By Jamie Beckman Men's Fitness
Growing up, your fridge was probably always stocked with staples like milk, cheese, yogurt, pickles, and on and on. Problem is, if you haven't smartened up about the contents of your kitchen, these everyday eats could explain why you can’t seem to drop those last five pounds, or why your doc has suddenly taken an interest in your blood pressure.
If you’ve been living on the following foods, it’s time for a kitchen overhaul. Throw out the junk and replace it with healthier alternatives. By making these switches, you'll be on your way to packing on more muscle, cleaning out your arteries, and getting the abs you train for in the gym every day.
1. Lunch Meat
Deli slices may seem healthy enough, but they’re usually packed with added salt and nitrates, which have been associated with a higher incidence of cancer, says Kate Geagan, R.D.N.
Stock this instead: Fresh chicken breasts and turkey meat
Not only is fresh poultry lower in calories, salt, and saturated fat than lunch meat, it’s also less expensive: “Buy an all-natural rotisserie chicken, or chicken breasts, and roast or poach them all at once, then keep them on hand for the week,” Geagan suggests. You’ll get leaner, and going natural will help you reach long-term health goals, too. Your cardiovascular system will stay resilient (read: less prone to heart disease), and by avoiding nitrates, you’ll reduce your risk of colon cancer.
2. Whole Milk
As satisfying as it is, calorie-wise, whole milk has way more than the rest of the cartons in the dairy aisle, and the extra fat that it packs will raise your LDL (bad) cholesterol and lower your HDL (good) cholesterol levels, clogging your arteries in the long run.
Stock this instead: Almond milk, hemp milk, or coconut milk
Plant-based dairy alternatives are the way to go, especially if skim milk tastes too watery to you. If you’ve been doing protein shakes lately, coconut milk is an especially good choice to mix in. “Coconut milk provides a texture most similar to whole milk, but with heart-healthy fat, and can be used in coffee, cereal, and smoothies,” says New York Rangers nutritionist Cynthia Sass, R.D.
Jars of salty dill spears keep in the fridge for months, but the sodium can take up a huge chunk of your recommended daily allowance, and pickles have zero nutrients.
Stock this instead: Sauerkraut
“Naturally fermented sauerkraut is great on a sandwich or on the side," notes Geagan. "Plus, sauerkraut is fermented cabbage, so you get all the health benefits of the brassica family, like cancer-fighting antioxidants and probiotics. It's great for supporting a healthy immune system, as 70% of your immune system is in your gut.”
4. Tonic Water
Mixing up homemade G-and-T’s will save you money on drinks at the bar. But pouring tonic over your alcohol isn’t doing your body any favors. “It's generally sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup, the same sweetener as soda, and contains more than five teaspoons’ worth of sugar per cup,” says Sass.
Stock this instead: Seltzer
If you want bubbles with your booze, do all-natural club soda or seltzer, which has zero calories. If plain soda water is too boring, look for one that’s infused with flavors like lime or mandarin orange.
Tossing a cheap box of bright-yellow margarine into your grocery basket is budget-friendly, but it’s only going to screw with your body later. “It's loaded with partially or fully hydrogenated fats, which up "bad" LDL cholesterol, and therefore raise heart disease risk as well as inflammation, a known trigger of premature aging and disease,” Sass says.
Stock this instead: Coconut oil
A little bit of coconut oil can go a long way, whether you’re cooking with it or adding it to whole-grain toast. “It's a heart-healthy fat that has been shown to improve cholesterol profiles, reduce inflammation, and rev metabolism,” Sass says.
6. Apple or Cranberry Juice
Not all fruit juice is bad for you. Drinks with added sugar are the ones you should stay away from—and if the label says “juice drink,” definitely set it back on the shelf. Apple and cranberry juices are two examples of drinks that are heavy on sweetener and light on nutrition, even though they sound healthy.
Stock this instead: 100% grape or cherry juice
The right juice can help you recover after a hard workout and keep your blood flowing properly. “Concord grape juice has lots of research behind it showing that the purple pigment helps promote cardiovascular health, similar to a glass of wine,” Geagan says. “So unlike something like an apple juice, which doesn't really provide any unique benefits, concord grape juice has real benefits for your cardiovascular system and is packed with antioxidants.” Tart cherry juice is another decent pick. “The red color comes from the anthocyanins, which have been shown to help improve recovery time after a workout by reducing pain and inflammation.” Just watch your portions. To avoid taking in too many calories, limit yourself to no more than one cup daily.
Because it has fewer processed ingredients, real butter is better for you than margarine, but the truth is that eating too much saturated fat can contribute to weight gain—period, says Elisa Zied, R.D., author of Younger Next Week. Eating a little butter on occasion is fine, she says, but “because you get saturated fat from full-fat dairy products, meats, and baked foods, it’s wise to minimize it as an add-on or as something you cook with at home.” Easy solution: Don’t keep it in the house.
Stock this instead: Avocados or guacamole
Avocados are creamy, so you get that butter-like texture, but they have heart-healthy fats and nutrients. Spread it on whole-grain toast or crackers if you need a quick snack. If you’re short on time, look for tubs of ready-made guac in the produce aisle.
8. Diet Soda
Calorie-wise, diet sodas are a better bet than full-sugar sodas, so gulping down one of those with lunch is OK but not exactly beneficial to your system or your diet. “Artificial sweeteners have been linked to a number of problems, from throwing off appetite regulation and increasing cravings, to upping the risk of stroke and heart disease,” Sass says.
Stock this instead: Good old water
Grabbing a bottle of water instead of a fountain soda isn’t very exciting, but the benefits you’ll get are insane, especially if you’re looking to drop weight. It’ll also keep you from being a jerk. “Water is essential for every metabolic process, and staying hydrated can stave off hunger, maximize metabolism, and enhance mood,” Sass says.
9. Processed Cheese
Individually wrapped slices, cheese in a can, the stuff that comes in a cardboard box—all of it can be loaded with crazy amounts of preservatives. “My philosophy of eating is that if it doesn’t grow mold, I don’t eat it,” Geagan says. “Things should not have that long a shelf life. You want to fuel your body with cleaner foods.”
Stock this instead: Extra-sharp cheddar
Throw away fake cheese products and get the real deal. Pick raw or local cheese, preferably one that packs big flavor, like extra-sharp cheddar. “You can use less of it and get the same taste,” Geagan says. “You'll save on calories, have a clean fuel, and still get the taste you’re looking for.”
10. Flavored Yogurt
Stacking up single-serving yogurts in the fridge to eat for breakfast or a snack is a hidden dietary pitfall, especially if they come with dry granola on top. “There’s a huge health halo around yogurt,” Geagan says. “It [starts out as] a very healthy food, but with all the mix-ins, they’re basically desserts.” That’s an avalanche of sugar and calories that’ll spike your blood sugar and get in the way of the ripped look you want.
Stock this instead: Plain yogurt and honey
Buy a pint of plain yogurt and flavor it yourself. Honey is low-glucose option, and because you’re in control, you won’t get all of the sugary extras, like high-calorie cereals and added sugar, Geagan says. If you’re jonesing for sweets, toss in a few frozen cherries and stir—it turns creamy, like store-bought frozen yogurt, except with a handful of nutrients to power your day.
11. Ranch Dressing
Having raw veggies around to snack on instead of chips is definitely good thinking, but when you’re out of hummus and rummaging through the fridge for something to dip them in, you might grab a bottle of ranch dressing. But back up. Creamy salad dressing can pack serious saturated fat and calories, and you’re not getting solid nutrition in return.
Stock this instead: Cottage cheese
It sounds weird, but try this: Purée cottage cheese in a blender, then throw in chopped herbs, garlic, or even ranch-flavored powder for flavor. “The nutrient profile is much more protein-based, especially if you buy a cottage cheese with probiotics,” Geagan says.
If you’re in the habit of smearing mayonnaise all over your sandwiches, you might as well inject fat and calories directly into your veins.
Stock this instead: Any kind of mustard
Don't be afraid to try new mustard varieties—that way, a sandwich will never taste boring. Even sweet honey mustard will save you fat compared to mayonnaise. If you just can’t quit mayo, grab a jar of cranberry chutney or pesto and use that with a small amount of mayo as a sweet or savory spread with fewer grams of fat.