Recipe Makeovers: 10 Commandments of Healthy Cooking

'The Recipe Doctor' shares her top recipe lightening tips By Elaine Magee, MPH, RD

By Elaine Magee, MPH, RD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Expert Column

Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD

When it comes to the not-so-ancient art of "making over" recipes to make them lighter and healthier, I think I can safely say that I qualify as an expert.

I've written 25 books (and counting) on an assortment of nutrition topics, but I'm certainly not an authority on all of them. Sure, I wrote about getting through menopause without hormone therapy, but I haven't spent my career researching menopause. And I've written about what to eat if you have irritable bowel syndrome, type 2 diabetes, acid reflux, and migraines. But I relied on specialists in these areas to review what I wrote, as I'm not a specialist in these very important topics.

But with lightening recipes, it's a different story. I've been doing this since I was a graduate student in the early 80s, which, according to my calculations, means I've lightened thousands of recipes!

I don't mean to brag, but I can take a quick glance at a recipe and know, with pretty good accuracy, what I can get away with changing and still end up with a dish that tastes terrific. I know off the top of my head what the magical minimum amount of fat is for most bakery recipes (muffins, cakes, brownies). To recipes you wouldn't think could be lightened (like fried chicken, jalapeno poppers, tempura, and English toffee), I've said "bring it on!" and found success. (OK, now I really am bragging -- so sorry!)

Over the years, I've changed my focus to incorporate the latest nutrition science. For example, we now know that the type of fat we cook with is important, so I switch to the "smart fats" whenever possible. I work to increase the fiber and nutrient content of recipes just as I work to cut sodium and decrease calories from fat and sugar. Being "The Recipe Doctor" is part of my professional identity, and I am grateful for (and fond of) this responsibility.

All that said, I would like to share with you what I call my 10 Recipe Lightening Commandments. These commandments are the culmination of years of recipe testing and tasting. I pass them to you in good faith.

My 10 Recipe Lightening Commandments

1. In most bakery recipes (muffins, cakes, cookies, coffee cakes, brownies, nut breads, etc.) you can substitute whole-wheat for half the white flour called for. Compared to 1/4 cup of white flour, each 1/4 cup of whole-wheat flour adds 3.5 grams of fiber and various phytochemicals, and doubles the amount of magnesium and selenium. The extra fiber helps slow digestion and increase fullness.

2. In most bakery recipes, you can replace half of the sugar with Splenda (or a similar artificial sweetener). This cuts the calories from sugar in half, saving you 48 calories per tablespoon of sugar you replace.

3. In egg dishes (quiches, frittatas, omelets, breakfast casseroles), you can use egg substitute in place of half the eggs. In other words, if the recipe calls for 6 eggs, you would blend 3 whole eggs with 3/4 cup egg substitute (1/4 cup of egg substitute replaces each egg). You can replace half the eggs in bakery recipes with egg substitute as well. By replacing one large egg with 1/4 cup egg substitute, you'll shave 45 calories, 5 grams of fat, 1.6 grams of saturated fat, and 213 milligrams of cholesterol.

4. In many bakery recipes, you can cut the fat ingredient (butter, margarine, shortening, or oil) in half. In other words, if a cake recipe calls for 1 cup of butter or margarine, you can usually use 1/2 cup instead. Remember to replace the missing fat with a similar amount of a moist but healthful ingredient (fat-free sour cream, orange juice, low-fat yogurt, applesauce, etc.) This change cuts both fat and calories, since each gram of fat translates into 9 calories as opposed to 4 per gram for protein or carbohydrate.

5. Cook with reduced-fat or fat-free products when available -- and when they taste good. Try fat-free sour cream, reduced-fat cheeses, light cream cheese, light mayonnaise, reduced-fat or light sausage, less-fat turkey bacon, light salad dressings, and light or low-fat ice cream or frozen yogurt. Many cut calories and saturated fat along with total fat. A few fat-free products are in my arsenal as well: fat-free sour cream and half-and-half, chicken broth, wine, strong coffee, fruit purees, and fruit juice. These foods add moisture, and sometimes flavor, to recipes where you aren't using a lot of fatty ingredients.