Journey to Health – The Art and Science of Healthy Substitutions

By Eli Follick

The bad habits started with breakfast: two to three pieces of white bread toast

coated with butter and jelly, an equal number of fried eggs, and a cup of coffee loaded with sugar and whole milk or cream. Then, I was off to work where I enjoyed more coffee similarly dressed and an occasional donut.

Beginning at daybreak, every day, I was committing crimes against my body. I also was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. My doctor told me to lose weight. But how? I needed a plan I could stick with, and I found it in making smart food substitutions.

The change was slow – really slow. It took a couple of years to become accustomed to, and even enjoy, new foods, but it can be done. To start, I stopped the fried eggs and cut the toast to one piece with sugar-free jelly. No more donuts. I
sweetened my coffee with artificial sweetener and used 2 percent milk.

Today, though, my breakfast is less about elimination and more about evolution. It is composed of cooked cereal that includes quinoa, buckwheat groats, barley, grits, and a mix of seeds. No bread. It’s easy, delicious and above all, healthful.

At least half of the grains we eat should be whole grains, like quinoa and buckwheat groats, according to recommendations by the United States Department of Agriculture.

Quinoa is higher in protein than any other grain. It is one of the very few plant-based foods that is a complete protein. It supplies all of the nine essential proteins that the body cannot make by itself. It is relatively low in calories, has zero fats, zero cholesterol, barely any sodium, and supplies a vitally important amount of fiber and protein. It is also rich in folate (a B vitamin), iron, thiamine, copper, manganese, phosphorus, potassium, and zinc. It is a source of omega-3 fatty acids, an anti-inflammatory fat that has been shown to help reduce blood triglyceride levels, aiding in maintaining or improving heart health. It has also been found to help regulate blood-sugar levels.

While you have probably heard of quinoa, fewer people may be familiar with buckwheat groats, sometimes called kasha. Buckwheat groats are rich in protein and minerals. The food scores low on the glycemic index – a measure of how quickly a food raises blood sugar after a meal. Low glycemic foods should not cause unhealthy spikes in blood sugar levels. Buckwheat groats contain a good amount of fiber, promoting colon health. Minerals include manganese, copper, magnesium, and phosphorus, which help improve your body’s antioxidant defenses and contribute to improved heart health.

To prepare, just boil two cups of water and stir in one cup of quinoa. Cook for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Use the same grain-to-water ratio for buckwheat groats, which take about 20 minutes to cook. (Microwaving either can save time if you’re in a hurry.) Then mix either or both with your oatmeal to enhance its nutritional value. Add them to soups, salads, stews or just about any dish you can imagine.

Using herbs and spices for flavoring instead of salt has also proven vital to my improved health. Many even have their own health benefits. Have fun experimenting with a variety to see what flavors you prefer. My list of favorites includes garlic powder, ground black pepper, dill, onion powder, balsamic vinegar, smoked paprika, rosemary, ginger, coriander, red pepper flakes, cinnamon (no sugar added), sage, and tarragon.

Beyond Breakfast

There are many other substitutions that I have made as I have examined the nutrition, calorie count, and fat in some of the items I used to eat. Here’s a sampling of ideas that you might try if you are seeking easy ways to make your diet more healthful but keep it enjoyable, too.

  • vinaigrette dressing instead of ranch
  • vegetable soup instead of chicken soup
  • stir-fried broccoli instead of broccoli in cheese sauce
  • pasta with tomato sauce or olive oil instead of pasta in cream sauce
  • water rather than regular soda
  • water with lemon or plain tea, rather than sweetened iced tea
  • plain, nonfat yogurt instead of pudding
  • air-popped popcorn instead of potato chips
  • thin crust veggie pizza instead of pepperoni pizza
  • tomato-based salsa instead of queso
  • fruit instead of fruit juice
  • scrambled egg with vegetables and herbs instead of an egg and cheese sandwich
  • Two- to four-ounce portions of lean meat, chicken, or fish instead of a steak
  • Steamed or sauteed dishes instead of fried
  • A half glass or one glass of wine instead of two to three glasses

As you can see, there are many ways to make healthful substitutions. Tracking your food is a relatively simple way to increase your awareness of what you eat and decrease the calories you consume. By introducing the changes gradually, you, too, can evolve your diet successfully and take the next step in your journey to health.

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