Eat Smarter: 10 Simple, Healthy Food Swaps

Get smart next time you do your big weekly shop - it'll do wonders for your health

Posted: 7 February 2007
by Carrie Bolt

Gone are the days when food shopping involved a visit to the butcher, baker, greengrocer and delicatessen. Now we expect the supermarket to offer everything we need to restock the fridge for the week. It’s a one-stop shop, but variety is still the key to a healthy and nutritious diet.

There are healthy options on every aisle of course, but we often stick to what we know. However, by simply swapping one type of pasta for another, or choosing fruit that hasn’t been flown halfway around the world, you can dramatically improve the nutritional quality of your diet. Next time you’re doing the weekly shop, try to make one healthy change in each aisle of the supermarket to improve your health as well as your running.

Cereal thriller
Breakfast cereals are obviously ideal first thing in the morning but they’re also great after a long run or to snack on throughout the day. Unrefined whole-grain cereals are packed full of fibre and slow-release energy to keep you going for longer. They also provide B-vitamins, which convert carbohydrate to energy and are low in fat. As a general rule, the shorter the ingredients list, the higher the nutritional value. Avoid sugary and refined cereals such as cornflakes, rice cereals, puffed cereals (wheat, corn or rice) and anything honey-covered for breakfast. Research suggests that eating foods like these, which have a high glycaemic index (GI), first thing in the morning causes a rapid blood sugar high. Because of this imbalance, we are much more likely to overconsume in the form of high-calorie snacks later in the day.
Swap Shop The best breakfast cereal choices for runners are whole porridge oats, Weetabix, Shredded Wheat and sugar-free muesli.

Daily bread
The bakery provides a wealth of healthy options. Whole-grain bread is a great source of fibre and is rich in B-vitamins, essential for runners to convert carbohydrate into glucose. While refined varieties such as white bread are not “bad” foods, they do have a high GI and much of their natural goodness is removed in the milling process.
Swap Shop Always read the ingredients list and look for the words “whole-grain wheat flour” listed as the first or second ingredient.

Go nuts
You don’t need to steer clear of the supermarket snack aisle altogether but you should avoid some of the products on offer. Swap crisps, biscuits and other junk foods for nutrient-packed dried fruit, nuts and seeds. Unsalted nuts and seeds are a great source of protein and high in essential amino acids, the building blocks of protein in your body, as well as essential fats and many vitamins and minerals. Nut butters are also healthy option for runners: again the fewer the ingredients, the healthier they’re likely to be.
Swap Shop Check the label and avoid peanut and other nut butters that contain hydrogenated vegetable oils and corn syrup.

Flesh, fish and fowl
Lean meat is an excellent source of the protein and iron essential for transporting oxygen to working muscles. Poultry, especially the white meat, is lower in fat than red meat. The omega-3 essential fatty acids in fresh oily fish will improve running performance by enhancing oxygen delivery and energy levels, as well as having an anti-inflammatory effect on any strains or niggles you pick up.
Swap Shop Instead of opting for pieces of larger fish, such as salmon and tuna, go for whole smaller varieties such as mackerel and sardines, which are currently in season: they’ll be fresher and contain more nutrients. Look for firm flesh with iridescent skin and clear, bright eyes. With increasing concerns over dwindling fish stocks, look out for fish with the MSC (Marine Stewardship Council) blue fish tick from sustainable fisheries.

Can it
Tinned oily fish, such as salmon, tuna and sardines, are a convenient source of the protein your body needs to maintain and repair muscles after a long run. Choose tuna canned in spring water or brine and sardines in tomato sauce rather than oil. Tinned pulses are another low-fat protein source, and they also provide carbohydrate to fuel your muscles during a run.
Swap Shop Swap pulses tinned “in salt and sugar” with those “in water”. Choose baked beans with less added sugar and salt.

Carbo load
Pasta and rice are a distance runner’s friends, but the type you choose could have a big impact on your running performance. By choosing wholewheat varieties instead of refined pasta you’ll enjoy more fibre and additional B-vitamins that are crucial to energy metabolism. Swap quick-cook white rice for basmati or wild rice: the latter have a lower GI providing a slower release of energy to sustain you on the run.
Swap Shop Exchange instant noodles, which are low in nutrients and often full of synthetic colourings and flavourings, with Chinese egg noodles.

Back to the sauce
Whether you choose Indian, Thai or Mediterranean, there is a huge variation in the nutrient content, salt and fat in pre-prepared cooking sauces. When you consume a lot of salt (the government’s recommended daily amount is 6g), the body holds on to excess fluid, so you carry more weight. Swap your favourite tikka masala and other cream or coconut-based sauces for vitamin-packed tomato-based varieties.
Swap Shop Home-made sauces are lower in fat and salt and packed with nutrients. Use a can of chopped tomatoes, garlic and chopped fresh basil to make a simple pasta sauce. For Thai flavours, try grated ginger, garlic, finely chopped chillies and some lime juice.

Get fresh
Citrus fruits are loaded with vitamin C. This antioxidant has been shown to counteract free radical damage that results from exercise and reduce muscle soreness. Other great sources are potatoes, but think about swapping ordinary spuds for sweet potatoes. They’ll boost your intake of vitamin A and are richer in vitamin C, iron, copper and calcium. Many fruit juices are also packed with vitamin C but don’t be fooled into thinking that those in the chiller cabinet are necessarily nutritionally better. Choose fruit juices that are not made from concentrate and avoid any that are thickened with cornflour and those with “no added sugar” as they often contain artificial sweeteners.
Swap Shop Don’t be tempted by strawberries in February. Instead choose seasonal fruits and vegetables that have travelled shorter distances to reach the supermarket: they’ll be higher in vitamins and minerals.

Milk it
Dairy produce – milk, yoghurt and cheese – is one of the best sources of calcium for runners. This mineral is vital for the efficient functioning of muscles, including the heart. Swap whole milk for semi-skimmed or skimmed varieties and hard cheeses such as cheddar for Edam, Gouda and cottage cheese, which contain plenty of calcium and are lower in fat. As calcium is held in the non-fat part of milk, choosing lower fat options will not affect your intake. Low-fat yoghurts, however, may be no healthier than the full-fat options because the fat is often replaced with extra sugar and thickeners to improve the flavour and texture.
Swap Shop Fruit yoghurts are a great way to increase your daily fruit intake, but wise up to the language on their labels. A fruit “flavour” yoghurt means that the yoghurt is synthetically flavoured and may not have any fruit in while a fruit “flavoured” yoghurt will be flavoured with the real thing.

Spread betting
Every runner needs some fat in their diet, but think about swapping unhealthy saturated fats such as butter for healthier spreads containing polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats. Avoid vegetable spreads that contain partially hydrogenated vegetable oil though, as these are likely to contain trans fats, thought to be bad for heart health.
Swap Shop Olive oil spreads are rich in healthy monounsaturated fats and vitamin E, a powerful antioxidant that promotes muscle recovery after an intense run and reduces free radical damage.

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Discuss this article


I seem to be loosing the plot again, this happens every time i train for a marathon. I cant stop eating, my husband says i am like a hoover. Normally i am able to find a balance with eating and training and therefore dont normally have weight issues.
However i dont seem to know how to control myself with food, yes i know its cos of the increased training but i am putting on weight.....does anyone else have this problem.
Posted: 08/02/2007 at 10:42


My appetite has ballooned, and so have I!

First time mara training. Wasn't expecting this side effect!
Posted: 08/02/2007 at 10:51

Same here! when i was just running and cross training, i slimmed right down. Now i'm marathon training i xcan't seen to lose the 4 lb from xmas. not usually a problam at all!!
Posted: 08/02/2007 at 11:03

Me too....i feel like a right fat bloater at times! After a long run I normally have a low desire for food, then a few days later...BOOM stuffing all sorts into my head!

My approach to try to lessen the damage is to chop up lots of veggies (sweet pots, parsnips, sweede, onion, peppers, pots, courgette, etc etc etc) bung em in to roast before you go out to train on a low heat, then by the time you get back theyre done. Lots of good nutrition, but not too much in the way of calories, so you can fill your face! Of course you need to have some meat/fish with it too, and poss some brown rice.

Trouble is, the large slab of cake afterwards undoes all the good work!
Posted: 08/02/2007 at 11:13

I've surprised myself by putting on a wee bit of weight (not "ballooning" by any means - no more than 2-3lb but it's a definite trend) since increasing my mileage in December. Some of it could be blood volume and some of it could be muscle, and a little of it definitely IS F.A.T. but in the right places :o)

Nick, the large-volume, low-calorie approach doesn't work for me. There's a little meter at the top of my stomach that clocks in every calorie and sends out for more if I don't give it enough.
Posted: 08/02/2007 at 11:29

How hard is it though to run, not be hungry and stick to eating the good stuff?
Posted: 08/02/2007 at 11:30

Glad it's not just us ladies Nick!

I usually have some homemade soup/stew ready. So I'll have that when I get in, and a sandwich.

And then the cake!
Posted: 08/02/2007 at 11:33

If i try and eat the calories i did before i trained purley for a marathon, i have to get up and eat a banana at 3 in the morning cos im hungry!
Posted: 08/02/2007 at 11:36

So pleased to see that i am not alone out there!!!! although it is very depressing, if i continue like this i will be to fat to run the race. So much going on in my head, feelings of giving up, especially when i make the effort to get up at 5am to do my training and then to find i have put weight on aswell....perhaps i am having a bad day.
Posted: 08/02/2007 at 11:37

V'rap....i just like to 'feel full' after eating, so yeah that approach may not work for with you!

Arty - nope, not just me...I would like to be about 6lbs lighter...but I guess that is silly. I dont know what % of me is fat though, which clearly is a better indicator of ones weight/size etc.

I try not to make cakes or buy biscuits, otherwise I just eat them!

Of course a good way to lose weight would be to eat some slightly off fish/meat/ the resulting food poisoning would shed pounds!...
Posted: 08/02/2007 at 11:41

I know what you mean Lou H, it does make you feel like that, even worse if you can see it on a training log! i don't put my weight on it anymore, its too depressing.
Posted: 08/02/2007 at 11:42

Me too, I've only done two marathons, and both
times I put on weight during the training.
Posted: 08/02/2007 at 11:45

Vrap - you summed that up well. That applies to me as well. Large volume, low cal - not working right now!

GQ - I did that a couple of weeks ago too! Banana and a drink of water in the middle of the night. I was ravenous! hee hee

Lou - Don't give up! Keep on going. This is a side effect of training, but not a reason to give up.

Ah Nick - the quickest weight loss diet in the world! lol Not sure I fancy that one.

I do wonder how much runs would be easier with out the extra weight. I will find out. One day!
Posted: 08/02/2007 at 11:45

I know muscle weighs more than fat, and we are bound to gain some muscle but what about the 'bulge' around my belly!!!!
Posted: 08/02/2007 at 11:47

....ok Arty, then the other approach is an extremely stressful event in your life, which again isnt entirely desirable!!!

...or go out and get 'proper' flu (not man flu!) I lost 3/4 of a stone in 2 weeks once and went under 11 stone! I was told that I looked awful though!

Seeing as I am more or less always training for a mara or similar, then I guess I am not going to lose weight.....sob!

Posted: 08/02/2007 at 11:50

i wondered if it was because i stopped weight training (body pump class 2 a week), you know, burn more calories, always. So i've strted again. I'll let you all know.

Posted: 08/02/2007 at 11:54

Ah yes Nick! Stress. Must admit to hitting the cake and wine heavily the other week when I had all the trouble with my boss. So that hasn't helped!

Posted: 08/02/2007 at 12:00

hoorah, this posting has saved my sanity, thought it was all going wrong. a month away from my first marathon and i've put on a good three to four pounds and just cannot shift, don't think my running has faultered though. my leg muscles are a lot firmer so perhaps that where the weight is ...
Posted: 08/02/2007 at 12:07

Thanks everyone for your input, so pleased that i am not the only one out there with this problem.
I am off to the gym now before its to late and i hit the vending machine....
Posted: 08/02/2007 at 12:26

I take issue with one of the swaps recommended - they suggest Gouda over cheddar based on fat content. Whereas Gouda (40-48% fat) is typically higher than cheddar & other hard cheeses (33% fat)
Posted: 08/02/2007 at 13:39

Not sure if it's the body rebelling. Knowing that its going to be coming in for some punishment, it could be that any extra sugar/carb etc is being stored as fat because it knows that reserves will be needed. Just started more serious running myself so sure i'll encounter these problems soon enough.
Posted: 08/02/2007 at 13:42

I also seem to be constantly ravenous. Am trying to curb it a bit, but not going too crazy, not least because (quite late for most teenage girls) I developed a good bout of an eating disorder aged 17-19. Whilst that is pretty firmly under control nowadays (I'll never get into the clothes I bought back then...), I tend to actually avoid the scales as much as I can. I aim to judge instead by how loose or tight my clothes are. So whilst its probably true that I have put on weight, and am not eating as well as I might, some of my clothes fit better (haven't lost the slight bulge around the tummy area, but my legs are definitely looking more toned - cue much wearing of short skirts!!)

Not easy, and there are certainly many days when I don't manage it, but your attitude to it all is what's important - if you're able to be proud of yourself for being able to run for 2 hours when you couldn't before, that's what to focus on.
Posted: 08/02/2007 at 13:49

same here! I don't think its fat, need a belt to keep trs up and bra size has gone down. Where is the extra weight??? Maybe my legs have got heavier, roflol!!
Posted: 08/02/2007 at 13:54

My legs feel like they've been pumped up but thats good, they are 'preparing' and building for the miles to come, but i'm still struggling to lose the extra xmas pounds that otherwise would come off after a few weeks.

Posted: 08/02/2007 at 14:08

GSM - like you, I have had an encounter with an eating disorder, so I try to keep perspective on it. I'd rather be the size/shape I am now and be happy with my curves than to go back to eating disorder days. Couldn't agree more about attitude.

And the fact that I am getting out there at all is pretty damn good for a natural couch potato!


And about legs. Would your calves get bigger with running (muscle?) as I noticed that two pairs of knee high boots felt tighter?

Posted: 08/02/2007 at 14:22

i would say defo to the calves!

Posted: 08/02/2007 at 14:33

Yes, I've got big solid calves too, though that may have as much to do with hillwalking as with running.
Posted: 08/02/2007 at 15:05

Its all good fun!!
Posted: 08/02/2007 at 15:08

I'm training for a marathon just now and I've been trying to do some running in the morning before work but I found that made my appetite worse and I be constantly hungry and I'd spend the rest of the day eating. I don't really get as hungry if I run later in the day after I've finished work. I notice that the more I train the more I eat and I don't seem to lose much excess weight, which was one of my reasons for taking up running in the first place.
Posted: 08/02/2007 at 15:30

Exactly Greg....i dont want to get obsessive but running is supposed to help you loose or maintain weight....NOT PUT ON.
Posted: 08/02/2007 at 15:56

agree re calves artemis! Sometimes I cannot do boots up at all due the the calves!
Posted: 08/02/2007 at 16:06

Lou H, do your clothes say you have excess weight or do the scales just say so?
Posted: 08/02/2007 at 16:07

Hi Gym Queen,
Havnt even been on the scales, to scared too.I can feel it in my legs and i am now having to wear my big cloths. Perhaps i should get on the scale and get a shock. Hopefully to get my mind back on track.I have done nothing but eat today...irratating
Posted: 08/02/2007 at 16:38

I was going to reply earlier but I was too busy eating my Kit- Kat yum.
Posted: 08/02/2007 at 16:45

Oli you are not helping
Posted: 08/02/2007 at 16:48

I haven't put on weight, but depressingly I haven't lost any weight either, and I could do with losing a stone. I'm no more hungrey than usual (I'm always hungrey and I get very grumpy if I can't eat when I need to!) except after my long sunday run, so I don't think I'm eating much more than usual. I'm not even consuming the vast quantities of wine either!

I am feeling really down about this especially when everyone at work is saying 'wow, you must be losing loads of weight running 30 miles a week...'

I wish....
Posted: 08/02/2007 at 17:02

sorry Lou...wipes choccy crumbs off chin.
Posted: 08/02/2007 at 17:02

Seriously ...I know what you mean I am a good stone heavier than 5 years ago when I last ran a Marathon.I have given up the boooze (apart from a few minor relapses) and with all this training I thought I would lose some weight it fell off me last time .I have a small roll around my tummy and despite crunches weights etc it refuses to shift.I put it down to middle age spread.I keep telling myself how much good the training is doing my heart even if the scales stay the same.
Posted: 08/02/2007 at 17:07

Olive Oyl that's an interesting idea - give up the booze. I hoped it would never have to come to that!
Posted: 08/02/2007 at 17:29

Hi all. Phew for a moment I thought it was just me thinking I'd just put on weight. Gym Queen, like you a gave up Body Pump twice a week and replaced with running. But I miss my muscles and definition so have been going back. Since my classes have started I've not had such an appetite and I've started to get my shape back.

Artemis, defo calves - new boots for Chrimbo, could just about do up the other day...just so long as it's not the thighs!
Posted: 08/02/2007 at 23:20

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