Pictured Recipe: Chicken & White Bean Salad
Achieving your "get healthy" goal just got a whole lot easier. No gimmicks, no big outlay of money or time. Just some simple, everyday changes you can make to your eating habits right now, along with tasty, nutritious recipes. Give the tips below a try—starting with dinner tonight.
1. Swap Out: Refined Grains
Swap In: Whole Grains
Pictured Recipe: Vegetarian Sushi Grain Bowl
At least half of our total daily grains should come from whole grains, according to the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Makes sense: People who eat plenty of whole grains tend to be leaner and have a lower risk of heart disease than those who don't. What's more, whole grains—like brown rice, oats, quinoa and bulgur—have their bran intact, so they have more fiber, B vitamins, magnesium and other important nutrients.
Shopping for whole grains can be tricky, so don't be fooled. Bread or crackers labeled "multi-grain," "stone-ground" or "100% wheat" may look healthy, but they can be made mostly from refined white flour. To be sure you're getting whole grains, look for products with the whole grain listed at the top of the ingredients list.
Related: 6 Whole Grains You Should Be Eating
2. Swap Out: Salt
Swap In: Herbs and Spices
Pictured Recipe: Lemon-Chicken Stir Fry
Even if you don't have high blood pressure, it's still wise to watch your sodium—and most of us get way more than the recommended 2,300 mg (about 1 teaspoon of salt) a day. While not always a perfect replacement for salt, distracting your palate with chopped fresh or dried herbs and spices can help ease the transition to lower-salt cooking by waking up other flavors. Get creative with seasoning blends found in any seasoning aisle—just make sure they're labeled "salt-free." Not ready to skip salt completely? Try this: Don't add salt if you can't taste it. A little salt goes a longer way if you add it just before serving, so skip it while you're cooking.
3. Swap Out: Farmed Atlantic Salmon
Swap In: Wild-Caught Alaskan Salmon
Pictured Recipe: Honey-Garlic Salmon
Picture a salmon out in the wild, happily splashing in the waters off Alaska, eating bugs and plankton. Now picture a salmon raised in a fish farm, where it's fed a highly processed, high-fat diet designed to produce bigger fish. Which fish would you rather eat? It's not a tough choice: while there are an increasing number of farms providing healthier, more sustainable options, most farmed salmon still falls on Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch "avoid" list. Alaskan wild-caught salmon delivers more heart-healthy omega-3s per serving and has fewer calories than farmed salmon. It also has fewer pollutants and contaminants, and is more sustainable. Can't find it fresh or frozen? Try it canned.
Related: 5 of the Healthiest Fish to Eat
4. Swap Out: Processed Meats
Swap In: Lean Meats and Plant-Based Protein
Pictured Recipe: Chicken & Apple Kale Wraps
Remember those mystery-meat lunches served up in the school cafeteria? You probably knew back then that they weren't all that good for you, and research confirms it. In 2015, the World Health Organization issued a serious warning: eating processed meats like hot dogs, sausage, corned beef, bologna and bacon can raise the risk of colon cancer, and may be linked to prostate and pancreatic cancer as well. We're not saying you need to cut it out completely, but if your go-to lunch is a BLT or a Reuben, it's time to cut back. Try canned tuna or salmon instead, or turkey or chicken breast without the skin. Sneak in more plant-based proteins like hummus, peanut butter and black beans—they're high in fiber, lower in calories and deliver a ton of health benefits. One 2017 study shows that switching out just one or two servings of meat a day for plant-based protein can help reduce your risk of heart disease. Bonus: It's cheaper, too.
Related: Are Cold Cuts Healthy?
5. Swap Out: Milk Chocolate
Swap In: Dark Chocolate
Pictured Recipe: Healthy Dark Chocolate "Puppy Chow"
Here's an easy way to satisfy your sweet tooth and boost your health: nibble on a little dark chocolate every day. It's rich in flavanols, chemicals researchers have found can improve heart health by lowering blood pressure and reducing inflammation. Other studies suggest dark chocolate may help prevent diabetes by increasing sensitivity to insulin. It's also high in important minerals like magnesium, iron, copper, zinc and phosphorus. Choose varieties with at least 70 percent cocoa—the higher the percentage, the higher the antioxidants and other nutrients. Go easy, though—chocolate is high in sugar, fat and calories, so a little goes a long way.
Some original reporting by Brierley Wright, M.S., R.D.