Top healthy swaps and add-ins: Insights from a registered dietitian

Bowls of oatmeal with mixed fruits

By: Amy Deahl-Greenlaw, LDN, RDN, Health Educator Community Health and Outreach Department Main Line Health King of Prussia

Want to eat more Mediterranean-like, more vegetarian or simply eat more whole foods and less processed foods? A healthy dietary pattern is an important part of a healthy lifestyle, but a big overhaul can be overwhelming.

The good news? Making small, simple ingredient swaps, paired with a few easy add-ins, can go a long way toward creating a healthy dietary pattern that you can enjoy and stick with.

My favorite healthy swaps

You don’t have to sacrifice flavor with these easy swaps:

Oats with milk for oats with water

You just can’t beat oats in the morning! Though commonly considered a winter breakfast, oats all year long are great — think hot oats in the winter and cold overnight oats for warmer weather.

I usually recommend “Old fashioned (OF),” also called rolled oats, over instant oats. Old fashioned oats don’t take much more time to prepare (1-2 minutes for instant and 3-5 for OF), and they’re less processed. However, both are considered whole grain-rich in soluble fiber for heart health!

Steel-cut are great too, just take much longer to cook 15-20 minutes and have a firmer texture.

One way to boost the nutritional content of your morning oats is to use milk in place of water. Dairy or soy milks add protein, potassium, calcium and Vitamin D. Protein in the morning allows for slower digestion and longer feelings of fullness, and these vitamins are considered nutrients that we generally need to get more of. That’s why you see them listed on food labels.

I love morning oats with half a ripened banana and a tablespoon of raisins for sweetness. You can add the fruit during the cooking to allow more of the fruit flavor to break down and incorporate into the oats. If you like nuts, add a sprinkle of chopped walnuts (extra healthy fat and protein) to top this breakfast for one that will actually keep you feeling satisfied until lunch time!

Greek non-fat yogurt for sour cream

Non-fat Greek yogurt is a great substitute for sour cream, especially when used as a topper for baked potatoes, tacos and burrito wraps. You still get the creaminess and tang of sour cream without all the saturated fat. Plus, you get bonus nutrients of protein and calcium. A real win-win swap in my book!

100% juice with seltzer water for soda

I love a cold bubbly drink now and again, but are so many options besides soda. Next time you’re craving soda (including diet soda, which is full of additives), try plain seltzer water with a splash of 100% orange juice. You can use your favorite 100% juice, fresh squeezed, or try a pre-packaged/canned version. Just look for one that lists only 100% juice as the ingredient.

Whole wheat bread and pasta for white pasta and white bread

While the cooking time for whole wheat pasta adds a minute or two, compared to the white pasta version, the added fiber is worth it. Additionally, grain foods like bread and pasta can make up a significant portion of an overall diet, making these swaps a substantial move towards a less processed and more whole food diet.

Swapping in whole wheat pasta and bread can allow you to meet the healthy diet recommendation to make half your grains whole grains..

Milk for non-dairy creamers

If you’re a regular coffee or tea drinker, how you drink it matters. Non-dairy creamers, generally speaking, are full of sugar, oils, flavor, color additives and preservatives with little or no nutritional value. Consider using soy milk or dairy milk for more nutrition and fewer additives.

If you prefer the flavor of almond, oat or any other plant-based milk, it’s still nutritionally superior to non-dairy creamers. Plant-based milks have less protein than dairy and soy milks but most are still fortified with calcium and vitamin D-two nutrients most of us need more of.

When it comes to something you drink every day, it’s worth the swap! For sweetness, I prefer folks add their own — you’re in the driver’s seat and you can monitor how much you add, working to reducing the amount over time.

My favorite healthy add-ins

These ingredients are a great way to add in an extra bit of flavor and nutrients throughout your day:

Fresh herbs like parsley, cilantro, basil, dill and mint

Fresh herbs add flavor and a ton of nutrition. These herbs have soft stems so you can use much of the plant, not just the leaves.

Whether the recipe calls for it or not, you’ll find me adding them to salads, sauces, stews and sandwiches — really to just about anything. They have so much nutritional value packed into them and they’re considered dark green vegetables.


Whether you add berries to yogurt, breakfast cereals or just eat them plain, you can’t beat the nutrition of berries.

Blueberries, strawberries, raspberries and blackberries are loaded with vitamins, fiber and disease-fighting plant compounds. These plant compounds are sometimes referred to as antioxidants or phytonutrients (think flavonoids). They’re associated with lower rates of certain diseases but, most importantly, they taste great!

Ground flax seed or chia seeds

These seeds are powerhouses of nutrition, adding fiber, protein and heart healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Adding a tablespoon to morning yogurt, cereals and baked goods really ups the nutrition content of whatever you’re eating or making.


As a cereal, pasta and salad topper or in healthy baked goods, walnuts can add great nutrition and taste. They add healthy fats, protein, minerals and great flavor and crunch!

Though most unsalted nuts are considered great for you, walnuts alone are identified as a good source of ALA omega-3 fatty acid which is linked heart health.

Next steps:

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