It’s one thing to talk about the life-changing health benefits of eating more whole and minimally-processed foods — it’s another to put that advice into practice at each of your meals, particularly if your fridge and pantry are loaded with standard American dietary staples that are full of refined flours, low-quality oils, and excess sugar.
When time and motivation are in short supply — which, let’s face it, happens a lot — willpower tends to go out the window, and we gravitate toward foods that are readily available. This means your pantry staples can sabotage your efforts or set you up for success. As a health coach, I’ve found that so many people fall back into old eating habits not because they lack the motivation to eat well, but because they’re not stocked with what I consider the “upgraded basics” — nutrient-dense, satisfying, minimally-processed pantry staples that are versatile and can easily take the place of more highly-processed fare.
One of my favorite things to do with my health coaching clients is what I call a “pantry makeover” — when I walk them through their current pantry setup and make simple suggestions on swaps that can dramatically upgrade their nutrition without much effort or difference in taste.
Time and again, the same basic “problem foods” pop up. Below, check out the 10 most common staples I’d recommend ditching, plus their more nutritious substitutes.
10 Common Staple Foods to Ditch
1. Regular Pasta
Swap with: Whole wheat pasta, lentil pasta, or shirataki noodles
Typical white pasta is made with refined grain flour stripped of most of its fiber and antioxidants, and it’s incredibly high in carbohydrates, making it a prime candidate to spike your blood sugar. A 2-ounce serving contains about 42 g of carbs, 7 g of protein, and 3 g of fiber. High intake of refined carbs like pasta has also been associated with increased oxidative stress and activation of inflammatory genes.
No pasta is perfect — and it should ideally be paired with protein and veggies — but better options that pack more blood sugar-stabilizing fiber and protein include whole wheat pasta, chickpea-based pasta, and lentil-based pasta. Also, consider shirataki or konjac noodles with 3 g of carbs and minimal calories per serving. Made from glucomannan, a starch from the konjac yam, they have a slightly chewy, springy texture but are surprisingly tasty when paired with pesto or Asian-style, nut butter-based sauces.
2. White Bread
Swap with: Sprouted grain bread, grain-free tortillas
White bread is another high-carb, low-fiber staple that doesn’t provide much nutritional value. As a healthier alternative, I’m a big fan of sprouted grain bread eaten in small quantities — these are made from whole grains that have been sprouted before being ground into flour, which may increase the concentration and bioavailability of certain vitamins and minerals. Look for breads that list all of their grains as spouted on the ingredient list, like the brand Food for Life, which you’ll find in the refrigerated section. Each slice contains 15 g of carbs, 3 g of fiber, 5 g of protein, and low to moderate amounts of some naturally-occurring vitamins and minerals.
As a grain-free bread alternative, I absolutely love Siete Foods Almond Flour Tortillas made with almond and tapioca flour. Almond flour is naturally rich in vitamin E, and a serving of two tortillas contains 20 g of carbs, 3 g of fiber, and 6 g of protein. Keep in mind that you can also use romaine, iceberg, and Boston bibb lettuce for your sandwiches, wraps, and burgers.
3. Boxed Cereals
Swap with: Rolled oats
Cereals are made from refined grain flours. And while they’re often fortified with additional vitamins and minerals, that’s not enough to make up for their impact on your blood sugar. My go-to breakfast alternative is rolled or old-fashioned oats. Yes, oats are still a dense source of carbs, but they’re also an intact whole grain that contains fiber and protein, which makes them less likely to spike your blood sugar — a half-cup serving has 27 g of carbs, 4 g of fiber, and 5 g of protein. But the big reason I recommend oatmeal is because it’s a great vehicle for add-ons like nuts, seeds, and berries, which deliver a dose of protein, healthy fats, and antioxidants.
4. Vegetable Oil (and Other Refined Oils)
Swap with: Olive oil, avocado oil
Highly-refined oils, such as vegetable oil, soybean oil, and corn oil, deliver a mega-dose of omega-6 fatty acids. While omega-6s are technically essential, consuming too many can trigger inflammation, particularly if you don’t eat enough omega-3s from sources like fatty fish and walnuts. So, instead of these highly-processed oils, I always recommend oils that require very little processing and contain healthy antioxidants, such as extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) and avocado oil.
EVOO makes a great flavor-enhancing oil that delivers a subtle, pungent, peppery bite, while avocado oil is more neutral and incredibly versatile for cooking and baking. Both are predominantly composed of monounsaturated fats (MUFAs), which may help lower inflammation when used in place of saturated fats, and MUFAs are also less prone to oxidation than omega-6s.
5. Juices and Sodas
Swap with: Herbal teas, flavored seltzers
Both juices and sodas deliver a potent dose of sugar in the absence of fiber or protein — so regular consumption is a surefire way to promote blood sugar imbalances that can lead to future cravings and other health problems. But sometimes plain old water gets boring. That’s why I recommend stocking up on a variety of herbal teas, which you can drink either hot or iced.
These are a great, sugar-free way to get big flavor and a dose of phytochemicals that promote various health benefits. Some of my favorite herbal teas are tulsi or holy basil (for stress resistance), ginger (for digestion), echinacea (for immune health), and apple cinnamon (for a sweet fix). Seltzer is also great for when those soda cravings strike. Buy a flavored variety or get plain seltzer and add a squeeze of fresh lemon or lime.
6. Chips, Crackers, Pretzels
Swap with: Nuts, seeds, popcorn
It’s only a matter of time before you crave something salty and crunchy — but those chips, crackers, cheese puffs, and pretzels are just more empty-calorie, high-carb filler foods you don’t need in your life. Instead, keep a stash of roasted, salted nuts and seeds, which contain better-for-you fats and an array of vitamins and minerals. Pumpkin seeds, for example, contain 9 g of protein, 14 g of fat, and just 3 g of carbs, along with 42% of your daily value for magnesium and a good dose of iron and zinc.
Keep some popping corn on hand, too — not microwave popcorn, which is packed with funky fats and flavorings, but the plain loose kernels that you pop on the stove-top. This fiber-packed treat can be eaten plain, but it’s delicious with a little EVOO, salt, pepper, and garlic powder.
7. White Rice
Swap with: Brown rice, quinoa, amaranth, frozen cauliflower rice
White rice starts off as brown rice and is then stripped of its husk, bran, and germ in a milling process. This removes the bulk of its nutritional value, including most of its fiber and naturally-occurring vitamins and minerals. About the only thing white rice has going for it is that it’s generally very well-tolerated in people with gut dysfunction.
But if your gut is working well, consider swapping your white rice for brown rice or another whole grain such as quinoa or amaranth — all of which contain more blood sugar-stabilizing fiber and protein. Or, consider stocking up on some frozen cauliflower rice — finely chopped cauliflower that can be used as a rice alternative in stir-fries, fried rice, and more. This swap will save you a whopping 40 g of carbs. Cauliflower rice can even be used to make a low-carb cauliflower pizza crust.
8. Store-Bought Salad Dressings
Swap with: Olive or avocado oil, vinegar, and herbs + spices; or high-quality dressing brands
Most store-bought salad dressings are made with highly-processed, refined oils — the ones that may promote inflammation in the body. Some contain added sugars, too. But it’s not hard to make your own dressings if you have the right staples on hand: EVOO or avocado oil, your favorite vinegar (apple cider vinegar or balsamic vinegar will do), herbs and spices, and condiments like Dijon mustard. Combine three parts olive oil or avocado oil to one part apple cider vinegar, plus flavor-boosting additions to taste.
Or, seek out dressings from brands that prioritize high-quality oils, such as Primal Kitchen, which offers an array of tasty flavors low in sugar and features avocado oil and apple cider vinegar as the base.
9. Candy, Cookies, Sweets
Swap with: Dried fruit, dark chocolate, grain-free baking mixes
Swap your stockpile of ultra-processed sweets — that you probably bought when you were way too hungry to grocery shop — for things like dried fruit, dark chocolate, and better-for-you baked goods made with almond flour. Simple Mills is a great brand that offers almond flour-based baking mixes, and I often recommend their brownies, which I make with avocado oil.
Dried fruit is still high in sugar, but unlike candy, this sugar comes packaged with fiber and beneficial vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals — just eat it in moderation, and pair it with some nuts or seeds to buffer a potential blood sugar spike. Dark chocolate (70% cocoa or higher) is a good source of antioxidants and nutrients like magnesium. And baking mixes with almond flour instead of all-purpose white flour tend to be significantly lower in carbohydrates.
10. All-Purpose Flour
Swap with: Almond flour
All-purpose flour may be the staple of all staples, but it’s basically all carbohydrates with negligible nutritional value. Almond flour, or almond meal, is a great swap that’s far less likely to wreak havoc on blood sugar. Made from blanched and ground almonds, almond flour reflects the nutritional breakdown of almonds — it’s low in carbs and contains protein, fats, and significant quantities of several vitamins and minerals, including vitamin E and magnesium. There’s no shortage of almond flour baked goods recipes, but you can also use almond flour in savory applications, such as making almond flour “breaded” chicken and fish.
While making these swaps will certainly up your nutrient intake and help keep things like blood sugar, cravings, and inflammation in check, just keep in mind: Any food can fit into your diet at some level — even the occasional sugary, chocolatey, caramel-drizzled treat. Complete deprivation isn’t the answer. There’s something to be said for allowing yourself to enjoy foods that you have an emotional or cultural connection to, even if they’re not objectively “healthy.” The take-home message here is simply that upgrading the quality and nutrient density of the staple foods you eat most frequently can really support your health over time.
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7. Rice, white, long-grain, regular, enriched, cooked. USDA FoodData Central website. https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/168878/nutrients
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