Laurann O'Reilly: Healthy food swaps for a healthier you...all you need to know!

This week's column

Laurann O’Reilly


Laurann O’Reilly


Six top nutrition tips for boosting your immune health with Laurann O'Reilly

Laurann O'Reilly

Food is not only a form of nourishment but it can also be enjoyed. There is often a misconception that eating healthy is boring, bland or even restrictive, well that doesn’t have to be the case. What if I told you that it’s still possible to have some of your favourite foods but as a healthy alternative and that food can both be convenient and nutritious.

Here, nutritionist Laurann O’Reilly and owner of Nutrition by Laurann, will guide us through some healthy food swaps. These simple changes can have a huge impact on your health in terms of weight maintenance whilst also helping you to find pleasure in nutritious food.

- Breakfast Swap - We all want the healthiest start to our day by feeding our bodies with the right fuel so it’s important to choose a good breakfast cereal. Whilst some cereals appear or are marketed as healthy it’s always wise to check the sugar content on the label.
The Swap: Switch high sugar cereal for porridge and cinnamon (which helps to stabilise your blood sugar levels) or no added sugar muesli which can contains mixed grains, nuts, seeds and dried fruits which provide a natural sweetness, a good one is the Alpen No Added Sugar muesli.

- Swap Your Sauces - Whilst some sauces and salad dressings may appear healthy, that may not always be the case, some are quite high in sugar, so it’s always a good idea to check the label. The Swap: Regular mayo, ketchup and salad cream for a reduced sugar version. In terms of a healthy salad dressing my favourite combination is extra virgin olive oil mixed with apple cider vinegar (with mother), which helps to regulate your blood sugar levels as well as other amazing health benefits, (I love the Traas’ Apple Farm, Apple Cider Vinegar).

- Cheese Swaps - Cheese is a great source of calcium, which is important for maintaining our bone health, it can be high in fat however. It’s still possible to reap the benefits of cheese through choosing healthier options. The Swap: Exchange full fat cheese for low fat or cottage cheese.

- Seasoning Swaps - It’s important to watch the amount of salt that we consume and that we add to our foods as it can have an impact on our blood pressure. The Swap: As an alternative to salt, stock up on versatile seasonings such as paprika, ginger, turmeric, cinnamon, oregano, rosemary, thyme. For a spicy dish you can try a ground black and red pepper mix (mild) or add some chillies for an extra spicy kick.

- Cooking Method Swap - How we cook our foods can significantly increase or decrease the energy content of our food. Simple changes in how we cook can have an impact on both weight gain and weight loss. The Swap: Instead of frying choose healthier options such as grilling, poaching and steaming where possible.

- Sweetening Swap - Although there are many foods with natural sugars, it’s best to avoid food with added or refined sugars where possible. If you like a little sweetness in your foods, tea and coffee, there are some healthy alternatives for you. The Swap: Some healthier alternatives to sugar (available in most supermarkets and health stores) include:

1) Stevia: This is originally a South American plant but is now grown worldwide and is now used as a zero calories table top sweetener usually in the form of “stevia leaf extract”. This is a great healthy alternative to sugar

2) Xylitol: Comes from birch bark and corn cobs. It looks like sugar, tastes like sugar but the great part is it doesn’t contain as many calories as sugar and is a natural alternative. It’s possible to get xylitol granulated just like sugar as well as within other products such as chewing gum. In fact, unlike sugar, xylitol has been found to be good for your teeth making it a good substitute for regular white sugar.

3) Coconut Sugar: Comes from the coconut palm. Unlike regular sugar which has no nutrition benefits, coconut sugar contains iron, zinc, calcium, and potassium, as well as antioxidants. It also has a lower glycaemic index than sugar (less of a sugar spike), which may be partly due to its inulin content. Inulin is a type of soluble fibre that has been shown to slow digestion, increase fullness, and feed the healthy bacteria in your gut. Although it is a healthier alternative to regular white sugar, it contains the same number of calories per serving as regular sugar and should be consumed in moderation.

4) Erythritol: Classified as a ‘sugar alcohol’ this is a natural sweetener, it contains 6% of the calories of sugar but 70% of the sweetness. It’s approved by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and research has found that it has no impact on glucose or insulin levels making it a safe alternative for diabetics also.

- Fruit Juice Switch - Whilst fruit juices may seem healthy, converting fruits into juice form reduces the fibre content. With no fibre to break down, the sugars from the juice are easily absorbed into our blood, and cause blood sugar levels to spike. The Swap: Instead of fruit juice opt for whole fruit options, even if pre-chopped for convenience.

- Fizzy Drink Swap - Many fizzy drinks are high in sugar and what I call ‘liquid calories’, whilst diet and many diluted drinks contain artificial sweeteners which are also unhealthy. The Swap: Switch out fizzy drinks even the diet versions for fruit infused water, such as chopped lemon/lime/oranges/cucumber and mint leaves which can be prepared and left to infuse in the fridge for a few hours or overnight.

- Snack Swaps - Now more than ever we’re constantly on the go, juggling work, family and other commitments. With our busy lives grabbing a quick sugar fix can often be tempting, however, it’s still possible to choose healthy and convenient snack options. The Swaps: Crisps for popcorn, biscuits for chopped fruit/rice or corn cakes/chopped fruit with 2 tablespoons (30g) of reduced fat hummus

- The Chocolate Swap - We now know that regular milk chocolate, although seriously delicious, is high in fat and sugar. Unfortunately, sugar is also highly addictive. So, whilst our regular chocolate bar may seem like a convenient ‘pick me up’ option, it can cause a sudden spike in our blood sugar levels, which then crash, causing us to crave more sugar, a vicious circle. The Swap: Instead of milk opt for two squares of dark chocolate (above 70%), which is actually good for you and has those added antioxidant benefits.

- The Wholegrain Switch - White bread, pasta and high sugar foods can have an impact on our blood sugar levels too, they also lack the valuable fibre that the wholegrain options have. The Swap: Choose brown/wholegrain carbohydrates such as bread, pasta, rice and cereals help to stabilise your blood sugar levels and being higher in fibre can keep you full for longer too.

- Coffee Swap - Many of us are partial to a coffee or three per day, but without realising they could be contributing to quite a large calorie intake, there are those liquid calories again. An average (approximate) small latte = 120kcal, small cappuccino = 80kcal and Americano = 15 kcal. The Swap: Switching your latte or cappuccino to an Americano can make a huge difference to your overall energy intake.

- Cream Swap - Whilst cream can be a great addition to meals, soups, breakfasts and desserts and can really add richness and flavour, it’s also high in calories and fat. The Swap: Low fat Greek yogurt is an amazing and delicious alternative to cream so you can still enjoy your meals, without the added calories.

- Dessert Swap - We all love ice cream as a treat, especially with the days getting brighter and warmer, unfortunately it’s high in fat, sugar and additional calories. Not to worry we have a healthy alternative that’s great as a snack or treat too. The Swap: Reduced sugar frozen yogurt instead of ice cream. It’s totally guilt-free and you get benefits of protein and calcium too.

- Alcohol Free Swaps - During lockdown with the pubs and restaurants being closed, more of us have been having the odd drink at home. However, with alcohol being in the house, the temptation is always there to have the odd midweek drink or few more drinks at the weekends. Unfortunately, this adds up in terms of liquid calories again, as well as on our liver which has to process it. You would be surprised with some of the alcohol free alternatives that are available now, which taste just like the real thing. So, if you enjoy a drink but don’t want the after effects, here’s a healthy swap. The Swap: There are many alcohol free beer options now available such Erdinger and Heineken 0% or for those who prefer the taste of gin Silk Tree Botanics distilled alcohol free gin mixed with a slimline tonic is a great option.

- Jam Swap - Whilst jam is absolutely delicious it can also be extremely high in sugar. The Swap: Follain reduced sugar jam is a great option or try my Strawberry Chia Jam Recipe below. You can add these as a breakfast topping/overnight oats, in yogurts and desserts too

Recipe: Strawberry Chia Jam

An alternative to regular jam which is high in sugar, chia seeds are not only rich in omega 3 fatty acids but are also a great source of soluble fibre
Note: portion sizes based on 1 Tablespoon
- 500g Fresh Strawberries
- 3 Tablespoons Honey
- 45g Chia Seeds
1) To a large saucepan add the strawberries and honey/agave and place and heat on a medium heat, stir to combine and soften
2) Once the berries have softened and begin to fall apart, mash them to break them up even more
3) Let the mixture come to a slow boil, stirring almost continually. Once you see some big bubbles break the surface, add the chia seeds (these will give it its jam/gel like texture)
4) Continue stirring the mixture over low heat for about 15 minutes and then remove the pan from the heat
5) You may like this consistency, however if you prefer jam with a smoother texture add the mixture to your blender and pulse it a few times before pouring it into a jar/storage container
6) Place in the fridge for 3-4 hours to set
Serving Suggestions: Spread on to toast, into yogurt or as a cereal topping

About Laurann: Laurann O’Reilly is a qualified and experienced Nutritionist with a BSc. Degree in Human Nutrition from University of Nottingham and a Master’s in Public Health Nutrition from University College Dublin.
For further information see or contact Laurann at