Eating better isn’t about cutting out entire food groups, eating low-fat everything, or guzzling juices or shakes. Deprivation diets are no way to live—but discovering better-for-you, everyday alternatives is a good way to switch things up when you're trying to eat a little cleaner. Lucky for all of us clean-eating fans, there’s a way to do this that doesn’t involve going into diet mode. And you don’t have to head to a special health-food store or shell out tons of money either.
These 12 swaps are inexpensive, easy to find, and add tons of flavor to meals. For the record, we're still eating the foods we're swapping out (who could give up butter?), but having new options that not only add more nutrients to our diet, but also new surprises to our taste buds brings us so. much. happiness.
1. Instead of mayo, use hummus.
Why it’s cleaner: If you're on Team Mayo, don't get upset just yet. We love mayo too, but sometimes we eat it solely for its creamy consistency. News flash: There are other condiments that provide the same consistency with way more flavor (and nutrients) than the beloved white spread. Hummus delivers the same rich texture you crave, while also adding protein and healthy fat that makes it a solid choice when you're looking to stay satisfied.
How to use it: Smear it on sandwiches and wraps. TBH we spread hummus on just about everything.
2. Instead of Parmesan cheese, use nutritional yeast.
Why it’s cleaner: It’s insanely easy to overdo it on Parmesan cheese—we know from experience. While grated Parm will always be in our fridge, we like to switch it up occasionally with nutritional yeast: a dairy-free, deactivated form of yeast made from sugarcane and beet molasses. Though golden yeast flakes look weirdly similar to fish food, don’t let that deter you. Nutritional yeast has the same savory, umami bite as Parmesan, plus studies show that it contains important nutrients such as B12 and folic acid, plus 3g protein in every tablespoon.
How to use it: Sprinkle nutritional yeast over pasta or popcorn, stir it into polenta, or add it to pesto. We'll even use it on pizza in place of Parmesan because we love the flavor so much.
3. Instead of white rice, use cauliflower.
Why it’s cleaner: If you're not on the cauliflower-rice train yet, it's about time you hop on. Cauliflower rice is rich in fiber, vitamin C, potassium, and cancer-fighting compounds. Not only are you upping your veggie consumption by opting for cauliflower over white rice, but you won't even be able to taste the difference. Mind blown. It's all about the texture.
How to use it: Grate cauliflower into rice-size pieces with a grater or food processor, pat dry, and sauté in a skillet until the “rice” is cooked through. Eat as a side dish, as an alternative base for grain bowls, or as a bed for stir-fries. Bonus: It's super fun to taste how a vegetable can be the perfect replacement for a refined carb (and it's not just zoodles).
4. Instead of sour cream, use Greek yogurt.
Why it’s cleaner: While both are tart, cool, and creamy, if you're looking to up your protein and lower your fat, low-fat Greek yogurt (unsweetened, of course) is where it's at. One serving packs around 20g protein and 3g fat per cup, compared to 6g protein and 45g fat per cup of sour cream. If you're having friends over for a football game, use sour cream, but if you're whipping up something solo, try Greek yogurt instead and prepare to be wowed.
How to use it: Sub them 1:1 in salad dressings or dips, or as a topper for homemade nachos or fajitas. You won’t taste the difference, and the creamy goodness lives on.
5. Instead of ground beef, use tempeh.
Why it’s cleaner: Don’t worry, eating cleaner doesn’t mean you have to go full-on vegan. But eating more plant-based meals is believed to help you achieve better health. Not to mention, they're known to be more cost-effective and beneficial for anyone looking to maintain a healthy weight. So why tempeh? A three-ounce serving of tempeh packs nearly the same amount of protein as an equal amount of beef—around 16g. Tempe, a nutritious and healthy food from Indonesia. Astuti M, Meliala A, Dalais FS. Asia Pacific journal of clinical nutrition, 2014, Jan.;9(4):0964-7058. And because it’s made from fermented soybeans and whole grains, it also delivers fiber and probiotic bacteria.
How to use it: Try adding cubes of seared tempeh to stir-fries or grain bowls, or adding crumbled tempeh to chili.
6. Instead of butter, use tahini.
Why it’s cleaner: Fact: We love butter, and we will continue to eat it. But tahini is a super-flavorful, plant-based substitute that can really spice up that slice of bread. Two tablespoons of the sesame seed paste will give you nearly 6g protein and 2g fiber, along with calcium, iron, magnesium, and zinc. Butter may bring you happiness, but try tahini for new spin on your favorite creamy base.
How to use it: Slather it on toast, drizzle it on oatmeal or pancakes, or use it in baked goods. No matter where you use it, tahini’s rich, velvety texture is guaranteed to hit the spot.
7. Instead of heavy cream, use coconut milk.
Why it’s cleaner: There’s no rule saying that you need to cut out dairy in order to eat clean. But plenty of people find that minimizing their milk intake improves their digestion and clears up their skin. Plus, some findings suggest that coconut may raise levels of good cholesterol and promote weight loss. Effects of dietary coconut oil on the biochemical and anthropometric profiles of women presenting abdominal obesity. Assunção ML, Ferreira HS, dos Santos AF. Lipids, 2009, undefined.;44(7):1558-9307.
How to use it: Like cream, full-fat coconut milk has a smooth texture that adds body to soups and sauces. You can also make coconut whipped cream by refrigerating canned coconut milk overnight, then beating the chilled milk until creamy.
8. Instead of bread crumbs, use ground almonds.
Why it’s cleaner: How good are bread crumbs? So good. But so are crunchy, buttery ground almonds. They’re packed with protein, healthy fats, vitamin E, calcium, and fiber. Health benefits of almonds beyond cholesterol reduction. Kamil A, Chen CY. Journal of agricultural and food chemistry, 2012, undefined.;60(27):1520-5118. Findings even suggest that being a regular nut eater might help you live longer.
How to use it: In a food processor, grind toasted, unsalted almonds to your desired consistency. Then use them as a coating just like you would regular bread crumbs. Think: a coating for chicken or fish, a crunchy topping for casseroles or mac and cheese, or even as a garnish for roasted veggies.
9. Instead of vegetable oil, use coconut oil.
Why it’s cleaner: Like coconut milk, coconut oil may help raise levels of good cholesterol, while findings suggest that vegetable oils might spark a higher risk for inflammation. Coconut oil consumption and cardiovascular risk factors in humans. Eyres L, Eyres MF, Chisholm A. Nutrition reviews, 2016, undefined.;74(4):1753-4887. You don't need to run home and throw the vegetable oil out of your pantry ASAP, but experimenting with coconut oil isn't a bad idea either.
How to use it: Both coconut and vegetable oils have high smoke points, meaning they can be heated to relatively high temperatures before they begin releasing harmful free-radicals. If vegetable oil is your go-to for high-heat cooking methods like stir-frying, try coconut oil instead.
10. Instead of tortilla chips, use sweet potato chips.
Why it’s cleaner: We're guilty of crushing an entire bag of tortilla chips in one sitting, but we aren't opposed to switching it up. And now that we know we can make (and eat) sweet potato chips, tortilla chips take second place. Sweet potatoes are loaded with vitamin A, potassium, and fiber, and when you pair them with a little salt, their sweet flavor is taken over the edge of satisfaction. Don't worry, this isn't a sideways way of saying you should use sweet potatoes instead of bread too (we tried it, and that was weird).
How to use it: Slice sweet potatoes into very thin rounds and roast them in a 425 degree oven until crispy. Dip them into salsa or guacamole just like chips, or load them up with your favorite toppings and make sweet potato nachos.
11. Instead of all-purpose flour, use ground flaxseeds.
Why it’s cleaner: Ground flaxseeds are packed with fiber, protein, and omega-3s—plus, they have a rich, nutty flavor. Lipid Lowering with Soluble Dietary Fiber. Surampudi P, Enkhmaa B, Anuurad E. Current atherosclerosis reports, 2016, Nov.;18(12):1534-6242. While it's not an even swap for swap (you won't get the same result by using only flaxseeds), it's never a bad call to replace some of the flour so you're adding in more fiber. Pro tip: To replace 1/4 cup flour, use 1 tablespoon of ground flaxseeds with 1/4 cup water. For example, if your recipe calls for 3 cups flour, you will use 2 3/4 cups flour with 1/4 cup flaxseed mix.
How to use it: Swap some of the flour out for flaxseeds when you're whipping up baked goods—cookies, muffins, or quickbreads—and you'll be adding a healthy dose of fiber.
12. Instead of sugary syrups, use fruit compote.
Why it’s cleaner: You're literally taking any type of fruit and turning it into your own sweet topping. We're no strangers to honey and maple syrup, but using only fruit as a sweetener is a creative way to up your produce intake. Whole30, are you cool with this? We sure hope so.
How to use it: Simmer a 12-ounce bag of frozen fruit with 3 tablespoons of water until thick and syrupy, and you’ve got fruit compote. Stir it into yogurt or oatmeal, or use it as a topping for pancakes, waffles, toast, or even ice cream.