Denying yourself the food you love is the surest way to sabotage your noble intentions to eat better. So stop with the deprivation already. Instead of daydreaming about heaps of fish and chips, steaming curries and sizzling sirloin steaks, get back to eating them.
Just follow these 57 simple tips for making your favourite food better for you: lower in fat, calories and cholesterol, and higher in protein, vitamins and antioxidants. And these upgrades are so sly, you won't even notice a difference. Easy as pie.
1. Use oil sparingly
Avoid splashing 'light' olive oil over your salads, says dietitian Elena Paravantes from the Hellenic Dietetic Association in Greece. They have a less intense flavour and fewer cancer-fighting antioxidants than the extra-virgin kind. Not sure if your oil's up to scratch? "Good extra virgin olive oil should have a peppery, slightly bitter taste and leave a faint burning sensation in the throat," she says.
2. Catch up on your lycopene
Squirt some organic ketchup on that bun. New data from the Agricultural Research Service in California found that organic ketchups have about twice as much cancer-fighting lycopene than the regular varieties. A simple visual clue you've got the correct ketchup? Organic varieties are a darker shade of red than regular ketchups. Check the label to make sure at least 95 per cent of the ingredients listed are organic.
3. Get wet
Let your vegetables stir-fry in their own moisture instead of an oil bath. Use a few drops of oil to start, and then add water rather than more oil as you're stir-frying.
4. Rinse your beans
Canned beans - kidney, cannelini, chickpeas - are an easy, quick way to add protein and fibre to your meals. But they can also spike your daily sodium intake, increasing your risk of stomach cancer and high blood pressure. Simply rinsing them for three minutes, however, will shed about 30 per cent of their sodium.
5. Shake on oregano
One tablespoon of fresh oregano has more antioxidants than an entire apple, according to researchers at the US Department of Agriculture. Mexican oregano has the highest count, but Italian oregano and Greek mountain oregano trail closely behind. Add the herb to anything from noodles to meats to salad dressings.
6. Stuff your burger
Before grilling, pack your homemade burgers with olives, mushrooms or any vegetable you like, says dietitian Ellie Krieger, author of The Food You Crave. This makes the stingy recommended serving of beef (85-113g) look and feel like a massive hunk of burger. The vegetable stuffing adds healthy nutrients while cutting down on the amount of red meat needed for a satisfying sandwich.
7. Give in to chocolate cravings
You don't have to deprive yourself of the sweet stuff. Shave dark chocolate into savoury dishes and barbecue sauces - you'll add a richer flavour along with flavonoids and polyphenols. Both lower your risk of heart disease and keep your cholesterol in check.
8. Build a better pizza
Can't resist pepperoni? Go for it, but reduce the fat by ordering two or more vegetable toppings for each meat topping and asking the cook to use half the normal amount of meat.
9. Curry favour with yoghurt
Replace the high-fat coconut milk in your curries with low-fat, plain yoghurt, says Willin Low, executive chef at Singapore's Wild Rocket restaurant. "Yoghurt adds that creamy texture to your dish - so you get the taste and antioxidants from the turmeric spices without the extra fat from the coconut."
10. Add cheese to breakfast
Grate hard, flavourful cheese like Parmesan on hot cereals - atole, oatmeal, grits, congee - for added protein and flavour. "The key here is to add protein to all of your meals as it fills you up faster and may even help you burn more calories throughout the day," says dietitian Milton Stokes from the American Dietetic Association.
11. Make a visual impact
We like the taste of food better when it looks appetising, say researchers at the University of Surrey in the UK. Since you eat with your eyes, try adding small amounts of full-fat ingredients where they're clearly visible. Krieger makes mashed potatoes with buttermilk (comparable in fat and calories to low-fat milk, but much creamier) - no butter, no cream. She adds a small pat of butter on top, and when it melts, it sends out the visual signal that something creamy and rich is coming.
12. Wrap meats in greens
Bin your bread to cut your carbs. Researchers at Brown University in the US found that those who had lost weight were more likely to keep it off if they adhered to a low-carb diet. Emulate the Koreans by ditching the sandwich bread and wrapping spicy cooked beef or chicken with leafy greens instead. Try Chinese cabbage, bok choy or lettuce. Replacing two slices of whole-wheat bread with one large lettuce leaf saves you 30g of carbohydrates.
13. Cut big chunks
Chop your vegetables into large pieces so less surface area is exposed to the air, says dietitian Megan Pentz-Kluyts from the Association for Dietetics in South Africa. This helps retain more of their cancer-fighting antioxidants.
14. Incentivise your breakfast
Add your favourite toppings to a bowl of wholegrain cereal to ensure you eat breakfast every day. A study at the Harvard School of Public Health in the US found that men are 23 per cent less likely to gain 5kg or more over a decade when they eat breakfast daily. Dietitian Milton Stokes recommends adding nuts, and executive chef Willin Low likes adding shaved dark chocolate to his bowl of cereal. Or throw in a handful of berries or a chopped banana.
15. Consume produce fast
Wash and cut your produce and herbs just before you need them, recommends H.N. Mishra, PhD, president of the Association of Food Scientists and Technologists in India. Produce begins to deteriorate and lose many of its nutrients immediately after being cut.
16. But let your garlic rest
The exception to this rule is garlic. Its cancer-fighting enzyme - allinase - develops more fully if it's left sitting for 10 minutes or so after being chopped, says Portuguese nutritionist Rita Fonseca Silva.
17. Thicken your soup... Not your stomach
Stir a small handful of cornmeal into your soups - it will thicken broths into hearty, healthy stews fast. (The method works in many sauces too.) Plus, cornmeal contains an antioxidant called zeaxanthin, which helps preserve good vision.
18. Boost your pancakes
The next time you make pancakes, replace a quarter-cup of flour with a quarter-cup of cornmeal. "It'll give your pancakes great texture, and the cornmeal will add about 2g of fibre, plus magnesium and iron, to boost your breakfast," says Krieger. Iron keeps your blood healthy and magnesium regulates your blood pressure.
19. Lemon-aid your body
Squeeze lemon juice on meat, potatoes, beans and even rice, says Paravantes. On top of an acidic burst of flavour, you'll also get an extra shot of vitamin C, which allows you to absorb more of the iron in these foods.
20. Zest your dinner, save your skin
And don't stop at the juice. Citrus zest - slivered peels of limes, oranges, and lemons - add flavour to a dish along with a compound called D-limonene, which can help prevent skin cancer. Iman Hakim, PhD and a team of researchers at the University of Arizona found that eating a tablespoon of zest each week (roughly the zest of one small lemon) is enough to reduce your risk of skin cancer by up to 30 per cent.
21. Go ahead, garnish
Add a handful of fresh parsley to almost any dish you're cooking. It goes really well with most savoury foods, and a half-cup of the green stuff is packed with nearly 70 per cent of the vitamin C, 50 per cent of the vitamin A and 10 per cent of the iron you need every day. Plus, it naturally freshens your breath.
22. Sauna your broccoli
For perfectly cooked and nutrient-rich vegetables, rinse, throw them in a sealed container and microwave for three-to-four minutes, suggests Krieger. Boiling, blanching and over-steaming all zap vegetables of their nutrients - the only water you need are the drops that cling after rinsing.
23. Mint your next sandwich
Next time you assemble your usual turkey sandwich, add fresh mint leaves. "Mint is a huge flavour punch that will bring excitement and surprise - and a boost to your daily intake of vitamin A - to a healthy staple that can get boring," Krieger says.
24. Smoke your oil
Heat your skillet before you add oil. It allows your food to absorb less fat - warm oil cooks more efficiently; cooler oil just soaks into your food.
25. Slice your steak, eat less
Slicing thinly will make your portions seem bigger and more satisfying. In a recent study at Japan's National Food Research Institute, participants who compared equal amounts of sliced and whole vegetables rated the sliced piles up to 27 per cent larger. Turns out when you believe you're eating a larger portion, you feel more satisfied with fewer calories.
26. Squash the fat
Replace half of the cheddar you need for quesadillas, mac n' cheese or grilled cheese sandwiches with pureed butternut squash, recommends Jessica Seinfeld, author of Deceptively Delicious and wife of comedian Jerry Seinfeld. This significantly lowers the dishes' fat and calorie counts, but doesn't compromise the taste. It also gives you a slew of added vitamins and heart-healthy potassium.
27. Liquidate your (greens) holdings
Next time you're heating some curry, pasta sauce or noodle soup, stir in a couple of handfuls of baby spinach or other leafy greens just before serving, says nutritionist Carina Norris. "The heat will wilt the leaves, but they'll retain their nutrients," she says. This is a great use for those greens in your fridge that are just past their sell-by date.
28. Bulk your balls
Grate carrots, squash or zucchini into any meatball-mixture. They add bulk, moisture and vitamins, but don't alter that meaty flavour you're looking for.
29. Turn your sandwiches green
Replace mayonnaise with a spread of ripe avocado to moisten a dry sandwich or wraps. Avocados are packed with monounsaturated fats which are heart-healthy. Plus, researchers at Ohio State University in the US discovered that phytochemicals in avocados may help prevent mouth cancer.
30. Choose the blues
If you're aiming to lose weight, use blue corn tortillas in your next batch of nachos, fajitas or quesadillas. Researchers in South America found that tortillas made from blue corn have a lower glycaemic index than those made from white corn, so they won't raise your blood sugar as quickly. They also have more protein and less starch than the white versions.
31. Go loco on cocoa
Make your own chocolate milk, so you drink more cancer-fighting antioxidants and fewer artificial ingredients like high-fructose corn syrup. Krieger recommends this simple DIY paste: Moisten a one-to-one ratio of sugar and natural cocoa power with a few drops of water or milk. Stir in cold milk. Make sure you get natural cocoa, not the processed kind which strips out antioxidants.
32. Bring the heat
...And burn off the blubber. Scientists at the University of Tasmania in Australia found that overweight people are more likely to slim down after consuming a meal that contains chilli peppers compared to one that isn't 'on fire'. Capsaicin, the chemical that makes chillies hot, may help the liver clear insulin - a hormone that tells your body to store fat - from the blood stream after a meal, says the study's co-author Kiran Ahuja, PhD.
33. Slim your pie hole
"Save yourself loads of fat and calories by crumpling sheets of filo (or phyllo) pastry to top meat or fruit pies instead of using short crust or puff-pastry topping," suggests UK-based nutritionist Carina Norris. Switching from traditional pastry dough to filo saves you 110 calories and 10g of fat per serving.
34. Power up your desserts
Use tofu to make a simple, protein-rich chocolate mousse and save your prostate. A team of researchers in Japan found that the high number of isoflavones, a natural plant hormones found in tofu, can protect men against prostate cancer. Puree the silken variety until it's smooth and add melted dark chocolate, says Krieger. Then let it set in your fridge for an hour or so. "Silken tofu has absolutely no taste, so nobody will even know it's there," she says.
35. Don't pity the pita
Add extra vegetables to your next sandwich by packing in a whole-wheat pita pocket rather than conventional slices of bread, recommends Ellie Krieger. Pitas simply hold more. And a Harvard University study found that for every serving of vegetables you add to your daily diet, you are decreasing your risk of heart disease by 4 per cent.
36. Slim your sides
Replace the whole milk in your mashed potatoes with evaporated skim milk. It's lower in fat and higher in calcium per cup; but it still manages to add richness to your mash. You'll find it in a can - usually near the baking products in the supermarket.
37. Swap the red meat for red lentils
To make a low-fat, antioxidant-packed lasagna, use half the usual amount of ground meat and make up the difference with red lentils, recommends Norris. "They're still protein-packed, but lentils are fat-free and high in fibre, making them more filling too," she says. And since red lentils have a neutral taste, they'll simply soak up the flavours in your sauce. You won't even notice them. We promise.
38. Trade crackers for oats
For any meat recipe that calls for crackers or breadcrumbs, use an equal amount of rolled oats instead. This adds soluble fibre, which can help lower your cholesterol. Krieger recommends using the quick-cooking variety of oatmeal for this because it retains moisture well and doesn't alter the meaty taste.
39. Keep your abs hard with soft cheese
Use softer cheese like goat, feta and ricotta on sandwiches because they're about a third lower in fat and calories than hard cheese. And when you need full-fat cheese, use Parmesan, blues and extra-sharp cheddar. They have less calories but taste just as great.
40. Go organic
Organic fruits and vegetables may have up to 40 per cent more antioxidants than non-organics, according to a new European Union study led by researchers at Newcastle University in the UK. Might as well get the most bang out of your blueberry.
41. Fight cancer with dessert
Make a healthy sweet cream for desserts by pureeing part-skim ricotta cheese and honey. Ricotta is made mostly of whey, the liquid that separates from curd during the cheese-making process. Whey contains cysteine, an amino acid that helps produce a cancer-fighting antioxidant called gluthathione. Add some of this cream to a bowl of berries for a cancer-fighting super-dessert.
42. Lighten your fish dip
To make sashimi and sushi even healthier, dunk those lean slices of salmon into low-sodium soya sauce - you'll save about 790mg of sodium for every tablespoon, which can seriously mellow your blood pressure.
43. Make your burger fly
Try replacing your ground beef with minced ostrich - a popular burger option in South Africa. "It's much lower in fat and ostrich meat gives you more protein than beef," says Megan Pentz-Kluyts.
44. Freeze your bananas
When they freeze, bananas become naturally sweeter. Add one to your next smoothie - you won't need any sugar.
45. Cut cheese fat
If you're baking something with a topping of grated cheese, reduce the fat content by halving the amount of cheese used and replace it with whole-wheat breadcrumbs instead, suggests Carina Norris. This mimics the crispy texture of baked cheese and adds fibre, which reduces your risk of a variety of cancers.
46. Slim your chicken salad
Use thick, Greek-style plain yoghurt to cut down on the amount of mayo you need to make chicken, tuna or egg salad sandwiches.
47. Don't be a shrimp, eat some
For an easy way to add lean protein to your meals, stock up on frozen shrimp, suggests Willin Low. They defrost in just five minutes under cool, running water. And with the cooked variety, you have an instant health snack. If they're uncooked, throw them into your pasta sauces, stir-fries or noodle soups in the last minutes of cooking.
48. ...Better yet, boil first
Boil your peanuts (in their shells) for about three hours. Researchers at Alabama A&M University and the University of Alabama, US, found that boiled peanuts - a popular snack in China, Southeast Asia, Australia and the southern United States - have up to four times more antioxidants than raw, dry or oil-roasted peanuts.
49. Shell your nuts
Buy nuts in their shells. More time shelling equals less time shovelling handfuls into your mouth.
50. Crush your garlic
Garlic is great for your heart, but tough on your breath. Scientists at the Agricultural Research Service in Argentina found the best way to prepare garlic: crush the cloves and bake them for a few minutes. This method will help retain its health benefits (and also your girlfriend).
51. Eat the mayo
Loathe light mayo? You're not alone. Krieger recommends that you simply use the regular kind - sparingly. Better still, go for canola mayo (available from health food stores), which tastes just like regular mayo but is made with heart-healthy canola oil instead of vegetable oil.
52. Fight the flu with 'Shrooms
Load up on white button mushrooms. This often overlooked veg may ward off viruses and tumours by boosting your immune system, say dietitians at Tufts University in Boston. White mushrooms can help you shrink your waistline and their potent antioxidants can also help you fight cancer. Replacing one cup of rice or pasta with the same amount of mushrooms can save you up to 200 calories, which adds up to 3kg in a year if you do this just twice a week.
53. Choose the smaller apple
Resist the urge to grab the biggest apple in the pile - when it comes to produce, bigger isn't always better. As fruits and vegetables grow larger, their health-boosting vitamins and minerals significantly diminish, according to a report by the Organic Center, a non-profit organisation in the US that investigates the health benefits of organics.
54. Protect your DNA with capers
Add jarred capers to your meat dishes to help prevent heart disease and cancer. When researchers at the Universita di Palermo in Italy added caper extracts to cooked meat and simulated how food would be broken down in the stomach, they found that the capers helped prevent the formation of compounds that damage DNA. You can usually find capers in your condiment aisle near the pickles.
55. Soba switcheroo
Swap traditional pasta for Japanese soba noodles. Made from buckwheat, soba noodles take more time to digest than regular pasta noodles, so they'll keep you feeling satisfied longer. Plus, one serving of soba will give you about twice as much fibre, protein and iron as one serving of most regular, un-enriched noodles.
56. Leave no cheerio behind
To get all of the vitamins out of your cereal, drink the milk left in the bowl. You've admirably resisted the Cocoa Pops in favour of breakfast cereal that's fortified with more vitamins, but that doesn't mean you're actually getting all of the nutrients on the side of the box. Up to 40 per cent of the vitamins in your cereal dissolve into that orphaned puddle of milk. Time to drink up, gents.
57. Be your own chippy
To soften some of the health damage inflicted by Britain's national treasure, try this healthier DIY version of fish and chips - courtesy of Mark and Pete Petrou of Petrou Brothers, one of the top fish and chip shops in the UK:
1. Buy fillets or loins of white fish such as haddock or cod, and cut into chunks.
2. Make a tempura-like batter by mixing iced sparkling water with self-rising flour.
3. Dust the fish chunks with self-rising flour and roll in the tempura batter.
4. Shallow fry the fish in hot, heart-healthy canola oil: fill one-third of your pan with oil and heat to about 180 deg C.
5. For the chips, toss them in 1-2 tablespoons of canola oil with salt, herbs or garlic. Then bake them at 230 deg C for about 30 minutes.
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