When I got out of college, I had a pretty hefty beer gut. As it turns out, keg stands are not a very effective form of exercise.
So naturally I wanted to get rid of that extra weight. But like most people, I also wanted to gain a little muscle, and get a little bit stronger in the gym. So crash dieting was out of the question.
I cut out most of the junk food and started “eating healthy,” which allowed me to lose five pounds. But after that, the scale stopped moving for over two months. I knew I had to make more changes to my diet if I wanted to keep losing weight.
Ultimately, I was able to lose over 20 pounds of fat in three months, while gaining a few pounds of muscle and getting stronger. I didn’t have to starve myself or live in the gym; instead, I performed three short workouts a week, and made a few simple food swaps that allowed me to cut back on calories, while consuming more protein, vitamins and minerals than I had been getting before.
Here are ten of the most effective food swaps I made that allowed me to do that.
1. Soda for coffee or tea
First I replaced my sugared sodas with diet sodas. That was absolutely an improvement- don’t fall for the hype about how diet soda is “just as bad” as regular soda. But it still wasn’t ideal.
After a month of diet soda, I got off of soda entirely and started having coffee and tea instead. The tea was a clear improvement, however the coffee I found unpalatable without added flavoring like milk, creamer and chocolate. More on that in a bit.
2. Potato chips for cold cut deli meat
The next thing I looked at was the only clearly unhealthy snack food I was still eating on a semi-regular basis: chips. I liked them because they were convenient, so I knew I needed to replace them with something equally convenient.
That something ended up being cold cuts. A small bag of chips has about 210 calories and 3 grams of protein. Three slices of lean deli meat like ham or turkey (not fatty meats like bologna or salami) has about a hundred calories, ten grams of protein, and is more filling than the chips.
3. Juice for home-made flavored water
It’s funny how we think about juice. It’s considered heathy because it’s natural and has vitamins. And yet, if you added some vitamins to Gatorade, it would be considered unhealthy- even though Gatorade has less sugar.
Many people suggest replacing juice with whole fruit. That’s great for maintaining weight and being healthy, but for weight loss it’s better to minimize fruit in favor of non-starchy vegetables. Plus, I still needed a tasty non-caffeinated beverage to fill the void left by fruit juice.
My solution: take a jug of ice water and put some slices of lemon, cucumber strawberry, or mint leaves in it for flavor. Once I re-sensitized myself to sweetness, this actually tasted better than juice ever had.
4. Rice for beans
I had already cut most of the bread and pasta from my diet, but I was still eating a lot of rice, because it was tasty and really, really easy to cook. Unfortunately rice is also really, really starchy, and not that filling, which is a problem when you want to lose weight.
Replacing rice with beans helped me on several different levels. First, it increased my protein intake- beans are an excellent source of plant-based protein. Second, it reduced my calorie intake; the combination of protein and fiber make beans more filling, calorie for calorie, than most other carbohydrate sources. And third, it gave me more stable energy levels, because the calories were absorbed more slowly than calories from rice.
5. Lettuce for spinach
Lettuce isn’t bad, as such. It just isn’t good. It consists mostly of water, and has almost no nutritional value whatsoever. Its only benefit is that it’s a bit filling, but it’s better to fill up on something that actually has nutrients in it.
Spinach, by contrast, has a wide array of vitamins and minerals, including iron, niacin, zinc, B vitamins and vitamins A and K. By replacing lettuce with spinach, I boosted my micronutrient intake while eating essentially the same salads I was eating before.
6. Milk and creamer for vanilla extract
So back to coffee. I can’t drink black coffee, and truth be told I’m still more of a tea drinker even after finding this food swap, but now I can enjoy the occasional cup of coffee without added calories. Vanilla extract provides almost exactly the same flavor as milk or creamer (personally, I like it better), with no calories. It’s also a lot less perishable than milk, which is nice.
7. Sugar for natural sweeteners
I don’t use a lot of sugar, but occasionally I’ll want to sweeten up my coffee or tea, or I’ll cook a recipe that calls for sugar. In that case, I’ll usually substitute the sugar for natural sweeteners like stevia or xylitol.
Sometimes I use cinnamon instead of, or in addition to, stevia or xylitol. Cinnamon has an additional benefit for fat loss: it slows the rate at which food transits from your stomach to your intestine, helping you to stay full for longer.
8. Mayonnaise for honey mustard
Everyone once in a while, I do allow myself to have a sandwich- usually right after a workout. Mayonnaise used to be my go-to condiment. Unfortunately, it’s almost pure fat, and the combination of that fat with the carbs from the bread means a lot of those calories will go straight into fat storage.
I don’t like mustard, but with some experimentation I realized that I do like honey mustard. By replacing a fatty condiment with a nearly calorie-free one, I was able to cut one or two hundred calories out of every sandwich I eat.
9. Ranch dressing for red wine vinaigrette
Back to salads. They don’t have much flavor. I know people who can eat a salad with no dressing at all, but I’m not one of them. So for a long time, my go-to was ranch dressing.
Nutritionally, ranch is pretty much the same thing as mayonnaise- it’s just the flavor that’s different. Red wine vinaigrette is calorie-free, and very tasty once you get used to the slight sourness. Also, like cinnamon, it slows the rate of digestion so that your food keeps you fuller for longer.
10. Any sub-par breakfast for a protein bar
Ideally, I would have taken the time to eat a perfectly healthy breakfast each and every morning. In practice, sometimes life gets in the way- usually because I was in a hurry to get to work. And when that happened, I would either skip breakfast altogether, or pick up fast food.
It’s very important that your first meal of the day be high in protein and low in sugar. That first meal sets your appetite, energy level, and neurotransmitter mix for the rest of the day. So I started keeping protein bars around, and any day when I was too busy to eat a proper breakfast, I would eat one.
To lose weight, you have to eat fewer calories. There’s no way around that. But you’ll only stick to your diet and keep the weight off if you enjoy the food you’re eating.
The best way to lose a pound a week- which equates to roughly an inch off your waist a month- is to make about five to ten food swaps which, a) you enjoy, b) swap out some of the foods you eat most often, and c) have a combined effect of reducing your daily intake by about 500 calories.