Although we may not be able to control many aspects of life, such as our height or the taxes we're required to pay, we can be masters of our own nutritional destiny. Many people give daily diet habits minimal consideration, which leaves them vulnerable to unhealthy side effects like weight gain and high cholesterol. Those of us with good intentions can fall short, too. All the steamed veggies in the world won't cancel out that scrumptious casserole made with too many pats of butter and full-fat cream.
Rather than abstain completely from Grandma's signature recipe, however, consider employing a few easy ingredient substitutions. With a little bit of practice, substituting healthier ingredients for their higher-fat brethren can save your waistline without torturing your taste buds in the process. Read on for a list of healthy substitute ingredients that can be used to lighten up many of your favorite dishes.
Dairy products get a bad rap because the full-fat varieties contain, well … fat (along with many beneficial vitamins and minerals). Fortunately for fans of cream-based soups and sauces, the vast majority of recipes can be tweaked to drastically lower fat and calorie content. For example, cream-based soups can be made with reduced-fat milk instead of whole milk or heavy cream. Other recipes calling for high fat milk or cream can also replace the offending ingredient with evaporated skim milk or fat-free half-and-half. It's worth it to make the effort since a mere quarter of a cup of heavy whipping cream packs more than 22 grams of fat and 205 calories per serving [source: Magee]. When baking, using reduced-fat versions of sour cream, yogurt or cheese cut fat and calorie content drastically, while sacrificing little in the flavor department.
Occasionally, making the switch to reduced-fat products can be avoided altogether. In recipes where low-fat cheese won't cut it, nutrition experts suggest substituting a type of cheese with a stronger flavor than the one the recipe calls for. One caveat: Use this bolder cheese in sparing amounts. This maneuver keeps the taste alive while reducing the fat and calorie content.
A little bit of salt can go a long way toward increasing the risk of high blood pressure, which often results in potentially deadly heart disease. Salt, also known as sodium, is necessary in small amounts because it aids muscle function and keeps fluid levels balanced.
But many people don't know when to say when where salt is concerned, opting instead to sprinkle it heavily on everything from deli sandwiches to pastas that already contain it. Nutritionists understand that people enjoy a little extra flavor; however, they caution salt enthusiasts to exercise other options. Many recipes, including those for stews, casseroles and other entrees, don't actually require the salt they call for. Take the healthy route by omitting salt altogether. (This option doesn't work for baking, which really does require salt to turn out a pleasing finished product.)
Nutrition experts recommend the use of herbs and spices (fresh or dried) to add a little extra zing as needed. Fresh herbs, such as oregano, rosemary and thyme, have a bold flavor and also contain beneficial antioxidants. Citrus fruits like lemons and limes can also liven up a dish in place of salt.
Every diet requires a little fat in order to process some vitamins and even reduce the risk of heart disease. However, many people are ingesting far too much of the unhealthy trans fats found in processed foods.
One way to cut down on excessive fat consumption is to reduce the amount of unhealthy oils you consume each day. For instance, if you usually grease a pan with oil, shortening or butter, seize this opportunity to make the switch to cooking spray instead. When oil can't be avoided, brushing it on with a pastry brush, rather than dumping it in the pan, is a much healthier cooking technique. As for which type of oil to use, canola is by far the preferred oil of choice for most healthy cooks. In addition to the fact that it contains half the amount of saturated fat as most other oils, canola oil is rife with healthy monounsaturated fats, which provide flavor and help fill you up faster [source: WebMD].
Oil products can be eschewed entirely in recipes for muffins, cookies or other baked goods. Simply substituting applesauce or nonfat yogurt is all it takes to drastically reduce fat and calorie content without sacrificing flavor or moistness.
It's no secret that many people don't consume the recommended two cups of veggies per day. One way for carnivorously inclined people to reduce the amount of red meat in their diets (and thus slash fat and calorie intake) is to replace portions of meat with mineral-, vitamin- and fiber-packed veggies. For example, a beef stew with half the amount of meat and double the vegetables that the recipe calls for is both healthier and heartier. Adding extra vegetables to casseroles, pastas and other recipes is a brilliant way to raise nutritional value while simultaneously producing a more filling product.
If your children are loath to eat vegetables, pureed veggies mixed in with sauces or casseroles add density and nutrients. These secret ingredients will be completely undetectable by picky eaters.
The flavor and texture of whole-wheat products may take a little getting used to, but ditching white flour can pay off in both the short and long term. Whole-wheat flour is simply superior when it comes to nutritional value: It's rich in magnesium, folic acid and zinc. Baked goods made with whole-wheat flour are also fiber heavyweights. Fiber-rich foods are dense and encourage a feeling of fullness that can actually help people eat less and lose weight over time. To top it off, consuming whole-wheat bread instead of white bread has been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease by 20 percent [source: Barley]. Although completely replacing white flour with whole-wheat flour in any given recipe will drastically alter the taste and consistency of the finished product, you can substitute half the amount called for.
It may be easier to douse that chicken or pork with store-bought barbecue sauce, but a little extra effort can prevent a fat and calorie windfall. Instead, opt for nonfat rubs or homemade marinades to season grilled meat more naturally and healthfully. Dousing chicken with nonfat Italian dressing is probably the easiest way to add flavor. Various herbs and spices can be mixed with vinegar or wine to create a zesty and unique flavor for all types of red meat, fish and poultry. For a simple dinner, place individual portions of meat in a sealed plastic bag with the marinade and refrigerate. Be sure to allow a minimum of two hours for the marinade to soak in to turn out the best flavor possible.
Chocolate fanatics around the world rejoiced the day that scientists revealed the previously hidden nutritional benefits of dark chocolate. Lurking within the creamy confines of this guilty pleasure are properties that are believed to lower cholesterol and blood pressure. The fact that dark chocolate contains less sugar and fat than milk chocolate makes it the perfect substitute ingredient in desserts calling for the good stuff. As an added bonus, dark chocolate boasts a more powerful flavor than semisweet, allowing chefs to reduce the amount necessary in most recipes. The next time you make your family's favorite chocolate chip cookie recipe, try swapping the chocolate chips for dark chocolate chunks. Of course, you could always hold the butter, too. More about that on the next page.
Wary consumers have learned over time to not trust the claims made on food packaging, even though the industry is heavily regulated. Much confusion has erupted in recent years regarding the legitimacy of margarine as a healthy butter substitute. Simply put, some margarine brands are healthier than butter, while others that masquerade as a superior alternative are anything but.
In general, margarine in stick form tends to be higher in unhealthy trans fats than margarine packaged in tubs -- those fats make the substance more solid, which helps stick margarine hold its shape. Experts recommend reading nutrition labels and choosing a brand of margarine with the lowest level of trans fats and no more than 2 grams of combined trans and saturated fats. A little bit of label-reading can go a long way toward lowering fat and calorie levels without sacrificing flavor.
Trips to the salad bar begin with the best intentions. Start with a plateful of leafy greens, add tomatoes, cucumbers and chickpeas, and you've got a nice, healthy mid-day meal. But the health factor can quickly go south once the more fattening options are dumped on -- specifically, creamy salad dressings.
They may be delicious, but salad dressings pack a huge punch in terms of fat and calories, thanks to their mayonnaise base. Couple that with the fact that most people pour on way more than is actually necessary, and the salad that was once so promising has quickly turned into a dietary fiasco. Rather than potentially adding hundreds of calories to an otherwise healthy meal, opt instead for vinaigrette dressings, which are much lighter in fat and calories. Or, you can make your own vinaigrette with extra-virgin olive oil, vinegar, Dijon mustard and salt and pepper to taste.
Eggs, particularly the yolk, have suffered an unfortunate reputation over the years for being unhealthy and fattening. Although egg yolks do contain cholesterol, which can be detrimental to your health when consumed in excess, they also contain a cornucopia of nutrients and vitamins that many people are deficient in, such as calcium, iron, folate and B6. Perhaps the best option isn't to completely exclude egg yolks from your diet, but to enjoy them in moderation.
For those looking to lighten up a dish, fat- and cholesterol-free egg whites or egg substitutes can do the trick nicely. Replacing one whole egg with a quarter cup of egg substitute knocks 213 milligrams of cholesterol off a recipe, along with roughly 5 grams of fat [source: Rushing].
HowStuffWorks looks at the new FDA-mandated food nutrition labels.
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