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CUTTING DOWN : Calories,Fats and Sodium Can Be Reduced by Using Substitutions That Don't Eliminate the Flavors

March 07, 1985|BETSY BALSLEY | Times Food Editor

Get two people together these days and one or both are probably: (1) dieting; (2) thinking about it, or (3) bragging about how much weight they have lost. Arguing over the best method to get rid of unwanted extra pounds and inches is as popular as arguing over politics these days.

Often it's just about as much of a no-win situation too.

The fact is that what works for one doesn't necessarily work for another. Whether you are trying to lose weight, cut down on sodium and fats, increase your fiber intake or whatever, how you do it is a personal matter. There's no overall blanket solution for everyone. (Can you imagine an entire world wearing size 9?)

There is one thing, though, that holds true for any kind of a diet plan. If the food doesn't taste good, chances are excellent that the diet, and the good intentions behind it, will disappear into limbo within a short time.

I'm constantly astonished at how much mail we receive from frustrated cooks who are trying to cut down on sodium, cholesterol or calories and still dine well. The general attitude seems to be that in order to cut down, all of the foods that have been family favorites have to go. Usually that's not true at all, unless one is suddenly, for health reasons, forced to change eating habits drastically. A red meat, potatoes and gravy lover who is handed a low-fat, low-sodium diet by his doctor will, indeed, need to make some stringent changes. But for the average person who is in good health and simply wants to cut down on some of the less desirable ingredients in daily meals, really drastic changes are rarely necessary. It's easier to adapt most traditional recipes to a lighter style than one might imagine.

The secret lies in the two words, "cutting down."

What's your goal? Are you trying to reduce your calorie intake in order to lose weight? Are you worried that your cholesterol level is too high? Or that you're incorporating too much sodium into your diet? Or all of the above?

Whatever your goal, begin at the beginning. Check with your doctor and see if you need a special diet for any reason. If so, follow his advice. But if you are in good health and simply want to stay that way, then consider revamping some of your favorite recipes to reduce calories, fats, cholesterol and sodium, while at the same time you maintain or increase your intake of worthwhile nutrients and fiber.

A visit to your local library or bookstore is a good place to start. There are any number of hardcover and paperback books that list the carbohydrate, protein, fat or sodium content of both packaged foods and basic foods. New American Library, for instance, has published a series of paperback books by the late Barbara Kraus that provides this information. These should be readily available through bookstores everywhere. Once you have acquired the reference material needed, the next step is to learn to use it wisely.

Look at the foods that you like and eat frequently. Do they have the undesirable qualities you are trying to avoid? If so, search out an acceptable substitute. Make small changes here and there at first, adding more as you become used to the first ones. It's amazing how simple it is, for instance to cut down on the calories, fat, cholesterol and sodium in a recipe for Vegetable Macaroni and Cheese without reducing the flavor. In fact, unless you 'fess up, it's unlikely that the average person could tell the difference.

The recipe (see Page XX) calls for cheese, milk, margarine, mayonnaise, a can of onion soup, broccoli, tomatoes, bread crumbs and macaroni. By doing nothing more than substituting skim milk for the whole milk, diet margarine for regular margarine, reduced calorie mayonnaise for regular mayonnaise and cooking the macaroni in unsalted rather than salted water, it is possible to reduce the number of calories per serving from 481 to 368, the fat content from 29 grams to 16 grams and the sodium from 827 milligrams to 710 milligrams.

It would, of course, be easy to cut down on the amount of cheese used, which would help even more, or to substitute one of the low-fat cheeses available now. But a bit of experimentation showed that the low-fat cheese didn't melt the way I thought it should for this particular dish, and that reducing the amount of regular process cheese called for also reduced the flavor to a noticeable degree. Since my object was to eliminate as many calories and as much fat and sodium as possible without eliminating any of the palatability of the dish, I happily settled for these relatively simple changes, particularly since there was little change in the vitamin and mineral content.

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