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September 2001
Vol. 10, No. 09,
pp 45, 47, 49.
Health Perspectives
All substitutions allowed

Healthy eating may mean doing with other, instead of without.

opening artYou knew that it was a bad idea to tell your spouse about the health survey that your company was offering to its staff. Sure, you’d put on a few pounds since college, but you just saw it as mellowing into marriage. So you brace yourself for a long list of survey questions; a blood sample; and pulse, height, weight, and blood pressure measurements. What’s an hour out of your day?

Three weeks later, you get your answer, and guess what? You need to lose some weight, exercise more, drink less coffee, and improve your attitude. Talk about insightful. You’ve heard this mantra for the better part of two decades and now you’re heading into another round of nutritional recriminations. Or maybe not.

It might just be that weight loss doesn’t have to come at the expense of the foods you enjoy. Instead, rather than cutting these foods out of your diet, you might only have to adjust the way they are prepared. For almost all of the dietary taboos, substitutes are available that will allow you to enjoy food without suffering the consequences.

Almost all conversations about healthy eating start with fat, the slimy gelatinous substance that most of us just can’t seem to live without. To some extent, this is true. Although most of us could stand to cut back a little, a small amount of fat is crucial to a balanced diet. As nutritionist Sue Gilbert explains, the body stores excess energy as fat, and these reserves can be critical to our well-being. Fat is also important for the transport of certain vitamins—A, D, E, and K—through the bloodstream. And linoleic acid, one of the essential fatty acids, is critical to infant growth and development.

So, is this another case of “can’t live with it, can’t live without it”?

Yes and no. Fatty acids come in three forms: saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated. The first of these enters our diets from animal fats found in meat and cheese and can clog our arteries through the accumulation of LDL cholesterol. In sharp contrast, monounsaturates come predominantly from plant oils and may improve our health by raising the levels of artery-clearing HDL cholesterol. Polyunsaturates are highly unstable and may combine with oxygen to generate free radicals associated with arthritis, cataracts, and cancer.

A healthy diet, therefore, often comes down to minimizing or replacing the saturated fatty acids and maximizing the monounsaturated fatty acids. But how easy is this to accomplish? With a little ingenuity, it can be a piece of cake.

Fat is the substance that keeps cakes and muffins moist, and one of the more popular fat alternatives in baking is applesauce. In many cases, unsweetened applesauce can be directly substituted for oil, shortening, or butter, resulting in dramatic reductions in both fat and calorie content. Researchers at the Mayo Clinic (Rochester, MN) showed that the substituting 1 cup of applesauce for 1 cup of oil in a cupcake recipe led to savings of 220 g of fat and 1900 calories (9 g of fat and 80 calories per cupcake).

Fats also aerate baked goods, keeping them light and fluffy. But there are other foods that can accomplish this feat. Fruit purees can be beaten into a froth, but perhaps the best at holding air pockets are egg whites, which have the added bonus of increasing your protein intake without adding fat.

TABLE 1: Lighten Up

Fat (g) Calories
Instead of 1 cup whole milk 9 156
Use 1 cup skim milk 0 85
Rather than 1 medium egg 4 65
Use 2 egg whites 0 35
In place of 1 cup sour cream 48 493
Use 1 cup fat-free sour cream 0 160
Replace 8 oz cream cheese 78 792
With 8 oz fat-free cream cheese 0 400
Rather than 3 oz lean roasted ham 4.5 133
Try 3 oz skinless roast turkey breast
0.6 114
Instead of a medium slice of apple pie
19 411
Go for a baked apple with 1 tsp brown sugar and a pat of butter 4.5 152
In lieu of 1/2 cup mixed nuts 40 438
Try 1/2 cup Chex party mix
3.5 90
Source: The Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research.
Low-Fat Substitutions
Sometimes eating healthier is just a matter of switching to lower-fat varieties of cooking components (see Table 1). For a pasta recipe recently featured in Cooking Light magazine, the chefs replaced Italian sausage, whole milk, and a cup of butter with turkey sausage, low-fat milk, and two tablespoons of butter. This created a dish that contained half the fat of the original and reduced the percentage of fat-derived calories from 49% to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s recommended 30%.

Similarly, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN) in Washington, DC, recommends that people spice up their salads with flavored vinegars or lemon juice in place of oil-based salad dressings. CFSAN also recommends low-fat yogurt or blender-whipped low-fat cottage cheese as substitutes for mayonnaise or sour cream.

Even if you’re not making substitutions in what you cook, calories and grams of fat can often be reduced simply by the method of preparation. At one time or another, everyone has faced the problem of a nonstick pan that isn’t. In many cases, this happens because the pan is too cool when food is added to it. If a pan is sufficiently preheated, small imperfections in its surface are sealed and the protein on the food surface cooks before it has a chance to stick to the pan. Even a chicken breast will stick only momentarily to a pan heated to 177 °C, says chef Paul Prudhomme in Shirley Corriher’s CookWise.

But what about french fries? Not to worry, it is even possible to deep fry wisely. When deep-fried, potato strips cook from the inside out as the surrounding oil heats the water within the vegetable. As the water converts to steam, it escapes from the potato and prevents oil from entering. If the fries are left in the oil too long, however, and the water fully evaporates, oil fills the void and the fat content of your fries begins to increase dramatically. It all comes down to timing and temperature.

Other recommendations for food preparation that can also reduce the fat content of your meals include:

  • Steam, boil, bake, or microwave vegetables.
  • Season with herbs and spices instead of fatty sauces, butter, or margarine.
  • Choose lean cuts of meat, and trim fat from meat and poultry before and after cooking.
  • Remove skin from poultry before or after cooking. Roast, bake, broil, or simmer meat, poultry, and fish rather than frying.
  • Cook meat or poultry on a rack so the fat will drain off. Use a nonstick pan for cooking so added fat is unnecessary.
  • Chill meat or poultry broth until the fat becomes solid. Remove the fat before using the broth.

Of course, the one bad boy when it comes to clogged arteries is cholesterol and, although not a fat, it is closely linked with fat. As we have all learned from repeated commercials, a diet low in cholesterol is a first step to healthy living. One way to begin this change is to go easy on the butter.

We’ve all heard about the sins of butter and that rather than adding a little pat to your potatoes or spreading another dollop on your sandwich, you might just as well save time by injecting it straight into your arteries. Butter, of course, contains saturated fats and cholesterol, two of the major players in atherosclerosis or hardening of the arteries. For this reason, the media of the 1980s was rife with advertisements lauding the advantages of the wonder spread, margarine—the cholesterol-free substitute for butter.

But all is not as it seems, for two reasons. Firstly, margarine contains practically the same amount of total fat as butter (80 vs 81%). And, although margarine naturally contains high levels of poly- and monounsaturated fatty acids—the kind for which we aim—many of the spread’s manufacturers have removed this benefit in an effort to make it more spreadable. They accomplished this by hydrogenating the monounsaturated fat, creating trans-fats, which behave in the body much as saturated fats do—in some case, raising serum cholesterol levels. So, if you want to keep your toast as healthy as possible, try to stick with nonhydrogenated margarine.

Eggs-act Science
But, perhaps the best-known and most taboo cholesterol culprit is the egg. Delicious Decisions, the online cooking guide of the American Heart Association, states that the yolk of one large egg contains almost all of the daily allowance for cholesterol (250 of 300 mg) and they thus recommend that people consume no more than 3–4 egg yolks per week. As a substitute, they and others recommend replacing egg yolks with egg whites, a cholesterol-free source of protein, combined with a drop of a vegetable oil that is low in saturated fats.

Balancing Act
The important thing to remember, as Gilbert advises, is not to treat fat as a four-letter word. Rather, learn to treat fat with respect and look for tasty and healthy alternatives to high-fat products. Food is something to be enjoyed, but you can increase your opportunities for enjoyment by increasing your chances for a long life. As with everything else, moderation and education are key.

Further Reading

  • The American Heart Association Web site dedicated to healthier eating habits can be found at www.deliciousdecisions.org.
  • Cooking Light magazine can be found on the Web at www.cookinglight.com.
  • Shirley Corriher published CookWise, a delightful book about the science of cooking (William Morrow and Co.: New York, 1997).
  • The FDA Center for Food Safety and Nutrition maintains a Web site at http://vm.cfsan.fda.gov/list.html.

Randall C. Willis is an assistant editor with Today’s Chemist at Work Send your comments or questions regarding this article to tcaw@acs.org or the Editorial Office 1155 16th St N.W., Washington, DC 20036.

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