Unfortnuately, the standard American diet is full of junk food — it's everywhere. But here are some simple ways to junk the junk and replace it with healthy alternatives.
The typical American diet is full of cheeseburgers, pizza, soda, cookies and cake. And experts agree based on current research that we need to limit refined grains, saturated fat, added sugar and salt. Considering the majority of adult Americans live with a preventable chronic condition in which diet plays a role, it's time for us to kick junk food to the curb and start eating foods that support a vibrant, healthy lifestyle. Don't know where to start? We asked nutrition experts to share 10 ways you can de-junk-ify your diet.
1. DE-JUNK: Salad Dressing
Did you know that salad dressing is a significant source of sodium? It doesn't seem fair that in making an effort to eat more vegetables, people are actually piling on the salt. Too much sodium can raise your blood pressure, tax your kidneys and leave you feeling bloated and dehydrated.
Salads an easy meal to throw together, though, so if you love a specific salad dressing, reducing sodium could be as simple as cutting back on how much you pour over your greens. The American Heart Association estimates that reducing sodium could save more than half a million lives over the next decade.
2. SMART SWAP: Salad Toppers
Try topping your next salad with something other than salad dressing. The healthy fat in sliced almonds, avocados, salmon and hemp seeds helps the body absorb beneficial fat-soluble nutrients like vitamins A, D, E and K. Or add a splash of red wine vinegar to help bring all the various elements of a salad together.
Rene Ficek, RD, lead nutrition expert at Seattle Sutton's Healthy Eating, recommends tossing berries into your salads because of their antioxidant power. "Anthocyanins are potent antioxidants responsible for the reddish pigment in foods like strawberries, cherries, blackberries and raspberries," she says. "These antioxidants scrub away harmful free radicals that can damage cells, cause inflammation and fuel chronic disease."
3. DE-JUNK: Cheese
Cheese is delicious and provides nutrients like protein and potassium. However, regular cheese is also a major source of saturated fat and sodium â€” two nutrients Americans already over-consume and that have negative health implications.
While it has its place, cheese is a bit too ubiquitous. For example, it's nearly impossible to find a deli sandwich without cheese as a standard component (go ahead, give this a try next time you're at a sandwich shop). Bring cheese intake down and your heart will thank you for the break from the concentrated punch of saturated fat and sodium.
4. SMART SWAP: Savor or Swap Out
When you do eat cheese, make it a treat that you truly savor. For example, enjoy an occasional cheese board with a variety of decadent cheeses sliced into small pieces alongside fresh fruit and unsalted nuts. For everyday meals, there's room to swap out cheese that's added (nearly automatically). In sandwiches, reach for flavorful condiments like mustard, and for salads, swap in healthy fats to replace the cheese.
You can also consider adding small portions of fermented foods like sauerkraut, miso, tempeh and kimchi to up the flavor impact (a little goes a long way). "When foods are fermented, they create benefits like lactobacilli, which enhances the growth of beneficial bowel bacteria," registered dietician Rene Ficek says.
5. DE-JUNK: Cookies and Cake
Dessert foods like cookies, cupcakes, brownies, doughnuts, pie crusts and pastries are a triple threat â€” calories, added sugars and sodium. A small amount of empty calories from these kinds of foods is OK if you love them, but most people eat far more than what's considered healthy.
If you look at your regular diet, and sweet treats are on the menu more than once or twice a week, it's time to cut back. Tried-and-true methods include eating these foods less often or in smaller portions â€” preferably both. Save on eating these empty-calorie foods and your heart and your waistline will thank you.
Read more: 15 Reasons to Kick Sugar
6. SMART SWAP: Antioxidant-Rich Foods
Instead of empty calories, reach for foods that are naturally sweet and rich in antioxidant nutrients. Joy Bauer, RDN, founder of Nourish Snacks, says, "They help protect your cells from day-to-day wear and tear (i.e., sun, stress, toxins) and can help boost heart health and brainpower."
To make it easy, Bauer recommends keeping the freezer stocked with frozen cherries and berries. "I use them for smoothies, microwave them for a warm compote, mix them in with healthy muffin batters, top a nonfat Greek yogurt and use them as pancake toppings," she says. And opt for dark chocolate instead of milk or white. Bauer recommends enjoying a small square after dinner, sipping a cup of hot cocoa, blending cocoa powder into your yogurt or making a homemade trail mix with cacao nibs, whole-grain cereal, nuts and dried berries like blueberries and cranberries.
7. DE-JUNK: Pizza, Bread and Pasta
Pizza, which often includes cheese and meat, is the second-highest source of saturated fat in the American diet (regular cheese is the first). More often than not, pizza dough is made with refined white flour, another food component that health experts recommend Americans cut back on.
For better pizza, make it at home with whole-grain dough, top it with plenty of vegetables and go easy on the cheese. Many breads and pastas also pack plenty of refined grains and are major sources of hidden sodium in the diet. Go for whole-grain versions for better nutrition and consider cutting back on how much bread and pasta is on your plate. Build meals around larger portions of vegetables instead.
Read more: Meet the Women Who Are Changing Health and Wellness
8. SMART SWAP: Vegetables
When asked what American diets could use more of, Kimberly Gomer, RD, director of nutrition at Pritikin Longevity Center and Spa, says vegetables â€”hands down. "A plant-based diet, with veggies as the star, contributes vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients to our diets."
"If all folks do is add five or more servings of vegetables per day to their diets, they will receive so many wonderful health benefits," she says. Those benefits include fighting inflammation, controlling blood sugar control, lowering cholesterol, preventing cancer and making weight management easier.
Read more: 21 Foods to Always Buy Organic
9. DE-JUNK: Sodas and Fruit Drinks
Combined, sugar-sweetened sodas and fruit drinks account for nearly half of all added sugar intake â€” 46 percent. Added sugars are just empty calories, as opposed to naturally occurring sugars in healthful foods, such as fruit or low-fat yogurt. The good news is that cutting soda out of the diet is one of the simplest ways to drop pounds.
In contrast, fruit drinks may confuse consumers into thinking they're healthy. After all, fruit is healthy. However, fruit drinks are mostly sugar and water and don't carry the same benefits as 100-percent juice or whole fruit. Look out for drinks that look like fruit juice but are labeled with any of these terms: drink, beverage, punch, -ade, cocktail or delight. Water is always a solid choice for good hydration, and adding lemon, cucumber or melon to a glass of water adds an aromatic note without the empty calories.
Read more: 12 Refreshing Spa Water Recipes
10. SMART SWAP: Beets
Washington, D.C.-based dietitian Charmaine Jones, RDN, offers an offbeat alternative to sugar-sweetened fruit drinks: a naturally sweet beet-and-fruit smoothie. She recommends slicing up a beet stalk and adding it to a smoothie for an extra boost of sweetness without the added sugar.
"Beets are rich in antioxidants and have been shown to boost metabolism when you exercise by improving blood flow and helping to lower blood pressure," she says. Jones explains that beets are rich in nitrates that ultimately get converted into nitric oxide, which relaxes and dilates the blood vessels so that blood flows more easily, lowering blood pressure. Additional smart alternatives to sugar-sweetened beverages include water, tea, whole fruit or 100-percent juice.
Recipe & Nutritional Information: Charmaine Jones' Beet Smoothie Recipe