Healthy Eating 101: Healthy Food Upgrades

Certain produce and healthy pantry staples pack more of a nutrient punch than others.


By Aimée Suen, NTP


Not all fruits, vegetables and "healthy foods" are created equal. They are still better than processed and over-processed foods, but some aren’t giving you the nutritional boost you were hoping for. Pushing your food boundaries can help you find some different foods that taste great and do great things for your health. If you’re particularly attached to certain foods, think of these new foods as upgrades that fit the health and fitness goals you’re working toward.

There are many different foods to consider giving upgrades to. Start looking at the foods you eat consistently and look around other foods like them the next time you hit the grocery store. Compare your current food and a new food’s nutrition. Is the new food more nutrient dense than what you’re currently eating?

If you’re unsure which foods to start upgrading, here are 6 to start with and consider.

Fruits and Vegetables: From Canned to Fresh or Frozen

Fruits and vegetables are sold in several different ways, from whole to frozen to canned. If you’re a frequent canned vegetable eater, consider switching more of your produce to be fresh or frozen.

Fresh or frozen produce doesn’t contain added preservatives or salt like a lot of canned products do, and if you’re eating produce often in your meals, can provide better nutrition than its canned counterpart. The exception to this rule is canned tomatoes and tomato paste. Processed tomatoes contain more lycopene than raw or home cooked tomatoes. Lycopene gives the tomatoes their beautiful color and also help fight off free radicals in the body. Studies have shown it can help lower the risk of stroke and certain cancers.

Frozen produce is frozen at the peak of that food’s season and can be a good option if you’re craving a food out of season or if you only need to use a little of that food in a recipe. It can also take some of the prep work out of certain foods with pits or shells.

Eating fresh produce can be more affordable, especially when in season. It also allows for more variety in your diet than the frozen vegetable aisle.

Salad Greens: From Iceberg to Romaine, Butter, and Red Leaf

It’s hard to not think about salad when healthy eating comes to mind. Greens are good for you, but not all greens are the same. Iceberg lettuce, which is a major player in fast food and lower end restaurant salads, is lesser nutritionally in comparison to other lettuces or salad greens you could choose.

Iceberg lettuce is 96% water with a small amounts of vitamin A, K, and fiber. If you’re buying or eating iceberg regularly, consider switching it out for more nutrient dense lettuces like butter, romaine, or red leaf lettuces. They have more than five times the vitamin A and K, which are important for healthy blood clotting, healthy tissue formation and free radical protection antioxidants. Upgrade your salad greens with a salad mix of colorful and dark greens to get a good variety of vitamins, minerals, and flavors. The darker and vibrant the colors are in the greens, the more phytonutrients they contain.

Potatoes: From White to Sweet

An average American eats 130 pounds of white potatoes in one year, and as a nation, America consumes over 7 billion pounds of french fries a year. It’s hard not to run into a potato in some form or another at a restaurant or grocery store. White potatoes do have benefits— they’re high in potassium, vitamin C and B6, but those values can be diminished when fried and consumed with unhealthy options. Consider cutting back on how many white potatoes you eat and upgrade sweet potatoes instead.

Though both tubers, sweet potatoes and white potatoes don’t belong to same plant family. A sweet potato is much higher in vitamin A, C, antioxidants, potassium, fiber, and lower in carbohydrates than the white potato. A sweet potato is also more versatile than a white potato. Depending on how you season it, you can easily have a sweet potato for lunch, dinner, or dessert.

Rice: From White to Brown

Out of all the rice varieties available, white rice is the most popular and consumed option in America. Even though it’s popular, it’s not as nutrient dense as brown rice. When white rice is milled, the bran, hull and germ that surrounds the rice kernel are removed. This process reduces the amount of nutrients the rice has. White rice sold in the United States is required to be enriched, meaning they add the nutrients back in that the milling process removed.

Brown rice, on the other hand, still has its bran, hull, and germ, meaning it’s naturally fortified in iron, thiamin, folate and niacin and does not need to be enriched. Brown rice is also higher in fiber, manganese, and vitamin B6 than white rice. Brown rice has a nuttier flavor and requires a slightly longer cooking time.

Yogurt: From Pre-Flavored to Plain

Most yogurt has live and active cultures, which are good for your intestinal health and immune system. The additional benefits of yogurt ( calcium, vitamin D, protein) could be muddled by added sugars and preservatives that come in pre-flavored yogurts. Upgrade to plain yogurt (regular or Greek style) and add your own fresh toppings. This can give you more control of how much natural sugars you add. If you eat yogurt often, consider buying the large tubs instead of the single serving containers. This could help you get the exact amount you want and you can also use it for cooking, baking, or as a sour cream/mayonnaise upgrade easily.

Grains: From Enriched and Refined to Whole

We’re constantly surrounded by grains. From breads to cereals to crackers to pastas, grains make up a lot of the food you can eat. Grains are milled. Milling removes the germ and the bran from the grains, taking with it a lot of fiber, vitamins, and proteins. Those grains can then ground into flour and used to make the many grain products you eat or see in the grocery store. Much like white rice, that flour is also enriched to add the nutrients back in that were taken out in processing.

Check the ingredient lists on your wheat or grain products and swap out the enriched and/or refined flour-based foods for whole grain flours and foods. These will be more filling, digest slower, and lead to less blood sugar spikes.

Multi-grain is not the same thing as whole grains. The multi-grain term just means that there were different kinds of grains used in the product, and does not specify if they were refined, enriched, or whole. Whole grains are more than simply just wheat, so branch out and try other, different kinds of whole grains.

What Will You Upgrade?

Now that you’ve got more ideas on what to upgrade in your pantry, start looking into the foods you’re eating. Are they as good for you as the front of the box says? Are there other foods you can try and experiment with that you’ll enjoy that are also nutrient dense? Try a new bright or darkly colored fruit or vegetable in a meal or snack. Upgrade to whole, minimally processed grains and dairy to get more nutrients without added preservatives or sugars. Have fun and experiment with new, healthier foods to match your healthier life.

Healthy Eating 101 will continue with swaps and suggestions to up your healthy eating game and get more nutrient-dense and filling foods.

Aimée Suen is a Nutritional Therapy Practitioner who shares nourishing, gluten-free recipes and nutrition wisdom at Small Eats. She is driven to help others enjoy whole foods and empower them to find their own healthy in all aspects of life, one small step at a time. When she’s not in the kitchen, she’s practicing yoga, in the gym, or learning something new. You can find Aimée on InstagramTwitter and Pinterest.

Second Photo Credit: pixfly/; Third Photo Credit: NorGal/; Fourth Photo Credit: Iasmina Calinciuc/; Fifth Photo Credit: Anna Shepulova/