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Sports Nutrition

12 Fittest Foods

These smart swaps allow you to take your nutrition game to the next level without the side order of deprivation.

Perhaps you’re stuck in a food rut and are craving a change — one that won’t derail your efforts but will liven up your meal times. Or maybe you’re not seeing the results you desire, despite making all the “right” food choices. It could even be as simple as not knowing what options are available or what to buy at the grocery store. Whatever your reasoning, the time has come to expand your horizons by exploring a few tried-and-true switcheroos. 

“There are many reasons to make meal swaps,” says Jessica Cording, MS, RD, CDN, a registered dietitian in Manhattan. “Whether it’s cutting calories, boosting athletic performance, or adopting a new style of eating (adjusting to an allergy or going gluten-free, vegetarian or Paleo) finding new foods to eat in place of old standbys can boost overall wellness and optimize your fitness efforts.”

Of course, that may be easier said than done for creatures of habit. But it doesn’t have to be. It’s really all about your approach. “Making wholesale changes can be overwhelming, but it isn’t always necessary,” says Steve Hertzler, Ph.D., RD, chief scientific officer for EAS Sports Nutrition and a competitive bodybuilder. “Often, some simple food swaps can close gaps in your nutrition and make sure you’re getting the protein and other nutrients you may be lacking.”

Cording suggests taking all of your personal barriers into consideration — from not knowing how to cook new things to being picky — before you start making swaps. Then look for ways to resolve them, such as taking a cooking class or serving an unfamiliar food with something you already know you like. Now that you’re mentally prepared to take that next step, let’s dig into your “swap-tions.” 

Here we show some foods to subtract from your diet and alternatives to choose instead.

Blueberries vs. Bananas

Why: Aside from providing more fiber and fewer calories per serving, Cording says blueberries provide a potent hit of antioxidants, like anthocyanins, which help promote recovery postworkout or on a rest day. The complex carbs in blueberries are also important for helping you maintain stable energy.

Nut Butter or Sliced Avocado On Toast vs. Butter

Why: You’ll be getting heart-healthy fats and fiber, plus a little protein with nut butters or avocado. Aside from being good for your heart, the mono- and polyunsaturated fats in nuts and avocado are beneficial for brain health since they promote efficient cell function and nerve transmission. Because a high-fat, high-fiber meal right before working out might make you feel sluggish, Cording suggests this as a postexercise option. The potassium is also helpful for soothing sore muscles.

Meat toppings vs. Veggie Toppings

Why: You don’t have to give up pizza, just skip the sausage and pepperoni and choose combinations of fruits and vegetables — Hertzler’s favorite combo is peppers, tomatoes, olives and pineapple. But if you really need meat on your pizza, consider Canadian bacon, which delivers a lot less fat than sausage or pepperoni.

Sweet Potato Toast vs. Bread

Why: For a grain-free toast option, Cording recommends cutting a sweet potato into thin slices and popping it in the toaster or oven until it’s soft on the inside and crispy on the outside. Top it with whatever you usually like on toast.

Salmon vs. Tuna

Why: You’ll still get tons of protein, but Cording points to more inflammation-fighting omega-3 fatty acids in salmon. Canned salmon is also a more potent source of calcium, which is key for supporting bone health.

Regular Yogurt vs. Greek Yogurt or Icelandic Skyr

Why: You’ll get twice the protein to help support muscle recovery in Greek yogurt. Greek yogurt is also a great source of muscle-soothing potassium and probiotic bacteria, which benefit digestion and immune system function. Cording says to skip flavored types and reach for plain so you can save yourself those unhelpful empty calories from sugar. To flavor it yourself, try a teaspoon of honey, maple syrup or your favorite jam, or stir in cinnamon and top it with fresh berries. A tablespoon of ground flaxseeds or some nuts add filling fiber and healthy fats.

Spinach vs. Iceberg Lettuce

Why: Spinach has at least twice as much calcium, iron, niacin and vitamins A (beta-carotene), B6 and C as iceberg lettuce. It’s also a better source of protein, magnesium, folate, phosphorus and potassium than lettuce. Potassium, in particular, is a mineral lacking in many diets so Hertzler says choosing spinach over iceberg can help close the deficit.

Peanut or Almond butter vs. Sunflower Seed Butter

Why: If you’re tired of peanut butter and almond butter, sunflower seed butter is a delicious alternative that can help keep postworkout hunger in check, says Cording. Use it as a dip for veggies or fruit or try it spread on toast or a baked sweet potato. You also can add a spoonful of sunflower seed butter to oatmeal to give your breakfast some staying power. 

Dried Tart Cherries vs. Dried cranberries

Why: Cording says dried tart cherries have been shown to reduce exercise-related inflammation and may be helpful for recovery. Toss some into a salad or trail mix or sprinkle over yogurt. Just remember that portions still count — keep servings of dried fruit to ¼ cup max to avoid overdoing it on that naturally occurring sugar.

Beet-And-Fruit Smoothie vs. All-Fruit Smoothie

Why: Chopped raw or steamed beets blend well in smoothies and work great with a variety of flavors, especially tart fruits like blueberries and cherries. Cording says the betalain in beets has been shown to help support postworkout recovery by fighting inflammation. If the idea of beets in a smoothie sounds crazy, you can try a powdered supplement.

Sweet Potato Pancake vs. Hash Browns

Why: Sweet potatoes will provide more fiber, to promote more stable, slow-burning energy plus way more antioxidant vitamins A and C to boost postworkout recovery. For an easy meal, Cording blends up the flesh of one cooked sweet potato with two eggs or ½ cup liquid egg whites and, in a greased skillet, form into pancakes and cook until browned on the outside, flipping carefully.

Regular Mashed Potatoes vs. Protein Mashed Potatoes

Why: Cording suggests making high-protein, high-fiber mashed potatoes by mashing in white beans and chicken or vegetable broth instead of the usual butter and cream. When you use vegetable broth, it becomes a vegan-friendly option for plant-powered athletes.

“There’s an old saying: Abs are made in the kitchen,” Hertzler reminds us. “Changing your diet may be the ideal solution to make sure you are getting the most out of your workouts, helping to unlock your ability to lose weight, build more muscle or become more toned. These simple food swaps can help you get the protein and micronutrients your body needs.”