One Small Step 1.5: Food Substitutions

Hopefully by now you’ve been incorporating April’s exercise One Small Step – adding more movement to your everyday activities, aka Movement Substitutions.  Now it’s time for one small change in your diet: Food Substitutions.  It’s a simple concept to effectively reduce the portion sizes of higher calorie foods (meats, dairy and grains) and increase the amount of lower calorie, nutrient-dense and higher fiber foods (fruits, vegetables and legumes) you’re consuming on a daily basis.

Here’s how it works.  At every meal and snack, make the portion of protein (meats and dairy) and grain/starch/bread smaller and substitute what you’ve eliminated with fruits, vegetables/legumes.  Do not eliminate the protein or grain entirely at every meal – they are part of a healthy, balanced diet.  Also, eliminating them altogether will only sabotage you later on in the form of extreme hunger which leads to over consumption of calories or extreme cravings which leads to binging.  Some examples of food substitutions:


  • For 1 cup of cereal with milk – substitute: 3/4 cup of cereal, add just enough low-fat milk to moisten the cereal and add fresh berries or bananas
  • For 2 eggs scrambled – substitute: sauté veggies (spinach, tomatoes, carrots, mushrooms, etc) in olive oil and add 1 egg or egg white to scramble


  • For full deli sandwich – substitute: half sandwich made with one slice of whole grain bread with small amount of unprocessed meat/cheese and pile on greens, roasted peppers and/or tomatoes; also have a piece of fruit, side salad, or broth based soup that has lots of legumes/vegetables
  • For entrée salad – substitute: hold the croutons, side bread and meat/cheese and add 1/4 cup cold grains or legumes (quinoa, wheat berries, barley, farro, chickpeas) and one or two more fruits or vegetables that you don’t normally have in your salad (grapes, cubed apple or pears, berries, bell peppers, cucumber, etc)


  • For cheese and crackers – substitute: reduced-fat cheese (such as cheddar made with 2% milk) with an apple or pear
  • For granola bar – substitute: banana with peanut butter


  • For meat, potatoes & vegetable – measure out your portion of meat to equal the size of a deck of cards or 1/4 of plate, 1/2 cup (or 1/4 of plate) of potato or other grain (see below) and fill the rest of your plate (1/2 plate) with a vegetable.  Not enough to fill you up?  Add a side salad
  • For spaghetti with meatballs – add sautéed veggies to the sauce, portion out pasta on a plate (not a bowl) fill 1/2 plate with whole grain pasta and just enough sauce to coat the pasta, fill the rest of your plate with salad

One last note about picking which meat, dairy and grains to eat.  Choose the ones that have the most macro and micronutrients while limiting saturated fats and processing.  For meat, choose unprocessed lean meats such as poultry, fish, eggs and lean cuts of pork.  Beef can be part of a healthy diet if you choose the leanest cuts and don’t consume it often.  Choose low-fat dairy for the milk, yogurt and cheese you consume regularly.  Nuts, seeds and beans are also very good sources of lean protein that can be used to substitute for some or all of your protein in any meal or snack.  In the grain department, choose them in as close to straight-from-the-farm form as possible: quinoa, barley, wheat berries, farro, bulgur, whole oats, potatoes in the skins (baked, not fried) and brown rice are some examples.  When they are processed (such as cereals, couscous, breads and pasta) look for 100% whole grains as the first ingredient and avoid products that have enriched wheat flour (which is white flour with vitamins added), added sugars (such as cane sugar or corn syrups) or trans fats (hydrogenated oils).

If you are eating your fruit or vegetable separate from the main part of the meal (such as a side salad in a bowl) eat that first.  You will not be as hungry when you fill your plate and it will be easier to portion out less of the meat and grains than you normally do – each should take up only about 1/4 of a plate.  I highly recommend actually measuring out the grains for the first week or so until you feel comfortable eyeballing the amount.  Like the movement substitutions, the process of food substitutions will take some effort early on but within no time these changes will become part of your routine.

Watch for the May exercise and diet Small Steps to continue to move closer to a more fit you.

Author’s Note: I am an exercise professional, not a nutrition professional.  My food recommendations are based on the most current science-backed information provided by nutrition professionals in the fitness industry publications I receive and my personal experience.  Mine are general recommendations that are in line with the guidelines published by the US Dept of Health and Human Services for apparently healthy individuals.  If you have a health condition that requires dietary restrictions, I recommend consulting a medical doctor or registered dietician before making any changes to your diet.


  1. […] you’ve adopted April’s (Movement Substitutions & Food Substitutions) and May’s (Go Old School)  ”One Small Step” suggestions, this is what […]

  2. […] posts in the One Small Step series: April’s Movement & Food Substitutions, May’s Go Old School, June’s […]

  3. […] April: Movement Substitutions and Food Substitutions […]

  4. […] One Small Steps posts: April Exercise and Food Substitutions, May, June, July, […]

  5. […] One Small Steps posts: April Exercise and Food Substitutions, May, June, July, August, […]

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