Updated: Jul 23
If you want to improve your diet with very little effort, this article is for you.
There are a number of competing hypotheses about what strategy is best to achieve a healthier diet. Two which stand on opposite ends of the spectrum include the ‘small changes’ approach, and the ‘transformational’ approach. Naturally, the ‘small changes’ approach states that making small changes is more feasible than making large changes, and this may lead to better outcomes (1). On the other hand, the ‘transformational’ approach states that large changes in diet are required for meaningful health improvements (2).
While this article is not going to go through the pros and cons associated with both schools of thought, I think it is fair to say that both approaches can be helpful for improving diet and health. In keeping with the ‘small changes’ approach, this article arms you with three super easy swaps you can implement into your life to improve the healthfulness of your diet.
#1: Swap Refined Grains for Whole Grains
This one is simple. Basically, instead of eating foods like white bread, rice, or pasta, choose the whole grain versions. This means choosing the ‘wholemeal’, or ‘brown’ version in the store. However, be sure to read the ingredients list when choosing bread to make sure that the first ingredient listed is wholemeal flour. This is because a lot of commercial ‘wholegrain’ breads are actually made with mostly white flour, with small amounts of actual whole grain (wholemeal) flour used. Another example of an easy swap would be to eat porridge for breakfast instead of a sugary cereal (e.g., Coco Pops).
Examples of whole grains (oats, brown and wild rice, barley). Source: verywellfit.com
Why is this important? Consistent evidence has shown that eating whole grains is associated with a reduced risk of a range of chronic conditions like cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes, whereas eating refined grains does not offer a reduced risk for these outcomes (3,4). This may be partly due to the greater amounts of fibre, polyphenols, and nutrients found in whole grains.
#2: Swap Butter for an Oil-Based Margarine
This is a simple, yet effective way to improve the quality of your diet. Margarines (like Flora) contain mostly polyunsaturated fats, which have been shown to lower LDL (or low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol levels when swapped for saturated fats (high in butter) (5). This is very important, as high levels of LDL cholesterol cause plaque to build up in the arteries (6), and ultimately increase the risk of a heart attack. Indeed, evidence has shown that those who eat higher levels of polyunsaturated fats have a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease compared to those who eat lower amounts (7).
#3: Swap Sugary Soft Drinks for Diet Versions
If you like a fizzy drink (I do), you are better off swapping the sugary version for an artificially-sweetened version. While water would probably be the best option, research has shown that when people swap sugary soft drinks for artificially-sweetened versions (like Diet Coke, 7Up free, etc.), they lose body weight and fat (8). This is probably due to the lower calorie content of these drinks, so they could be a good way to satisfy a ‘sweet craving’ with little to no calories consumed.
If you implement any one of these swaps, you are improving the quality of your diet and potentially reducing your risk of chronic disease. If you also take our advice on eating healthy on a budget and building a healthy smoothie, you might just be implementing a ‘transformational’ approach to improve your diet and health.
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We hope you enjoyed this article and this month’s theme of practical tips to improve your diet.
Check back with us next week for more!
Patrick Elliott, BSc, MPH
Health and Nutrition Science Communication Officer at Training121
Founder of Just Health — Instagram: @just.health.info
Health Disclaimer: this article is for informational and educational purposes only, and is not a substitute for professional advice. For health advice, speak to a physician or other qualified health-care professional, and for nutrition advice, speak to a qualified nutrition professional (e.g., registered dietitian). The use of information on this site is solely at your own risk.
(1) Hill JO. Can a small-changes approach help address the obesity epidemic? A report of the Joint Task Force of the American Society for Nutrition, Institute of Food Technologists, and International Food Information Council. Am J Clin Nutr. 2009;89(2):477-84. Available at: https://academic.oup.com/ajcn/article/89/2/477/4596677
(2) Blackstone NT, Conrad Z. Comparing the Recommended Eating Patterns of the EAT-Lancet Commission and Dietary Guidelines for Americans: Implications for Sustainable Nutrition. Curr Dev Nutr. 2020;4(3):nzaa015. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7053404/
(3) Aune D, Keum N, Giovannucci E, et al. Whole grain consumption and risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, and all cause and cause specific mortality: systematic review and dose-response meta-analysis of prospective studies. BMJ. 2016;353:i2716. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4908315/
(4) Aune D, Norat T, Romundstad P, Vatten LJ. Whole grain and refined grain consumption and the risk of type 2 diabetes: a systematic review and dose-response meta-analysis of cohort studies. Eur J Epidemiol. 2013;28(11):845-58. Available at: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10654-013-9852-5
(5) Mensink R. Effects of Saturated Fatty Acids on Serum Lipids and Lipoproteins: A Systematic Review and Regression Analysis; World Health Organization: Geneva, Switzerland, 2016. Available at: https://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/handle/10665/246104/9789241565349-eng.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y
(6) Ference BA, Ginsberg HN, Graham I, et al. Low-density lipoproteins cause atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease. 1. Evidence from genetic, epidemiologic, and clinical studies. A consensus statement from the European Atherosclerosis Society Consensus Panel. Eur Heart J. 2017;38(32):2459-72. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5837225/
(7) Li J, Guasch-Ferré M, Li Y, Hu FB. Dietary intake and biomarkers of linoleic acid and mortality: systematic review and meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies. Am J Clin Nutr. 2020;112(1):150-67. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7326588/
(8) Greyling A, Appleton KM, Raben A, Mela DJ. Acute glycemic and insulinemic effects of low-energy sweeteners: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Am J Clin Nutr. 2020;112(4):1002-14. Available at: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0002916522008656
Hypothesis: This is the name given to a proposed explanation for something, usually made on the basis of limited evidence. In science, it is often what a scientist predicts will be the results of their experiment. It is important that a hypothesis can be tested, as an untestable hypothesis is not a scientific hypothesis. The plural of hypothesis is hypotheses.
Polyphenols: These are a class of compounds found in plant foods that act as antioxidants and may have health benefits.