Healthy food swap ideas

Cut through the confusion with our guide to making smarter food choices.
Published 26 December 2018 | Updated 21 May 2024

10 food swaps to start making today

Wholemeal or wholegrain; fresh versus frozen; low fat or full fat. With so many different versions of the same or similar foods available, it can be tricky knowing which one will give your plate of food the biggest health kick. Don’t panic. We’ve put ten common, yet potentially confusing, food decisions under the microscope to help you make the healthiest pick next time you’re shopping.

1. Low-fat or full-fat dairy?

Try to use low-fat dairy products most of the time because these contain less calories (a.k.a. kilojoules) than the full-fat varieties. It’s also important to keep an eye on how much sugar yoghurt contains, too. Aim for no more than 6 grams of sugar per 100 grams serve for natural or plain yoghurts and no more than 12 grams of sugar per 100 grams for flavoured varieties.

2. Tap, bottle or sparkling water?

Tap—if it’s fluoride and cost that are on your mind. Not only is 89 per cent of Australian tap water fluoridated, which can help to protect against tooth decay and is also good for your bones, it’s also nearly 2,000 times cheaper than buying a bottle of water, whether it’s sparkling or still. Plus, not only are all three types of water just as effective for staying hydrated, Australia has some of the best quality tap water in the world.

3. Raw, brown or white sugar?

Regardless of the difference in colour, how—or how much—they’ve been processed or the fact that they have slightly different flavours, they’re all sugar, so none is ‘healthier’ than the other. In other words, the nutritional value of every type of sugar you can buy off the shelf in a packet is very similar, no matter what the name or label suggests.

4. Wholemeal or wholegrain bread?

Both are more nutrient dense than white bread, but wholegrain is the best choice, according to the Australian and New Zealand Dietary Guidelines. Wholegrain bread contains every part of the grain so, when you eat it, you get more of the fibre, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that the grain contains.

It’s one reason why eating wholegrains has been linked to a reduced risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes and bowel cancer. They can also help you feel fuller for longer. When wholemeal bread is made from ground wholegrains, it is very similar nutritionally to wholegrain bread, but wholemeal bread is often made by combining refined white flour with bran and wheatgerm. If you do buy wholemeal bread, check that the loaf contains actual wholemeal flour.

5. Yoghurt or ice cream?

Gram for gram, yoghurt tends to contain more calcium and protein and less saturated fat and sugar than ice cream. Plus, unlike ice cream, many yoghurts also contain probiotics, those friendly, good-for-your-gut-health bacteria. To give yourself and your health the best shot at taking in the benefits, look for a yoghurt that contains at least 100 million colony-forming units. And choose a low-fat variety rather than a full-fat one. Not only do they (as the name suggests) contain less saturated fat, they often contain more calcium than full-fat yoghurts, too.

6. Regular or diet soft drink?

It’s hard to pick a ‘winner’ here. While diet soft drinks do contain significantly less—and often zero—sugar, the artificial sweeteners they contain may not be without health risks. Research has linked their consumption to an increased risk of everything from weight gain to heart attack and dental decay. Our advice? When you’re thirsty, you can’t go past water or a cup of herbal tea.

7. Olive oil, margarine or butter?

Olive oil, which is rich in heart-healthy monounsaturated fat, followed by oil-based margarine spreads, are healthier choices than butter, which is high in the saturated fat that increases cholesterol levels and heart-disease risk. The amount of good fats in different varieties of table spreads can vary significantly. Look for a spread that’s rich in mono or polyunsaturated fats and has no more than 0.1 grams of trans fat per 100 grams.

As for olive oil, use extra virgin olive oil (EVOO), which is the highest and most nutrient-rich grade. It’s also worth choosing one that’s Australian grown and sports the certified Australian EVOO trademark. Testing has shown that up to 85 per cent of imported EVOOs don’t meet Australian standards.

8. Fresh or processed meat?

Fresh is best. While all types of meat are a source of protein and a number of essential vitamins and minerals, processed meats—like ham, bacon and salami—have been linked to an increased risk of bowel cancer, thanks to the preservatives they contain. When it comes to fresh meat, choose lean cuts to lower your saturated fat intake and limit your overall red-meat intake to the equivalent of one serve (100 grams raw, or 65 grams cooked) per day.

9. Fresh or frozen vegetables?

Either. Studies continue to show that frozen vegetables are just as nutrient dense as fresh varieties, thanks to the fact they’re usually snap frozen when they’re at their best. In fact, according to two different studies performed in the UK, two times out of three, frozen vegetables contain more antioxidants than fresh vegetables that have been stored in the fridge for three days. How you cook your vegetables, whether they’re frozen or fresh, has an impact on their nutritional content, too. Vegetables that are lightly steamed will retain significantly more of their nutrients than vegetables that are boiled in large amounts of water for a long time.

10. Fresh fruit, dried fruit or fruit juice?

Fresh fruit is the best choice. All three contain vitamins and minerals, however, dried fruit and fruit juice are easier to over-consume than the fresh variety, and fruit juice typically contains the same amount of sugar and calories as soft drink. Fresh fruit is also an excellent source of fibre, and while dried fruit contains that, too, most juices tend to be lacking on that front. So, while you should try to eat two serves of fresh fruit per day, you can still enjoy fruit juice and dried fruit occasionally.