Find better-for-you swaps that are just as easy
Peruse any grocery store aisle, and you’re going to see phrases like “low-fat,” “zero calorie,” or “meal replacement” sprawled across every label. While a low-cal packaged snack may sound like a convenient pick for your weight loss goals, it’s not always the healthiest choice. “If you’re eating these low-calorie, or ‘diet’ foods, they may not contain all the nutrients that you need to be healthy,” says Ruth Frechman, RDN, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and author of The Food Is My Friend Diet. “Some of these products are enriched, but you want variety in your diet. Make the most of your calories by getting the most nutrients you can [from whole foods].”
While grab-and-go packaged foods seem like the easiest picks, you can make your own snacks and simple meals (no cooking required) that are better for your body. As a bonus, you actually get to eat more, for the same or fewer calories! Frechman shared her top five picks for satisfying, low-calorie swaps that are easy to add to your day:
It may seem like a good pick, but a healthy portion is 1/4 cup. But who stops there? Store-bought mixes include excess sugar from dried fruit and saturated fat. Trade it in for a hearty helping of a sweet-and-savory mix of whole grains and calcium.
Instead of: 1/4 cup of packaged trail mix (~140-160 calories, ~10 g fat (~3 g saturated), ~10 g sugar)
Have this: 3 cups of air-popped popcorn sprinkled with cinnamon and a stick of light string cheese (~160 calories, ~6 g fat (~2 g saturated), ~0 g sugar).
”Healthy” Microwave Meal
“As far as weight loss goes, these meals can be helpful because they control the calories,” Frechman says. Portion-controlled meals contain adequate carbs and protein, she adds. Her biggest issue with microwave meals? Their high sodium content. Plus, packaged meals are often laden with saturated fat. Our recommended low-salt, omega-3-packed choice will seem like a smorgasbord next to its packaged contender.
Instead of: A high-sodium microwavable meal (~330 calories, ~8 g fat, ~650 mg sodium)
Have this: 3 ounces low-sodium canned tuna, 1 cup baby carrots, a small apple, and 3 brown rice rice cakes (~310 calories, ~2g fat, ~159mg sodium).
You may be used to flying out the door with a breakfast bar in hand, and while eating some sort of morning meal is better than skipping, it’s not the healthiest fuel for your day. A better choice? A natural nut butter on toast, Frechman says. You’ll get protein, whole grains, and healthy fat, a combo that gives you a.m. energy, and keeps you satiated. If you’re running extra low on time, pack sliced bread in a plastic bag and nut butter in a small container the night before for an easy grab.
Instead of: A high-protein or meal-replacement bar (~170-180 calories, ~10 g sugar)
Have this: A piece of whole grain bread and 1 tablespoon peanut butter (~170 calories, ~5 g sugar).
While a quick, calorie-conscious drink may seem like it helps you lose weight and even power up your workout, it doesn’t support a healthful diet. Our bodies require a balance of protein, fat, and carbs throughout the day, Frechman says. In lieu of a diet shake with mystery ingredients, go for bloat-reducing pineapple and digestion-aiding yogurt. With energizing fruit and a hefty dose of bone-healthy calcium, it’s a good pre-workout or anytime snack.
Instead of: A sugary diet shake (~190 calories, ~15 g sugar, ~10 g protein)
Have this: One-cup nonfat plain yogurt and 1/2 cup canned water-packed pineapple (~170 calories, ~15 g sugar, ~12 g protein).
You might feel like you’re being “good” by going for supposedly “skinny” desserts, but not all sweets are created equal. Sugar is sugar—whether it comes from candy, fudge, or fruit, it all eventually breaks down to blood-sugar spiking glucose, Frechman says. Instead of a packaged diet dessert, satisfy your sweet tooth with an indulgent, antioxidant-rich piece of dark chocolate and a baked apple. “Fruit has a lot of slow-processing fructose, which is great news for people who have diabetes and want something sweet.” Plus, it’s naturally low in calories.
Instead of: A packaged, low-calorie dessert (~100-140 calories, ~13 g sugar)
Have this: 1 square of dark chocolate and a baked apple sprinkled with cinnamon, no sugar added (~95 calories, ~19g sugar) (~42 calories, ~4 g sugar) (total = ~137 calories, ~23 g sugar).