Thursday, September 2, 2010

How to make your favorite foods healthier

When it comes to losing weight, one of the hardest things most of us face is having to give up foods that we love. Typically, it is a binge on one (or more) of those foods we gave up that knock us off our "diet" and send us back to square one. So what can we do to avoid having that happen?

Seven years ago, I lost 80 pounds over the course of 1 year. I kept that weight off until I got pregnant again a few years later and I am now preparing to go back to my earlier eating habits. I will share with you 10 tips to making favorite foods healthier, but before I do, I also want to share 2 tips for losing weight successfully. First, make sure you are medically okay. If you have an undiagnosed/untreated disorder that affects your blood sugar or your metabolism, you will have a heck of a time losing weight regardless of how healthy you are eating. When I lost my weight, I had been eating healthy for quite a while with no change in my weight. I finally talked to my doctor and was diagnosed with Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS), which affects the way the body handles blood sugar. When I was started on Metformin (Glucophage), the weight immediately began coming off. Please note though, that it is the combination of diet, medication and exercise that helped me to lose weight. None of these worked by themselves. Second, do not forbid yourself from having small bits of things you love OCCASIONALLY. This requires you to exercise self control and realize that can be difficult, but by allowing yourself an occasional treat, you avoid the desire to binge later. If you are at a party and you want cake, have a small piece and do not have seconds. Put a few chips on a plate, walk away from the food table and do not go back. I used to keep a bag of Hershey Kisses in the house for when I had chocolate cravings and then would allow myself 3 kisses at a time. I also allowed myself to splurge on higher quality treats since that forced me to eat less if I wanted it to last. Anyway, now on to my 10 tips to making your favorite foods healthier:

1) Substitute healthier ingredients- did you know you could use fat-free mayo in place of oil in a cake mix and it doesn't alter the taste? Another good substitute is evaporated skim milk in place of heavy cream. Fruit purees also make a good substitute for oil. If you do not like the taste or texture when substituting, try only substituting half.

2) Reduce the amount of high fat/high calorie ingredients- if the recipe calls for 2 cups of cheese, reduce that by a 1/2 cup. If you like the recipe still, try reducing the cheese even more next time.

3) Use higher quality ingredients- although they may cost a bit more, you generally get a better, stronger flavor from high quality products, allowing you to use less of the product. This is especially true with cheeses and chocolate.

4) Add extra vegetables- throw a cup of chopped broccoli into your favorite mac and cheese recipe or add spinach to your lasagna or put some shredded carrots into your pasta sauce. Vegetables increase the nutritional value and add fiber. In fact, when I was losing the weight, I had just started learning how to really cook as well. The first several months consisted of me altering boxes of convenience foods (like the Helper line and noodles in a pouch) by adding vegetables to them.

5) Switch to whole grains- this is much easier to do in a recipe where there are lots of other flavors, such as Spanish rice. Whole grains are more nutritious and much higher in fiber than traditional products made with white flour. It may take some time to completely switch over, but do it gradually. When baking, you can substitute part of the white flour for whole wheat flour with little noticeable difference.

6) Use stronger flavors- sharp cheddar packs a lot more flavor than mild, allowing you to get similar results with less cheese.

7) Do not be afraid of low-fat and no-fat varieties- these have come a long way in flavor and texture from a few years ago. Some still have a ways to go, but they tend to be okay for using in recipes. I always buy fat-free and full fat sour cream. The full fat is for my baked potato and the fat free is for recipes. The same with mayo. I use full fat on my sandwiches, but use fat-free in recipes.

8) Use herbs and seasonings- they add flavor without adding fat. If you use single seasonings as opposed to mixed ones (lemon pepper, steak seasoning, etc), you will also reduce sodium intake.
Fresh herbs always taste better, but dried is still good.

9) Cook from scratch- the best way to improve what you are eating is to know exactly what you are eating. The easier way to do that is to prepare your food from scratch. If time is short, try to cook your meals ahead of time and freeze them or use your crock pot. If you have never cooked from scratch before, use convenience products and use the above tips to make them healthier.

10) Use better-for-you substitutes- like egg substitute, sea salt (tastes saltier so you can use less), and sugar substitutes. Again, start by just subbing part of it and gradually increase the amount you substitute.

I will not promise you will lose a ton of weight by following these tips, but I can tell you that they worked for me. I know it is not easy to make changes in our diets, but I also know we can do it. If you are worried about some of the changes, implement them gradually. Start substituting the healthier ingredient a little at a time and gradually increase the amount you substitute. Every little bit helps! I can also tell you that over time, your cravings will decrease and, yes, eventually stop. I was at a point that I did not want more than a little taste of less healthy foods, and sometimes, I didn't even want that. I am looking forward to reaching that point again.

I wrote this blog post while participating in the TwitterMoms and WeightWatchers SmartOnes blogging program, making me eligible to get a $50 gift card. For more information on how you can participate, click here

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