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The Effortless Diet: Healthy Substitutions for the Most Unhealthy Cooking Ingredients

medium The Effortless Diet: Healthy Substitutions for the Most Unhealthy Cooking Ingredients

It’s easy to make an otherwise healthy meal incredibly healthy by dousing it in one or two ingredients—like a bunch of butter or too many fatty dairy products—but it’s surprisingly easy to do the opposite, too. With a few substitutions to your standard cooking routine, you can make low-fat meals without sacrificing too much taste. You don’t need to cut these ingredients out entirely, but it’s helpful to occasionally cut back in certain meals. Your taste bud mileage will vary a little here, but even if you do notice a difference in flavor it’s usually not too much.

medium The Effortless Diet: Healthy Substitutions for the Most Unhealthy Cooking Ingredients

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.

If a recipe calls for milk when you’re baking, you can often use soy, almond, or rice milk instead of whole milk, but you might need to experiment a little to find the substitute that works best in each meal. Photo by liz west.

medium The Effortless Diet: Healthy Substitutions for the Most Unhealthy Cooking Ingredients

If you plan your recipes out right you can get the flavor punch you want from a full-fat cheese and only use a little bit of it. Eating Well recommends using the full-fat cheese on the top of baked dishes instead of in the middle for the biggest flavor impact. This way, you still get the flavor, but you’re not eating as much of it.

Likewise, Real Living suggests simply substituting a bolder cheese (like aged cheddar, asiago, or smoked cheese) for recipes that calls for mild cheese. When you use a cheese with a stronger flavor, you only need to use about half the amount of what the recipe calls for. Photo by Justin Cozart.

medium The Effortless Diet: Healthy Substitutions for the Most Unhealthy Cooking Ingredients

The most obvious butter replacement is oil. For recipes that call for you to “butter a pan,” a fat-free non-stick cooking spray works just as well. For frying (and even boiling), olive oil and canola oil make great substitutes. While both oils have about the same amount of calories as butter, they have fewer saturated fats. The conversion is pretty simple too. You’ll likely notice a little bit of a difference in the flavor of the final meal, but it’s not as pronounced as you’d think. An even closer replacement is coconut oil. While coconut oil is still a blend of fatty acids, it a little better than butter, and is easy to cook with even at high temperatures.

For those cakes that require butter, a common (and odd) substitute is applesauce. Fitsugar recommends replacing butter with half the amount of applesauce. So, if a recipe calls for a cup of butter, use half a cup of butter and half a cup of applesauce. You can replace all the butter if you want, but you’ll get a sweeter taste. If applesauce isn’t your thing, you can do the same substitution with greek yogurt. It sounds a little weird, but with baking you likely won’t notice the substitution too much. Photo by Veganbaking.net.

medium The Effortless Diet: Healthy Substitutions for the Most Unhealthy Cooking Ingredients

In many baked goods you can cut the sugar in half, and add a pinch of either vanilla, nutmeg, or cinnamon. It’s a pretty simple solution that cuts the sugar but doesn’t sacrifice the sweet flavor. It’s not going to work all the time, but it’s worth experimenting with when you want to cut down on sugar (and works great for coffee too).

medium The Effortless Diet: Healthy Substitutions for the Most Unhealthy Cooking Ingredients

The Harvard School of Public Health suggests that salt’s just not that great of a flavor to begin with, and substitutions make your food taste better:

Using herbs, spices, and other flavorings is a great way to season food… Experiment with fresh or dried garlic, oregano, pepper, sage, rosemary, or tarragon; bolder seasonings such as curry, cinnamon, nutmeg, saffron, or smoked paprika; tangy marinades, such as lemon juice, lime juice, or flavored vinegars; or fragrant oils, such as sesame oil, walnut oil, extra virgin olive oil, or pumpkin seed oil.

Essentially, salt is boring anyway, so you might as well use something that’s probably healthier and tastes better. It’s also good to keep in mind the idea that “salt to taste” is a little more complicated than it sounds, and you can’t simply substitute table salt for kosher salt willy nilly (you have to halve the measurement). In short, you might be overusing salt and it’s easy to cut back.

However, if you’re baking, salt is incredibly important for creating a stable texture in baked goods, so don’t go cutting back too much there.

medium The Effortless Diet: Healthy Substitutions for the Most Unhealthy Cooking Ingredients

The solution here isn’t as cut and dry as you’d think though. Whole wheat flour tastes significantly different than white flour, and you will absolutely notice a difference if you bake with it. The best thing to do is to substitute whole wheat flour for half the recipe. This adds in that vital fiber and other nutrients without significantly altering the taste. If you like, The Kitchn has tips for using whole wheat flours with a number of meals.

medium The Effortless Diet: Healthy Substitutions for the Most Unhealthy Cooking Ingredients

The substitution is pretty simple. The Kitchn suggests you use the same amount of yogurt as you would sour cream, and add a little corn starch to thicken it up. As it turns out, yogurt also makes a great substitute for mayonnaise as well (as an ingredient, not a topping), so you’ll have plenty of uses for it.

You might still need a full-blown overhaul of your diet and eating habits. Once you get your diet in gear, you can add a few more healthy ingredients into the mix to keep it going. But the above substitutions can make the meals you already love a little more fat-free without killing off the taste. By no means do you need to make substitutions for every single meal because fat is an important part of a healthy diet, but you want to choose the best fats possible. You’ll need to experiment with different substitutes for different recipes (they’re not going to work all the time), but it’s a surprisingly easy to cut down on fat and calories in your meals.

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