Stealthy Tricks for Healthy Eating

Improve your diet the easy (and sneaky) way

By Leanna Skarnulis
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, LD

Does the very idea of eating healthy fill your head with images of crunching your way through endless servings of "rabbit food," or, worse still, downing plate after plate of those bland and mushy vegetables you remember from the school lunchroom? Then it's no wonder that Big Macs and Krispy Kremes still look so alluring.

But healthy eating and pleasurable eating don't have to be mutually exclusive. Evelyn Tribole, MS, RD, has devoted much of her career to proving that.

"Healthy eating has a bad reputation," says Tribole, a nutritional consultant in Irvine, Calif., who is the author of Stealth Health: How To Sneak Nutrition Painlessly Into Your Diet. "I'm a big advocate of not telling anyone a dish is healthy until they've tasted it and had a good experience."

That's probably wise, given that a couple of her favorite nutritious "sneaks" are putting tofu in cheesecake and black beans in fudge brownies (a trick that boosts the fiber content of one brownie to the equivalent of a slice of whole-wheat bread).

Nutrition consultant Elizabeth Ward, MS, RD, is also an advocate of hiding healthful ingredients in favorite foods. Ward is the author of several nutrition books including Healthy Foods, Healthy Kids. (Comforting news for parents: Even a nutritionist can't get away with telling her kids to eat something because it's good for them. "They'll run the other way," says Ward, a mother of three.)

But Ward doesn't just use stealth nutrition tactics on her kids; she also tricks herself. "I love the feel of a burger, but I don't really like hamburger," she says. So she grills a large portobello mushroom and serves it on a whole-wheat bun with cheese, tomato, and lettuce.

The best news is that such simple switches can go far beyond helping you control your weight. In the long run, they may also help reduce your risk for diseases such as heart disease, cancer, and osteoporosis.

Wondering how to get started? Here are some of Tribole and Ward's favorite "stealth" tips for adding healthy ingredients to your diet -- and cutting back on not-so-healthy ones.

Become a Fan of Fiber

Replacing some of the simple carbohydrates (things like sugar and white flour) with complex carbohydrates (like whole wheat grains and brown rice) boosts your fiber intake and may reduce your risk of heart disease and cancer.

Here are a few ways to do it on the sly:

  • Sneak wheat germ into pancake mix.
  • Replace sandwich bread with roll-ups, such as a large leaf of dark lettuce or a whole-wheat pita.
  • Substituting cooked spaghetti squash for spaghetti.

Not only does eating plenty of fruits and vegetables add fiber, it may also reduce your risk of certain cancers. Plus, they'll help fill you up and manage your weight (unless, of course, all your daily servings are french fries).

"Once you nail down four or five ways to sneak in different nutrients, you have the problem licked."

To get more fruit in your diet:

  • Puree canned apricots and serve warm over low-fat ice cream or pancakes.
  • Add dried fruits to cereal or a muffin recipe.
  • Add orange slices to a green salad.
  • For a special occasion, make a "fruit fondue" with a hollowed-out angel food cake filled with a low-fat cream cheese dip. Serve fruit on skewers.
  • For family meals, dress up fruits and serve them as dessert. "Baked fruit desserts fly in my house," Ward says. "Blueberry and peach in the summer, apple and pear in the fall. You can put oatmeal in the topping and cut back on the sugar."
  • Dip strawberries in a small amount of chocolate.
  • Let the kids squirt whipped cream on fruit (grownups can use the reduced-fat type and watch the portion size).
  • Make fruit smoothies.
  • Glamorize trail mix by adding a few mini chocolate chips to dried cranberries, raisins, and nuts. (Make sure the kids don't eat just the chocolate chips.)

As for veggies:

  • In the "you have to taste it to believe it department," substitute cauliflower for half the potatoes in mashed or twice-baked potatoes. Just steam fresh or frozen cauliflower, then puree in a food processor or blender before adding to the potatoes.
  • Disguise vegetables: Grate carrots and add them to cheddar cheese soup, or snip fresh spinach leaves very fine to resemble basil and add them to spaghetti sauce and lasagna.
  • Add chopped tomatoes and other vegetables to burritos and tacos.
  • Put leftover vegetables in your favorite soup.

Don't Forget the Calcium

Among the benefits of calcium (found in dairy products and green vegetables) is that it helps prevent osteoporosis. But it's not just older people who need it. Calcium is also critical during childhood and early adulthood, to help build bones and teeth.

To make sure you (and your family) are getting enough:

  • Use evaporated skim milk, which Ward says has twice the calcium of regular milk, in mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese, and soups.
  • Add a tablespoon of powdered milk to hot cocoa.
  • Prepare oatmeal in the microwave with milk instead of water.
  • Thicken casseroles with powdered milk.
  • Stir cottage cheese into hot or cold pasta dishes.
  • Add cottage cheese to salsa as a dip for baked tortilla chips or toasted pita bread chips.
  • When you're hungry for Italian, try making manicotti, lasagna, or ravioli with calcium-rich ricotta cheese (use the part-skim variety, or even try cottage cheese).
  • Spread ricotta on raisin toast for a mid-morning snack.
  • Use nonfat plain yogurt in place of sour cream for making dips and double the calcium.
  • Sprinkle low-fat cheese on baked potatoes, chili, and vegetables.

Getting Into the Healthy Eating Habit

You don't have to commit this entire list of tricks to memory. "Once you nail down four or five ways to sneak in different nutrients, you have the problem licked, at least for awhile," Ward says.

But once you master a few stealth nutrition tactics, keep trying new ones to help keep boredom at bay. And who knows? You may even trick yourself right into a healthy diet -- no rabbit food required -- with your taste buds none the wiser.

Originally published Nov. 11, 2003
Medically updated Oct. 15, 2004.

SOURCES: WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise: "Healthy Eating." Evelyn Tribole, MS, RD, nutrition consultant; author of Stealth Health: How To Sneak Nutrition Painlessly Into Your Diet. Elizabeth Ward, MS, RD, nutrition consultant; author of Healthy Foods, Healthy Kids.

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