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The Effortless Diet: Healthy Substitutions For The Most Unhealthy Cooking Ingredients

Everyone wants to improve their diet, but it takes a lot of work to do a full overhaul. If you want to ease into it a little, here’s how to substitute healthier foods for your favourite unhealthy cooking staples.

It’s easy to make an otherwise healthy meal incredibly unhealthy by dousing it in one or two ingredients — such as an overload of 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 a healthier meal without sacrificing too much taste. Your taste bud mileage will vary a little here, but even if you do notice a difference in flavour it’s usually not too much.

Use Reduced Fat Milk

It might seem obvious that replacing whole milk with reduced fat is healthier, but it’s worth pointing out because in most cases it doesn’t really affect the flavour. If a recipe calls for milk when you’re baking, you can often use soy, almond or rice milk instead of full milk. You may need to experiment a little to find the best substitute, but it’s worth the effort for dishes you cook regularly. Photo by liz west.

Use Bolder Cheeses In Smaller Amounts

As with milk, switching to a reduced-fat cheese is a simple way to cut the fat and kilojoules from a meal without sacrificing too much flavour. That said, the difference in taste and texture is often more obvious. Fortunately, you can still get that cheesy flavour without ditching the full-fat cheeses entirely.

If you plan your recipes out right you can get the flavour 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 flavour impact. This way, you still get the flavour, 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 a milder cheese. When you use a cheese with a stronger flavour, you only need to use about half the amount of what the recipe calls for. Photo by Justin Cozart.

Use Oils Or Margarine Instead Of Butter

Butter is a kitchen staple, used for everything from frying to baking. While it tastes great, it’s also high in kilojoules and saturated fats. Fortunately there are plenty of substitutes, depending on the context.

The most obvious butter replacement is oil. In many cases, a fat-free non-stick cooking spray works just as well. For frying, olive oil and canola oil make great substitutes. While both oils have about the same number of kilojoules as butter, they have fewer saturated fats. You may notice a little bit of a difference in the flavour of the final meal, but it’s not as pronounced as you might think. Margarine, which is derived from vegetable oil, also makes a good replacement.

Use Vanilla, Nutmeg Or Cinnamon Instead Of Sugar

Sugar is one of the easier ingredients to substitute for, because you’re really just looking for something that tastes sweet. When you cut sugar out of your diet, you can reduce body weight a little, and cut back on a lot of other negative effects.

When a baking recipe calls for sugar, cut the sugar in half, and substitute vanilla, nutmeg or cinnamon for the other half. It’s a simple solution that cuts the sugar but doesn’t sacrifice the sweet flavour. Sweeteners are another option, but it’s still not entirely clear what their side effects are.

Use Other Herbs For (Too Much) Salt

Whether or not salt is actually bad for you is surprisingly controversial, but health experts still think high sodium diets increase the risk of heart disease to some extent. Regardless of the science at play here, cutting back your salt intake is easy and can sometimes even produce a more flavourful dish.

The Harvard School of Public Health suggests that substitutions make your food taste better:

Using herbs, spices, and other flavourings 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.

Use Yoghurt Instead Of Sour Cream Or Mayonnaise

Being from a Polish family, I have a special affinity for dishes that have a lot of sour cream in them. Sour cream isn’t that unhealthy when used in moderation, but let’s be honest: most Polish dishes don’t use sour cream in moderation at all. That means in a lot of meals you’re getting a stack of fat and calories. Thankfully, for many meals, plain yogurt makes a great sour cream substitute.

The substitution is pretty simple. The Kitchn suggests you use the same amount of yoghurt as you would sour cream, and add a little cornflour to thicken it up. As it turns out, yoghurt also makes a great substitute for mayonnaise as well (as an ingredient, not a topping).

These substitutions alone won’t make your eating habits healthy. 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 healthy without killing off the taste. 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 kilojoules in your meals.