5 Healthy Food Substitutions for Home Cooking [Two Free PDFs]

If you’re looking for simple food substitutions to make meals healthier, look no further! I have five healthy food substitutions that can be used for cooking, baking, or flavoring foods.

Believe it or not, you can make almost any recipe more heart-healthy by simply substituting one ingredient for another. Here, I’ll fill you in on some of my favorite (and easiest) recipe substitutions.

I’ll even share two free PDF handouts with you. Click either of the links below to skip to the freebies. Leave me a comment below if you find them helpful!

The Benefits of Home Cooked Meals

Preparing all or most of your meals at home is beneficial for a few very good (and likely obvious) reasons.

For heart patients in particular, perhaps you’ve been consuming more high-fat or high-sodium convenience foods or eating out more often than your doctor or dietitian recommends. This unhealthy way of eating can make your heart condition and other chronic diseases worse.

When preparing meals at home, using recipe substitutions is a great way to keep foods nutritious while reducing the things your heart doesn’t need- sodium, fat, cholesterol, and calories.

The preventative health benefits are just one perk to homemade meals. Other benefits of home meal preparation include:

  • Eating higher-quality food
  • Spending less money on food
  • Less weight gain over time

Research on home-cooked meals vs restaurant meals shows that individuals who prepare five or more meals per week at home are 28% less likely to be overweight and eat more fruits and vegetables than those who prepare three or fewer meals at home.

Making this one change to your daily routine can lead to big results when it comes to health! However, those with minimal cooking skills may need a little guidance on how to make some of their favorite foods a little healthier.

Now let’s get to those five healthy food substitutions along with a brief explanation of how each substitution may benefit your health.

Substitution #1: Whole Grains Instead of Refined Grains

Easy substitutions to make any recipe more heart healthy. Substitute wheat pasta for refined pastas.
Substitute whole wheat pasta for
refined pastas.

How this benefits health: Whole grains that are minimally processed will contain more nutrients and other beneficial components compared to processed grains.

The main difference between whole grains and refined grains is in the amount of processing the grain goes through.

Whole grains will generally have more:

  • Protein
  • Fiber
  • B vitamins
  • Iron
  • Magnesium
  • Selenium

This is because the process of refining grains ends up removing the bran and germ parts of the plant. This results in a finer texture and longer shelf life. However, it strips the product of valuable nutrients.

Diets rich in whole grains have been known to help lower the risk of heart disease, including total and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol levels.

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the American Heart Association recommend replacing refined carbohydrates with more whole grains (1).

Substitution #2: Low Fat Dairy Products Instead of Full Fat Dairy

Easy substitutions to make any recipe more heart healthy.  Substitute low fat dairy products for full fat dairy products.
Substitute low-fat or nonfat dairy products for full-fat dairy products.

How this benefits health: Many health organizations recommend limiting full-fat dairy consumption to reduce saturated fat intake and heart disease risk.

Switching out full-fat dairy products in cooking and baking for lower-fat versions may be a good decision for heart health. This can be anything from replacing the regular sour cream on your baked potato with a lower-fat version to substituting 1% milk, or low-fat plant-based milk for whole milk.

However, it’s important to mention that some recent studies suggest that dairy fat does not increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. According to the research, the more fatty acids participants had in their blood or fat tissue, the lower the risk of cardiovascular disease appeared to be (2).

More research needs to be conducted to fully define the relationship between full-fat dairy and heart disease risk. Currently, we cannot say that this justifies switching completely to full-fat dairy or lower-fat products.

Overall, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics still recommends limiting overall saturated fats in your diet. Similarly, the American Heart Association recommends including mostly low-fat and nonfat dairy sources.

If you have high cholesterol or high LDL-cholesterol (bad cholesterol), the National Lipid Association also recommends limiting your intake of full-fat dairy products. Again, this is due to the saturated fat content.

Here are some easy substitutions to limit saturated fat in your diet:

Instead of:Try This:
Whole MilkFat-free or low-fat milk, plant-based milk alternatives
MayonnaiseReduced fat, plain, Greek yogurt, or plant-based yogurt
CheeseReduced-fat or low-sodium cheese or plant-based cheese alternatives
Cream CheeseFat-free or Neufchatel cheese or pureed low-fat cottage cheese

Substitution #3: Applesauce Instead of Vegetable Oil

Easy substitutions to make any recipe more heart healthy.  Substitute applesauce for vegetable oil when making baked goods.
Substitute applesauce for vegetable oil when making baked goods.

How this benefits health: substituting applesauce for oil in a 1:1 ratio can significantly reduce calories and total fat, and add heart-healthy soluble fiber to your baked goods.

You may have noticed on some boxes of cake mix, muffin mix, or bread mixes that they list a healthier method of preparation- which is using applesauce in place of vegetable or canola oil. This is to make your baked goods lower in fat and calories.

This is a smart and healthy baking substitution for a few reasons.

  • By using unsweetened applesauce, you are avoiding any added sugars. Unsweetened applesauce contains naturally occurring sugars that are already slightly sweet. This reduces the need to use the full amount of sugar in your recipe.
  • Applesauce will keep your baked goods moist without adding any saturated fat.
  • Applesauce contains fewer calories per cup than oil. This reduction in calories can prevent weight gain.

Let me explain further using an example:

Say you have a recipe that calls for 1/2 cup of vegetable oil. One-half cup of vegetable oil contains:

  • 883 calories
  • 0 gm carbohydrates
  • 103 gm total fat
  • 15 gm saturated fat

Compare this to 1/2 cup of unsweetened applesauce which is:

  • 50 calories
  • 12 gm carbohydrate
  • 0 gm total fat
  • 0 gm saturated fat

By swapping applesauce for oil in this recipe, you’re saving a whopping 833 calories, 103 gm of fat, and 15 gm of saturated fat!

Of course, that’s in the entire recipe, not per serving. But you get the idea. ­čśë

Substitute #4: Herbs and Spices Instead of Salt or Salt Seasonings

Easy substitutions to make any recipe more heart healthy.  Substitute herbs and spices for salt or salt seasonings.
Substitute herbs and spices for salt or salt seasonings.

How this benefits health: Substituting herbs and spices in place of salt can improve heart health by reducing blood pressure and preventing fluid retention in some patients. They also have many medicinal properties that benefit health and may prevent chronic diseases.

I LOVE advocating for the use of herbs and spices in cooking to replace salt or salt blends.

Research shows that there is a significant relationship between dietary sodium intake and heart disease risk. One specific study states that for each one-gram increase in daily sodium intake, there is a 6% increase in heart disease risk (3).

The American Heart Association also recommends a sodium of 2,300 mg of sodium per day with a goal of no more than 1,500 mg per day.

For those that aren’t aware- one teaspoon of salt is equal to 2,300 milligrams!

Since most Americans consume more sodium than we need (roughly 3,400 mg per day), finding ways to cut back on sodium from all sources is crucial. Cooking homemade meals that are lower in sodium can help.

Two popular salt-free spices that add a huge amount of flavor are onion powder and garlic powder. However, there are endless sodium-free possibilities as herbs and spices come in different forms including:

  • Fresh
  • Powdered
  • Minced
  • Flaked
  • Sliced and more!

Some herbs and spices are used more frequently than others, depending on the type of cuisine. For example, garlic, onion, basil, and oregano are used very often in Middle Eastern cuisine.

To help you figure out which herbs and spices to use, check out my free herb and spice PDF handout below. It shows which herbs and spices pair well with different cuisines.

Rule of thumb: Dried herbs are more potent than fresh herbs. Use one teaspoon of dried herbs for every tablespoon of fresh herbs.

Free Herb and Spice PDF

Click the download button below to get a handout on common herbs and spices to “spice” up your recipes. Which are your favorites and how do you use them?

herbs and spices list free pdf download

#5: Sugar Substitutes Instead of Sugar

Easy substitutions to make any recipe more heart healthy.  Substitute sugar alternatives for refined sugar products.
Substitute sugar alternatives for refined sugar products.

When I refer to sugar substitutes, I am not talking about honey, molasses, maple syrup, or organic cane sugar. While these are also considered “added sugars” if you add them to foods, I’m actually talking about non-nutritive sweeteners (or sugar alternatives).

Examples of non-nutritive sweeteners include:

  • Aspartame (Nutrasweet┬«, Equal┬«)
  • Acesulfame potassium (Sunett┬«, Sweet One┬«)
  • Sucralose (Splenda┬«)
  • Stevia (Truvia┬«)
  • Saccharin (Sweet and Low┬«)

I realize this suggestion is very controversial. Sugar alternatives do not add a significant amount of calories or added sugars to recipes. In addition, many have zero calories, fat, sodium, and carbohydrates, unless they are mixed with real sugar. However…

Research shows very contradictory evidence on whether or not sugar alternatives can be used for weight loss or blood sugar control in those with diabetes (4, 5).

Other studies show that using these sugar alternatives may increase cancer risk or gastrointestinal issues (6, 7). The highest cancer risks appear to be associated with aspartame and acesulfame-K.

A Dietitian’s Opinion on Sugar Substitutes

In my professional opinion, non-nutritive sweeteners need to be considered on a case-by-case basis. Most of the options out there are hundreds of times sweeter than regular sugar, meaning much less is needed to sweeten foods. I still use them myself! But…only once in a while and in small amounts.

In a perfect world, we should be limiting all sugary foods and sugar alternatives. Alas, this is the real world. And there are REAL people with REAL sweet cravings that need satisfying.

There are plenty of options nowadays in terms of SAFE and healthy sugar substitutes for cooking and baking.

In terms of overall health, most health organizations recommend limiting the amount of added sugars you consume. And non-nutritive sweeteners can be used as a tool to do this!

Table sugar has no nutritional value and adds unnecessary calories. This can easily lead to obesity which is a risk factor for heart disease. Individuals with diabetes and metabolic disorders also need to limit added sugars to control blood sugars and prevent excess weight gain.

For these reasons, using sugar substitutes in place of regular table sugar may be a healthy food substitution.

Below are some of the sugar alternative options that I recommend as safe for consumption:

safe sugar alternatives
1) Micro Ingredients Allulose zero calorie sweetener (allulose), 2) It’s Just Monk Fruit Extract (monk fruit extract), 3) Stevia In The Raw (maltodextrin, stevia leaf extract)

Suggested Reading: My friend and fellow dietitian, Kathryn Piper, wrote a great article comparing allulose and monk fruit. Check it out here: Allulose vs Monk Fruit: Which is Better?

Are Sugar Substitutes Safe?

One very important thing to mention about the sugar substitutes listed above is that none of them contain erythritol. Recent research has linked erythritol consumption to an increased risk of heart attack or stroke resulting from blood clots (8).

And while all of the above sweeteners are approved by the FDA for consumption, so is erythritol! However, in light of this research, perhaps they’ll reconsider their stance.

Stevia (from the stevia plant), monk fruit (also known as Luo Han Guo), and allulose are plant-based sweeteners and are generally regarded as safe.

Recent research does make some positive claims about lesser-known allulose. This plant-based sweetener has 90% fewer calories than sugar however product labels call it a “zero-calorie sweetener”. According to studies, allulose:

  • does not spike blood sugars-making it suitable for those with diabetes
  • may have anti-obesity, anti-hyperglycemia, and anti-inflammatory effects (5)

Likewise, monk fruit research makes similar claims with it being suitable for those with diabetes. This sweetener contains antioxidant mongrosides, which research shows may reduce oxidative stress in lab rats (9).

Research on sugar substitutes is still in progress, even if positive claims have been made. If you are on the skeptical side when it comes to any artificial sweeteners, I suggest erring on the side of caution and avoiding them.

And if using regular table sugar (also known as sucrose) or other natural alternatives like maple syrup, agave nectar, honey, etc., remember to practice moderation. These are all considered added sugars which should be limited to protect against heart disease (10).

Other Healthy Substitutes To Try

These are just a few healthy cooking and baking substitutions you can try. There are literally SO many more to explore. Alas, this article would be way too lengthy if I discussed them all.

This is why I created a free two-page resource for you to download- just click the “Download” button below.

You’ll find healthier substitutes for sour cream, eggs, butter, vegetable oil, white flour, and much more!

healthy cooking and baking substitutes PDF download

And if you’re looking for healthier coffee creamer options, I have the perfect YouTube video for you to watch. Check it out to see which coffee creamers are my favorite heart-healthy options.

Things to Consider When Substituting Ingredients

One thing you may notice when making one or more ingredient substitutions is that the final product may not look or taste quite like the original recipe. This is because cooking and baking are essentially chemical reactions that lead to delicious (or occasionally not-so-delicious) results.

Nutritional Changes

Okay, let’s be honest. This is the whole reason why you considered recipe substitutions in the first place.

Most of us modify recipes to reduce unwanted calories, saturated fat, sodium, and/or added sugars in our diets. Healthier modifications will also add more vitamins, minerals, fiber, and/or phytonutrients.

Nutritionally, there are no downfalls when it comes to these types of changes. Although read on to see what potentially unpleasant outcomes may come from swapping ingredients.

Consistency Changes

Sometimes food substitutions can create changes in the consistency of the final product. Here are a few examples:

Fat– Reducing the fat or sugar content of a recipe may change the consistency of the final product by altering the moisture content. By substituting lower-fat ingredients, baked goods may become drier or harder for example.

Sugar– sugar helps baked goods retain moisture, which means they will store better and last longer. Keep in mind that depending on the sugar substitute you use, it may have a big impact on the consistency.

Flour– substituting one type of flour for another is also likely to change the consistency due to the protein content in flour. Protein in flour lends to the strength of the final product. For example, substituting whole wheat flour for all-purpose flour may lead to a tougher, firmer, or chewier product.

Taste Changes

Substituting one ingredient for another may also cause changes in the flavor of your final product.

For instance, salt is used in many recipes, even if just a pinch. This acts as a flavor enhancer and often keeps foods from tasting “flat”.

Some of the flavor changes you experience may not be bad. I actually prefer the taste of brown rice over white rice, for example.

You can also try adding natural flavor enhancers like herbs, spices, vinegars, or lemon juice to recipes so you don’t have to sacrifice flavor for health.


The substitutions mentioned above are only a few common healthy food substitutions. I suggest trying only 1-2 ingredient substitutions per recipe to see how it affects the final product. With some substitutions, you may notice a change in the consistency or flavor. If not, GREAT! You’ve found the perfect substitute for your recipe.

Most of these substitutions will help reduce the total amount of calories, fat, or cholesterol in a recipe.

In the end, it’s your choice which substitutes you choose to experiment with. However, I do understand that some recipes are best left unchanged, especially ones handed down from generation to generation.

Remember, no food is ever off-limits. Allowing yourself to eat even the high-fat or high-sodium foods you love on occasion is good for the soul ­čśŐ.

Don’t forget to grab your free heart-healthy food substitutions handout!

healthy food substitutions pinterest

Interested in some of my favorite heart-healthy recipes that use substitutions?

For more tips on how to live a heart-healthy life right NOW. Check out “5 Things You Can Do to Support Heart Health NOW“.

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