Forget fad diets and deprivation. Instead, lose weight and get healthy with these simple food swaps
AARP The Magazine, April/May 2016
YOU ALREADY KNOW that cutting down on salt is a good idea for your blood pressure. You may even know that the new 2015 U.S. Dietary Guidelines recommend that your sodium intake be below 2,300 milligrams (mg) a day. That’s the equivalent of eight of those little packets of salt you get at McDonald’s. While that seems like a lot, it’s nothing compared with what’s lurking in some of our most popular restaurant and prepared foods. Here are a few swaps for a better you.

To Control Blood Pressure

Walnuts Roasted, salted nut mix A diet rich in walnuts and walnut oil may help the body respond better to stress and can also help keep diastolic blood pressure levels down, according to a small Pennsylvania study. But while all nuts are healthy, roasting them can ramp up the calories (but not the nutrition). Many cocktail mixes are packed with sugar.
Peanut butter with 1/4 cup of blueberries Peanut butter with blueberry jelly Peanut butter, especially when spread on wholegrain bread, is rich in fiber; a 2015 study funded by the National Institutes of Health showed that increasing fiber to at least 30 grams per day for at least a year resulted in lower blood pressure. Those benefits can be undone with the wrong products, though. Peanut butter and jelly sure sounds wholesome, but the combo packs an awful lot of sugar. According to a study in the journal Open Heart, just a few weeks on a high-sugar diet can increase blood pressure. Instead of jelly, then, try mashing up some blueberries and adding them to your sandwich.
Guacamole Queso dip While sodium can raise our blood pressure, this salty mineral is counteracted by another mineral, potassium. It’s a lack of potassium, as much as an overdose of sodium that puts us in harm’s way. One cup of avocado delivers about 20 percent of your daily value, plus plenty of fiber.

For a Better Mood

Spinach salad with cherry tomatoes Kale salad, with sliced beefsteak tomatoes Spinach is an excellent source of folate, a B vitamin that helps support the production of serotonin and dopamine, two feel-good neurochemicals. Spinach also provides nearly 160 mg of magnesium, a mineral linked to lower depression. Kale has a fraction of this much magnesium.
Grass-fed beef Conventionally raised beef Beef, lamb and other red meats are packed with iron, a nutrient vital for a stable mood. But take a stake in grass-fed steak. It might be a little more expensive, but animals raised on grass pastures boast much higher levels of two fats associated with better mood: conjugated linoleic acid and omega-3 fatty acids.
Ashwagandha tea Soda Ashwagandha tea is an herbal tea you’ll find in many, if not most, grocery stores. A study in the Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine showed that “Ashwagandha root extract safely and effectively improves an individual’s resistance to stress and thereby improves self-assessed quality of life.”
Dark chocolate Dutch process chocolate If you crave chocolate when you’re feeling down, it may be your body telling you to snack on the world’s most delicious home remedy. Chocolate give you an instant boost in mood and concentration, and improves blood flow to the brain. But beware of chocolates that are “Dutched.” or alkalized–a process that can destroy 60 percent or more of the healthy nutrients in the cocoa.

For Lower Blood Sugar

Salmon, tuna, halibut, black cod, sardines, anchovies, rainbow trout Tilapia, catfish Fatty, cold-water fish such as salmon, tuna and sardines are packed with omega-3s, which help reduce your risk of diabetes. A study by the University of Eastern Finland found that men with the highest intake of omega-3s had a 33 percent lower risk for type 2 diabetes compared with those who ate the least. But not every fish measures up; tilapia and catfish have very few omega-3s.
Olive oil Soybean oil A recent study at the University of California, Riverside, showed that, in mice at least, a diet high in soybean oil causes more obesity and diabetes than a diet high in fructose (sugar).
Cranberries, blueberries and red grapes Cranberry, blueberry and grape juice drink According to a 2012 American Journal of Clinical Nutrition study or more than 200,000 people, a higher consumption of berries–rich in antioxidant anthocyanins–was associated with a lower risk of type 2 diabetes. There’s a difference, though, between eating a berry and drinking a berry; in one Harvard study, those who consumed fruit juice each day increased their risk of developing diabetes by as much as 21 percent.
Home-brewed green tea Bottled green tea The antioxidants in green tea, particularly a unique compound called EGCG, may have the ability to limit the amount of starch absorbed from a meal and to improve sugar metabolism, a Polish study notes. But don’t try to get EGCG from bottled teas. Store-bought teas typically lose 20 percent of EGCG content during the bottling process, which is why brewing your own is so critical. If you really want bottled tea, opt for versions with an acid such as lemon juice or citric acid, which helps stabilize EGCG levels.

For Brain Health

Quinn popcorn Corn with trans fats Although the government is requiring companies to phase out trans fats over the next few years, some microwave popcorn brands contain up to 5 grams–two and a half times the American Heart Association’s recommended daily maximum. Brands like Quinn and Newman’s Own have no trans fats.
Reduced-sodium soy sauce Regular soy sauce Fish can be the perfect brain food, but don’t douse it in soy sauce; just one tablespoon has nearly 40 percent of the day’s recommended sodium. A history of hypertension, which can be aggravated by a high-sodium diet, can restrict blood to the brain and diminish cognitive skills, according to a 2014 study in the journal Neurology. Kikkoman and Eden’s Organic offer reduced-sodium soy sauce.
Oatmeal Muffin with butter The average large muffin carries a third of the day’s saturated fat and 74 grams of carbs, most of which are the unhealthy refined kind. A study review in Physiology & Behavior hound that consuming saturated fats in combination with refined carbohydrates could harm cognitive function.

For a Longer, Healthier Life

Quinoa White rice Plant protein–nuts, beans, tofu and grains – builds the leg strength that can help prevent falls better than animal protein does, researchers have found. A study published last year in JN: Journal of Nutrition followed more than 2,600 men and women for three years. Those who ate the most plant protein had more strength in their thigh muscles than those who ate the least. One way to get more plant protein at your next meal is to swap out white rice (4 grams of protein per cup) for high-protein quinoa (8 grams per cup).
Protein shake Milk shake If your diet is low in protein, you can have a harder time recovering from illness or surgery. A 2015 study in Clinical Nutrition funded by Abbott showed that drinking a specialized protein shake helped improve recovery in malnourished patients’ age 65-plus who were hospitalized with a heart or lung disease. “Nutrition is critical to survival because it helps keep your body functioning properly,” says Nicolas Deutz, M.D., of Texas A&M University.
Fish tacos Beef tacos Cutting back on red meat in favor of leaner chicken or fish boots “good” HDL cholesterol levels and can help you avoid heart problems and stroke. People who eat the leanest protein (fish and chicken) are 20 percent less likely to suffer a stroke, compared with those who eat low levels of these sources of protein, according to a recent analysis of seven studies involving more than 254,000 people. So the next time you have tacos, skip the beef and choose grilled fish.