10 Ways to Cut Calories in Baking Recipes

How to lighten up your holiday recipes without sacrificing taste.

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

Reviewed by Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD/LD

I know, the holiday season comes once a year, so why bother to cut calories in your cake, cookie, and pie recipes? I've heard this sentiment many times. But hear me out. All I'm suggesting is that you consider making some small, simple changes to rid your baking recipes of excess calories -- the calories the dish doesn't really need to taste great.

Depending on the recipe and the taster, most of these healthier changes can be made without anyone noticing. Using half whole-wheat flour, for example, will be more noticeable in a pound cake (with a light-colored batter) than in a gingerbread cake.

So if you're able to cut excess calories fairly easily in most baking recipes, why not do it? It could make the difference between gaining a little weight over the holidays and not gaining a little weight. Say you cut 150 calories per serving from your favorite holiday treats. And say you enjoy about one serving per day of these treats for 15 days during the holiday season. Technically, that's one pound of weight gain prevented! That one pound saved can quickly become two pounds if you usually eat one treat a day for 30 days, or if you have two per day for 15 days (you get the picture).

I'll give you more specifics below, but there are three basic methods to cut calories in baking recipes:

  • Use less sugar. You can cut calories simply by using less sugar, or by substituting a no-calorie sweetener for part of the sugar. Just keep in mind that some people are more sensitive to tasting artificial sweeteners than others, and that some baking recipes depend on sugar for texture as much as taste.
  • Use less fat. For every gram of fat added to a recipe (and there are about 13 grams in a tablespoon of oil or butter), you add 9 calories. The trick here is knowing the magical minimum of fat is for the particular recipe you're using. Keep in mind that when you take fat out, you often have to replace it with another moist ingredient (like fat-free sour cream, applesauce, light cream cheese, or orange juice).
  • Eat smaller servings. Of course, you can also cut calories by being satisfied with a smaller serving. This is where fiber comes in. If you increase the fiber in appropriate recipes -- by using whole-wheat flour, by adding high-fiber fruits instead of higher-calorie add-ins like chocolate, or by using fruit purees in place of some of the butter or oil -- it's easier to be satisfied with a smaller portion. You may also tend to eat less of a goodie when it's served in bite-sized portions.

10 Ways to Cut Calories in Baking Recipes

Here are 10 tried-and-true tips to help make your holiday baking recipes healthier.

1. Whole-Wheat Flour Takes the Cake

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

2. Cut the Sugar

In most baking recipes, you can replace half the sugar with Splenda (or a similar product). If you'd rather not use a sugar alternative, you can sometimes just cut the sugar by 1/4 and the recipe will still work out. For each tablespoon of sugar you cut out, you'll save 48 calories. So cutting 1/4 cup of sugar would save you a total of 192 calories.

3. Use an Egg Substitute

You can replace half of the eggs in your bakery recipes with egg substitute. Some cake recipes call for three or four eggs; some muffin recipes call for one or two. For each large egg that you replace with 1/4 cup of egg substitute, you'll shave 45 calories, 5 grams of fat, 1.6 grams saturated fat, and 213 mg cholesterol.

4. Cut the Fat

In most baking recipes, you can cut the fatty ingredient (butter, margarine, shortening, or oil) by half. So if a cake recipe calls for 1 cup of butter or margarine, you can usually use 1/2 cup instead. Remember to replace that 1/2 cup with a moist but healthful ingredient, and choose an ingredient that complements the flavors of your recipe. My arsenal of secret weapons includes fat-free sour cream, low-fat buttermilk, orange juice, low-fat yogurt, applesauce and other fruit purees, strong coffee, and light cream cheese. Cutting fat cuts lots of calories, as each gram of fat translates into 9 calories (a gram of carbohydrate or protein, by comparison, has 4).

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