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Simple recipe changes for healthful holiday eating

Diet and fitness
Holiday recipe swap
Healthy traditional holiday meal from Michael Pardus, an instructor at the Culinary Institute of America

November 12, 1999
Web posted at: 11:52 AM EST (1652 GMT)

By Catherine Ann Rauch

(WebMD) -- It's that time of year again: The glistening colors and rich aromas of holiday foods are beginning to beckon. From dinner parties to community potlucks, the meats, sweets and sauces of traditional winter feasts have started their tempting descent upon us. Even in today's health-conscious climate, it's a tough time to watch what we eat. So many holiday recipes burst with dietary indulgences -- butter, cream, plenty of sugar and plenty of salt.

Health-minded holiday cooking may seem impossible, but nutritional experts say it's not. Chefs and dietitians alike agree that most recipes can be modified to increase their health value without sacrificing taste. And they say many tricks of the trade are simple and can be applied to all cooking, any time of the year.

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  • "Reduce and replace" -- that's the key, says Darlene Dougherty, M.S., R.D., former president of the American Dietetic Association.

    Before pulling your baking tins and roasting pans off the shelves, start with an attitude check, advises Judith Levine, a registered dietitian with the American Heart Association. Healthy cooking shouldn't be an all-or-nothing venture -- a major recipe overhaul will affect flavor. Think instead of minor nips and tucks. "That's what I call setting yourself up for success instead of for failure," she says.

    Scientific and culinary baking

    Several major health organizations -- including the American Heart Association, the American Dietetic Association, the American Cancer Society, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the National Institutes of Health -- agree on the basics of a healthy diet. Their guidelines, based on hundreds of clinical trials and recent studies, were summarized in the July 27, 1999 issue of the American Heart Associations journal, Circulation.

    The consensus? Reduce fats, particularly saturated fats such as butter and other animal fats, which are high in cholesterol. Limit sugar: "empty" calories with little nutritional value. Limit salt: a risk factor for high blood pressure and hypertension in some people. Pile on the fruits, vegetables, grains and cereals.

    "Analyze your recipes, look at where the fat is, then ask yourself: Why is it there? Can I leave it out?" says Michael Pardus, an instructor at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York.

    And don't forget presentation, says Pardus. "Use a small meat portion and fill your plate with vegetables and starches prepared without a lot of butter or cream."

    Most experts agree on the basics of how to modify recipes for health. The mantra: substitute, experiment, use a smidgen when the recipe calls for a dollop, don't expect to do it all every time. And make up your mind what's important to you. "You have to decide who you are; there's no right or wrong," Levine says.

    Easy tips, anytime

  • Whenever possible, replace butter with unsaturated oils such as olive, canola and soy oil.
  • Use nonfat or low-fat milk instead of whole milk, and choose reduced-fat cheeses.
  • Limit margarine and butter, which contains fats that can raise cholesterol and have been associated with cardiovascular disease risk.
  • Substitute lean cuts of meat for fatty ones. Remove skins, which are fatty.
  • Bake, broil or steam rather than fry. Saute with a dash of oil, wine or tomato puree.
  • Cut back on egg yolks, which are high in fat and cholesterol.
  • Start with less fat, sugar and salt than called for, then adjust for taste.
  • Season with herbs, spices, lemon juice or minced tangy vegetables -- onion, garlic, parsnip, parsley -- instead of salt and butter.
  • Forgo cream-based soups, sauces and gravies, or make them with skim milk. Choose vegetable-based soups and sauces.
  • For baked goods such as cakes and cookies, substitute applesauce or other fruit purees for butter or oil; this maintains fluffiness. Cut back on sugar by one-half or more.
  • Special holiday tips

  • Make pie crusts with unsaturated oils instead of butter or solid fats. Top desserts with fat-free frozen yogurt or whipped evaporated skim milk.
  • Base appetizers on fresh or roasted vegetables, fruits, lean meats, breads and reduced-fat cheeses.
  • Serve seasoned rice or grains instead of bread stuffing.
  • Bake sweet potatoes in their skins. Season mashed potatoes with roasted garlic and herbs.
  • For all cooking, Dougherty says, make use of the wide variety of reduced-fat dairy products available, such as nonfat sour cream, whipped cream and whipped cream cheese. But when it comes to artificial substitutes, including those for salt and sugar, the American Dietetic Association recommends moderation. (Its guidelines on sweeteners are published in the May 1998 volume of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association.) It's fine to add pinches of sugar and salt substitutes for flavor, but larger amounts aren't recommended for cooking because they affect texture.

    And finally, Dougherty says, indulge with a rich favorite every now and then. "If you allow yourself a little to satisfy a craving or to maintain a tradition, it's better than depriving yourself and later losing control."

    Copyright 1999 webmed, Inc. All rights reserved.

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