It’s no surprise that eating better and moving more appear on so many resolutions each new year.
About half of all American adults — 117 million individuals — have one or more preventable chronic diseases, many related to their diet and inactivity, according to a new report by the nation’s top nutrition panel, which provides the scientific basis for the U.S. national dietary guidelines.
Those 2016 guidelines, released Jan. 7, recommend big cuts in our consumption of sugar, salt and “bad” (saturated and trans) fats. Following those recommendations would mean big changes for many of us. But don’t feel discouraged. Health officials advise starting a new dietary path by taking small steps. And a new year is a perfect time to begin.
A good first step: Giving your recipe box a healthy makeover.
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Making even small changes can make a “substantial difference,” said Amy Kimberlain, a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator for the University of Miami Health System and Miller School of Medicine. “Every now and then you’re going to indulge, but day to day, you can find substitutions that are more healthy.”
You don’t have to ditch grandma’s beloved brownies or your favorite sweet potato casserole, but there are ways to modify recipes to create healthier dishes.
Reducing the amount of sugar in a recipe is a good place — and possibly the toughest— to start.
Most adults eat or drink about 18 teaspoons of sugar each day, according to the dietary guidelines. The recommendation is that added sugar should make up only 10 percent of your daily calories, based on a 2,000-calorie-a-day diet. That translates to about 12 teaspoons of sugar a day. Just one soft drink can contain 10 or more teaspoons.
Added sugars are sugars and syrups that are added to processed or prepared foods or beverages. This doesn’t include naturally occurring sugars in milk and fruits, for instance.
Excess sugar is “one of the primary reasons there’s so much obesity,” said Zulema Iznaga, a registered dietitian at Doctors Hospital, Baptist Health South Florida. Sugar can also lead to Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, cancer and other ailments. “It doesn’t mean you can’t have sugar but it shouldn’t be the norm,” she said. “It should be a treat, a special occasion.”
Here are tips from the experts on reducing or replacing sugar in recipes:
▪ Unsweetened applesauce can be substituted for sugar in a one-to-one ratio.
▪ In baking, vanilla is a good substitute. If the recipe calls for a cup of sugar, use a half cup of sugar and a teaspoon of vanilla extract, UM’s Kimberlain said. “You’re cutting 400 calories.” Be sure to use the real extract, not the imitation. Almond extract is another option.
▪ Use spices such as cinnamon, cloves, allspice and nutmeg to help cut or reduce sugar.
▪ If you want to use a sugar substitute, Kimberlain recommends stevia, which comes from a plant found in South America.
The major source of added sugars in typical U.S. diets is beverages, which include soft drinks, fruit drinks, energy drinks, sweetened coffee and tea, alcoholic beverages and flavored waters, according to federal guidelines, which recommend water as the best beverage choice — even better than juice.
“You don’t get all the fiber from the juice,” Baptist’s Iznaga said. “Sugar is more concentrated in juice. You get more benefit from eating the actual fruit.”
Cutting back salt is another important goal, dietitians said. The average person eats 3,400 milligrams of sodium a day, and the 2016 guidelines recommend lowering that to 2,300 milligrams or about a teaspoon. Too much sodium can make your heart work too hard and lead to high blood pressure.
“Healthy eating doesn’t have to be bland,” said Sonia Angel, coordinator of the Diabetes & Nutrition Center at Memorial Regional Hospital in Hollywood. “Our bodies need salt, but we’re getting three to four times more salt than what we need.”
Some ideas for cutting or limiting salt:
▪ In most main dishes, salads, soups and other foods, you can reduce the amount of salt by half or eliminate it. If you add salt without tasting a dish first, change that habit.
▪ Use natural herbs or spices including ginger, turmeric, pepper, garlic or coriander in your recipes. “None of these items are going to interfere with your caloric intake, and they’re going to add a lot of flavor,” Memorial’s Angel said.
▪ Make a blackening mix with paprika, cumin, black pepper, garlic powder and a pinch of cayenne without adding sodium, said Lillian Craggs-Dino, a registered dietitian at Cleveland Clinic Florida in Weston.
▪ Use fresh or frozen vegetables instead of canned to decrease salt.
▪ UM’s Kimberlain said basil and cilantro also “make flavors pop” instead of salt.
▪ Try mustard as an alternative to ketchup or mayonnaise, said Baptist’s Iznaga.
▪ Store-bought marinades can also have a high salt content. Angel uses garlic, lime juice and a little pepper to concoct a marinade without salt. Pico de gallo can also boost flavor, Iznaga said. She also suggests infused vinegars or even a little wine with fresh herbs and crushed garlic as a marinade.
Here are some other suggestions for cutting fat and making other healthier substitutions.
▪ Use Greek yogurt instead of sour cream. “The tastes are similar, and the yogurt has more benefits,” Iznaga said.
▪ Make your own salad dressings. Look for plant-based oils like olive oil and grapeseed oil to avoid saturated or trans fat. Lemon, olive oil and herbs make a good dressing combo.
▪ Try half white and half whole wheat flour. Purée black beans in place of flour in brownies or other darker-hued treats, Cleveland Clinic’s Craggs-Dino said. “The beans add flavor and they’re better for you.”
▪ Nut flours, including cashew and almond flour, are other options for reducing white flour.
▪ Mash cauliflower instead of potatoes.
▪ Instead of potato chips, make chips combining veggies and herbs.
▪ In recipes that use at least one stick of butter, which contains 92 grams of fat, try using half a stick of butter, shortening or oil mixed with mashed bananas or prune or avocado purée.
▪ Avocados, which are high in monounsaturated fats — the “good kind” of fats — are “a great butter substitute,” Craggs-Dino said. “You can use a cup of puréed avocado with about half a cup of butter,” especially in a hearty confection.
▪ With prunes, take the seeds out, “mix them with a quarter cup of boiling water and purée them,” said Kimberlain. Try them in recipes for brownies, gingerbread or other dark desserts.
And for those times when you want to indulge in a special dish without making any adjustments, just keep one rule in mind. “You want to limit your portions,” Iznaga said. “Just don’t overdo it.”