cereals for years, and focussed on the much lower-sugar Weetabix and cornflakes – but these are still pretty nutritionally empty.
Most days, my breakfast is peanut butter on toast, but I also sometimes eat porridge. Oats are full of fibre and protein, they’re filling, and you can add toppings to up the nutrition. I love adding homemade granola, but if I don’t have that to hand, chopped nuts will achieve a similar outcome.
I’m not vegan and I do drink milk (I use full-fat milk as it contains fat-soluble vitamins and is minimally processed, and the amount of fat it contains really isn’t harmful). However I don’t really think of it as something we’re supposed to eat – it’s meant for baby cows! And proteins in milk cause an inflammatory response.
I have milk in tea because I’ve yet to find an alternative that tastes ANY good, and I’m happy to use it in cooking. But I never drink a glass of milk, and if I’m making porridge I tend to use a milk substitute. (You could use water, but I do like the creaminess of some kind of milk.)
There are a few options – soya milk, almond milk and coconut are probably the most common. You can also get rice milk, oat milk, hemp milk… the possibilities are endless!
My favourite is soya milk and it’s the highest in protein, but it contains phytoestrogens which mimic oestrogen by binding to its receptors (albeit only weakly). Phytoestrogens can even be beneficial for menopausal women – but I avoid them because they could potentially worsen my PMS. (I need more progesterone, not more oestrogen!) So I’m happy to eat soya beans or fermented soya products such as tofu but I avoid soya milk, despite it being my preferred milk alternative.
I choose coconut milk because when you look at the ingredients list, coconut milk contains the most coconut milk and the least additives. Also, I quite like the taste. Hemp milk would be a good choice, but I find it quite bitter.
You can make your own nut milks, and I have tried this once with cashew nuts (the easiest to make as they aren’t very fibrous so don’t take a lot of straining). I was initially impressed, and then changed my mind and decided I didn’t like it! I think almond milk would taste better, and if I had the time and inclination, I might give that a go someday.
Where to buy? You can buy porridge, milk alternatives, nuts and other granola ingredients in any supermarket. Koko coconut milk is a good brand, and should be available in most supermarkets.
8. Get milk chocolate out of the house and use 70% dark chocolate
I can’t say I never eat milk chocolate, but I try not to have it in the house. For a long time, I was convinced I didn’t like dark chocolate – but I’d say you only need to eat it for about a week before your taste buds switch over. I love it now, although I do find my preference reverses if I eat a lot of milk chocolate (so Easter, Halloween and Christmas!)
Dark chocolate is lower in sugar than milk chocolate, and it has a higher antioxidant and mineral content. It has a higher antioxidant content than blueberries, and can even be considered a health food – but only in small quantities. I buy Green & Blacks 70% cocoa, and I have 4 squares a day.
If you can handle it, the higher the cocoa content the better. You can get Green & Blacks 85% chocolate in most supermarkets. It’s a step too far for me, but strangely my kids will happily eat it. (Their favourite is milk chocolate, but basically if it’s chocolate – they’re in!)
Where to buy? You can buy Green & Blacks 70% and 85% cocoa chocolate in any supermarket. You can also buy it in bulk online, but I don’t trust myself having bulk quantities of chocolate in the house!
9. Buy raw cacao powder for baking
I first bought raw cacao powder for the health benefits, as it’s incredibly high in antioxidants, magnesium and iron. Raw cacao powder has not been heat-treated so it retains a higher proportion of its antioxidants compared to regular cacao powder (although some of these will be lost when you bake a chocolate cake with it!)
Long after I had forgotten about the health benefits, I continued using raw cacao powder because cakes baked using it taste fantastic. I don’t like to bake with anything else!
Where to buy? I buy this raw cacao powder on Amazon, as raw cacao powder tends to be expensive in supermarkets. It’s worth going for a large size as you get a better price and it keeps for ages.
10. Get some sugar alternatives to use in place of sugar
I avoid artificial sweeteners as they disrupt your gut microbiome, and I never use Agave syrup as it’s very high in fructose.
Fructose needs to be converted by the liver, and consuming it in excess can contribute to various metabolic disorders. Fructose also doesn’t suppress appetite as much as glucose does, and could contribute to overeating.
Fructose in fruit, bound up with a load of fibre, is no problem at all – it’s only processed, isolated and concentrated sources of fructose that are a concern.
A couple of years ago there was a real push to swap sugar for alternative sweeteners – particularly honey and maple syrup. At the time I was very much on this bandwagon, but on reflection, I’m not sure the difference is that meaningful. The composition of honey and maple syrup are pretty similar to sugar, and your body processes them in the same way.
However, they do have an edge nutritionally. For example, honey and maple syrup are both rich in antioxidants, and honey doesn’t increase blood sugar levels quite as much as sugar. So, I like to have honey and maple syrup on hand and swap them for sugar when I can.
I also use Muscovado sugar and Rapadura sugar, which are less processed than white sugar and have a higher mineral content. Coconut sugar is another good alternative, but it really is expensive!
Regardless of what type of sugar or sweetener I use, I always reduce the quantity in sweet recipes by a quarter or a third (depending who I’m baking for). I think reducing the quantity of sugar or alternative sweeteners is the most helpful thing you can do.
Honey has a tendency to burn easily so I tend to use maple syrup for cooking, and honey for sweetening cold foods such as plain yogurt. You can replace sugar with maple syrup in most cake recipes, but if you are using olive oil in place of butter you do have to use sugar to give your baking some structure.
When buying maple syrup, make sure you go for pure maple syrup. Otherwise, you may be buying a sweetener with some maple syrup added for flavouring, which won’t have the same benefits.
Where to buy? You can buy honey and maple syrup in any supermarket, and health food shops have specific types of honey such as Manuka honey which has antibacterial and antimicrobial properties.
ASDA have an affordable brand of maple syrup, as it can be very expensive. You can buy Muscovado sugar in most supermarkets, and Rapadura sugar online. I still haven’t quite figured out the difference, although Rapadura is more gritty, so I suspect it is a little less processed.