Fabulous Food Swaps

It’s a new year, and many of us have made sweeping resolutions to lose weight and to get into shape once and for all. But resolutions are good for only as long as you’re resolute. And when you’ve vowed to nix the sugar and fat but you’re faced with the temptation of winter’s comfort foods – think chicken pot pie with crumbly biscuits, chili with gobs of cheese, chocolatey cocoa and salted caramel brownies – it’s easy for your resolve to go downhill fast.

According to registered dietitian Molly Morgan, if you’re ready to get off that diet roller coaster – while still losing weight – you may want to just say no to extreme dietary changes that you’re likely to adhere to for only a short time, such as restricting all sugar or eliminating entire food groups. Instead, said Morgan, whose book Skinny Size-It offers numerous recipes to fill you up and slim you down, “The best way to take off pounds and keep them off is by making small changes over time to allow for slow and steady weight loss. Also focusing more on what to add in rather than what you have to eliminate can help change your eating habits without it feeling restrictive.”

Restricting foods or food groups simply doesn’t work in the long term, agree most experts. “So many people eliminate a food group and deprive themselves of what they really want,” said Beverly Hills integrative nutritionist and board-certified health counselor Carina Sohaili. “Eventually they cave in and go to town on the food they were restricting, and a vicious cycle occurs.”

Adding in rather than entirely restricting can replace part of the food you’re trying to avoid. For example, said Morgan, if you cut down the amount of meat in a recipe while increasing veggies at the same time, it reduces fat and calories, while adding fiber, which keeps you full for longer. And you have the bonus of increasing those valuable plant-based nutrients.

Ingredient substitutions can also give your meals a skinny makeover, a la 2013-14 TV cooking series Cook Your Ass Off, where chefs competed to transform unhealthy dishes into satisfying but nutritious options. “Substitutions can work well to lighten things up,” said Mindy Gorman, certified health coach and author of The Freedom Promise, “But the goal is to substitute with whole foods as opposed to processed foods.”

The reason? Processed foods are full of hidden sugars, salt and fats, ingredients that excite our brains and keep us coming back for more. Even processed foods that are fat free or sugar free can sabotage your weight loss efforts. Fat-free foods might taste similar to the fattening versions, but they lack the ability of fats to satiate us. As for sugar-free options, when you taste a food that has been artificially sweetened, such as diet soda or sugar free yogurt, your body expects the calories from the sweet to hit your belly soon, so it releases insulin and other hormones in preparation to handle the sugar load. If the sugar is not forthcoming, your body reacts to the insulin and hormones with a plummeting blood sugar level – and even cravings for sweets, the very thing you were trying to avoid.

Whole food substitutions can pare down (but not entirely eliminate) calories and fats while still providing satisfaction, a win-win situation. Gorman’s favorite – “A high-quality, rich broth for half the oil in a recipe,” she said. “If you’re craving mashed potatoes, you can make a healthier version by adding just a touch of butter, then using the broth to finish mashing.”

A healthy go-to that Sohaili enjoys is a substitute for French fries. “Instead of the potatoes, use sweet potatoes or jicama,” she said. “Slice them, toss with a little olive oil and bake in the oven at 350 degrees for about 20 minutes. Then dip the ‘fries’ in plain Greek yogurt seasoned with dill, garlic and paprika.”

Lower fat (not fat-free) versions of certain ingredients can help you to create a reasonable facsimile of your favorite recipes, too, said Morgan. “One of my favorite substitutions is using 50 percent light cheddar cheese, such as Cabot 50 percent light cheddar cheese, in recipes that include cheese. It is made with 1 percent milk; it melts great and tastes great. The savings: for each ounce of cheese, you save 4.5 grams of fat and 40 calories. This is such a simple swap.”

An important part of food substitutions, especially when it comes to snacking, added Morgan, is to listen to what your body wants – sweet, crunchy, creamy, for example – and find healthier foods to satisfy the desire. Want chips and dip? “Try whole grain tortilla chips and hummus or salsa,” she suggested. “Or instead of a cookie, try a bar that is made with dried fruit and nuts that can feel a little like a treat.”

That said, claimed Sohaili, “you should never consider any food ‘forbidden.’ Food is meant to be enjoyed. This is a fine line when you have weight loss goals, but having a small amount of what you really want can leave you feeling satisfied.”

Remember, though, when giving in to a craving, cautioned Gorman, to eat mindfully. “When we eat mindfully,” she said, “we allow ourselves to enjoy the sensuous pleasure, the smell, taste and texture of the food. Our body is more able to recognize when we’ve had enough. A little can go a long way.”

By Linda Hepler, BSN, RN