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8 Small Summer Diet Swaps that Add Up to Huge Health Payoffs

A new study found that adding micro-changes to your menu significantly reduces the risk of early death.

by Samantha Cassetty, RD /
Image: Jumbo Shrimp on top of Spiralized zucchiniRonda Kimbrow / Getty Images

I’m drawn to the idea of micro-changes — taking small, doable steps that can make a dramatic impact in the long run. Breaking a large goal — say, losing 40 pounds or eating more healthfully — into mini-goals is a great strategy because each time you succeed (I ate a vegetable!), it sends a “yay for me!” signal to your brain, which can serve as a powerful motivator to carry on.

But even better than the mental cheerleading squad, these small changes lead to huge health payoffs. Mounting evidence finds that short bursts of intense exercise — as little as 7 minutes — can produce the same heart and metabolic benefits as exercising much longer. And it’s widely known that you can reduce the risk of heart disease and diabetes by shedding just 5 percent of your weight.

Just this week, a new study from Harvard researchers found that making micro-changes to your menu significantly reduces the risk of premature death. Here are eight low-effort changes that could add years to your life.

1. Replace refined carbs with whole grain versions

The research on the health benefits of whole grains is so compelling, I file this under no-brainer. In one Harvard analysis of 14 studies, researchers found that the risk of death from all causes was 16 percent lower among those eating the most whole grains compared to those eating the least. For heart disease, that risk dropped to 18 percent, and for cancer, it was 12 percent lower among the whole grain-eaters. The studies are wide-ranging — from improvements in digestion to an impact on memory and mood.

What really excites me is that these are easy swaps to make. Here are a few of my favorite whole-grain exchanges:

  • Insist on brown rice (sushi, side dish) over white rice
  • Have wheat bread over Wonder bread
  • Enjoy oatmeal or another whole grain cereal instead of a bowl of sugary flakes
  • Eat whole grain crackers over plain white ones

2. Add a serving of fruits and veggies to your menu

This small change isn’t exactly a swap — it’s an addition to your current cuisine. Eating more produce pays off in many ways, and just one additional serving per day has been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease by 4 percent. There’s no question that these foods lower the risk of disease, flood your body with nutrients, and can even provide a beauty boost by reducing acne, prompting your internal SPF and creating a healthy (tan-less) glow.

Adding just an extra serving of fruits and veggies each day isn’t as hard as it sounds considering that a serving is just a small, half-cup portion. Even veggie-based soups, pasta sauce and salsa count! Some other ways to enjoy produce:

  • Mix spinach or kale in your morning omelet or scramble
  • Snack on in-season sugar snap peas and cherry or grape tomatoes instead of non-veggie dippers
  • Use farm-fresh berries as a topping for yogurt or cereal, or blend them into a smoothie
  • Trade noodles for spiralized zucchini or summer squash
 A summer zucchini salad makes being a one-day-a-week vegetarian a tasty compromise. Getty Images

3. Go meatless one day per week

I’m not asking you to swear off meat for the rest of your life, but reducing your meat consumption by going meatless once a week can put you at lower risk of unwanted conditions like heart disease, cancer, obesity and diabetes. There are plenty of ways to be a one-day-a-week vegetarian. Here are some in-season ideas:

  • Have yogurt, cereal, or eggs for breakfast, but skip the bacon, ham and other meat accompaniments in favor of fresh produce
  • Fire up the grill and try charring sturdy fruits and veggies, such as corn, avocado, peppers, peaches and plums
  • Use protein-packed quinoa as the basis for a vegetarian power bowl and load it with things like in-season roasted or fresh veggies and fiber-rich chickpeas or a fried egg
  • Grill a Portobello mushroom cap in place of a burger
  • Fill up on gazpacho served with some whole grain tortilla chips and guac
  • Eat your share of nuts and seeds by using them as toppings for cereals and salads or snacking on them on their own

4. Replace sweetened yogurt with an unsweetened variety

Many people are surprised to hear that their seemingly healthy favorite yogurt is actually a sugar trap, potentially containing as many as three teaspoons of unnecessary sweetener. I urge you to try plain, unsweetened yogurt instead, even if you’d like to add a little sweetness. Chances are, you’ll use less than the manufacturer, especially if you get used to the idea of a drizzle (vs. a pour). Summer is a great time to play around with unsweetened yogurt because you can take advantage of the bounty of fresh produce to try both sweet and savory versions. Some of my favorite ways to enjoy plain Greek yogurt are:

  • Try topping with juicy fruits, like seasonal blueberries and blackberries, and use honey or maple syrup sparingly
  • Add chopped tomatoes, cucumbers, and walnuts, and drizzle with olive oil
  • Use in place of sour cream as a topping for baked potatoes and tacos
  • Mix into ground turkey to make moist burgers
  • Blend with fruit, like fresh peaches, and freeze in popsicle molds for a no-guilt summery treat

5. Replace butter with olive oil

Headlines proclaiming “Butter is Back” have been met with widespread enthusiasm so I’m prepared for some hate mail here, but as a lover of science, food and health, I have to let you in on the real story. Saturated fat, like butter, may have a neutral effect on our health, but unsaturated ones, like olive oil, have a positive role. There is strong — I repeat, strong — evidence that a Mediterranean-type diet, inclusive of olive oil and low in saturated fat, can lead to better blood pressure, bone health and memory. Other health benefits include a reduced risk of heart disease, diabetes and obesity. Get on board with these benefits by trying some of these tips:

  • Drizzle olive oil over your avocado toast — and feel free to put an egg on it
  • Upgrade your store-bought hummus with a bit of high-quality extra virgin olive oil
  • Snack on olives instead of crackers or other carb-rich fare
  • Season fish or chicken with pesto made from fresh summery basil, pine nuts, Parmesan and extra virgin olive oil
  • Infuse extra virgin olive oil with your favorite fresh summery herbs or garlic, and use to season salads and whole grain bread
 Add crunch to a salad with chopped nuts. Getty Images

6. Have a serving of nuts instead of pretzels or chips

Given that nuts are crunchy, delicious and satisfying, I hope I don’t have to do much convincing here. But just in case, consider that refined carbs, like pretzels and chips have a negative impact on your health — subtracting years from your life in the form of deadly illnesses, like heart disease and diabetes. Nuts, on the other hand, have the opposite impact, lowering the risk of death from many chronic conditions. In the past, weight-conscious eaters steered clear of high-fat, high-calorie nuts, but we now know that nut eaters don’t have higher body weights, and in fact, consuming nuts is linked with a lower incidence of obesity. With this happy news, I offer these ways to eat more nuts:

  • Add crunch to hot cereal and rice dishes with sliced or chopped almonds, cashews and peanuts
  • Liven up salads with walnuts and pecans
  • Pulse nuts in a food processor and use instead of flour or bread crumbs as a coating for chicken and fish
  • Use nut butters as a base for marinades and salad dressings
  • Enjoy straight up

7. Replace red or processed meat with plant-based protein

Fewer things on the diet front are clearer than the link between red and processed meat and a risk of cancer. The American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) recommends eating no more than 18 ounces of red meat each week, and really limiting bacon and other processed meats. And while protein is a requirement for maintaining all of the body’s tissues — muscle, blood vessels, skin, etc. — and hormones, you can meet these needs with plant proteins alone. I’m not suggesting you need to do this, but do try to stick to the AICR’s red meat limits and try these plant protein alternatives instead:

  • Make tacos using black beans instead of ground beef
  • Have a bean-based veggie burger over a basic hamburger
  • Try lentil or chickpea sliders instead of beef ones
  • Thinly slice extra firm tofu, season and roast to use in place of bacon with breakfast or in an heirloom tomato BLT
  • Snack on protein-and fiber-rich flavored roasted chickpeas instead of beef jerky

8. Have a serving of seafood instead of chicken or beef

While most Americans aren’t suffering from a lack of protein, few are eating an appropriate amount of seafood, according to the latest release of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which suggests we aim for two servings per week. Seafood is a prime source of omega-3 fatty acids, and there is evidence that these fish fats can lower triglyceride levels, lead to blood pressure improvements and slow the rate of dangerous plaque formation in the arteries. Other research shows they may also play a role in reducing anxiety and preventing other mood disorders. One thing I love about seafood is it cooks quickly — ideal for busy weeknights! Here are some more suggestions for upping your seafood intake:

  • Add shrimp to salads — from classic Caesar to pasta salads
  • Make a seafood spread using canned or pouched wild salmon as the star ingredient
  • Take advantage of the Poke trend or go for always in-style sushi instead
  • Grill seafood steaks, like halibut and tuna
  • Top a piece of sautéed white fish with a fresh peach salsa
  • Splurge on a steamed lobster with corn on the cob
  • Try a stove-top clam bake

Just think, simple swaps add up without sacrificing time or deliciousness. You can create better habits and a healthier life one veggie at a time.

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