In my last blogpost, I ended by writing: “When people ask me which diet or recipe book I recommend, I tell them that I have no idea, because I don’t know what kinds of food they eat. I could tell you which diet to follow or which foods to eat, but if you don’t like them, or they don’t fall within your religious or ethical constraints, or if you’re allergic or intolerant to them, then it doesn’t do you any good. When it comes to diet, the principles of weight loss are simple: Increase consumption of nutrient dense foods, decrease consumption of calorie dense foods, control portions sizes and don’t drink your calories.”
Following that formula then, you can turn nearly any recipe or meal into a higher-nutrient, lower-calorie one that falls in line with your weight loss goals. Here’s how:
1. Start with fresh produce – lots of it! It doesn’t matter whether you don’t like most vegetables. I’ve never met anyone who doesn’t like /any/ vegetables. So choose two or three of your favorites and make them the base of your recipe. (If it’s breakfast you’re cooking, then maybe fruit is a more appropriate choice.) The key here is the word /fresh./ Out of season, it’s fine to use frozen fruits or vegetables, but make darned sure there isn’t any added sugar, salt or other stuff you don’t want. Canned fruits and vegetables are a last resort, but there are some decent varieties out there – read the labels!
2. Reduce fat and processed carbs. You can usually cut between 50 and 200 calories from a meal simply by reducing or eliminating the amount of oil you cook with and/or by substituting more vegetables, fruits or whole grains for processed carbs. I always reduce the amount of oil any recipe calls for by half the first time I make it, and often times, I find that I can get by with even less. Where carbs are concerned, try using a lettuce leaf instead of a tortilla; substitute crisp apple wedges for potato chips; or dip carrot or cucumber coins into your salsa instead of corn chips.
3. Add a lean protein. If you eat animal products, your best options are lean poultry or fish, egg whites and some plain yogurts (Greek style generally has the most protein). You’re aiming for more calories from protein than fat – not more grams! A gram of protein has 4 calories, and a gram of fat has 9 calories, so your protein choice needs to have more than twice as many grams of protein as fat. If you eat a plant-based diet, then you’re already ahead of the game, since lightly processed plant proteins are usually very low in fat. Lentils, beans, tofu, tempeh, seitan and quinoa are all great plant sources of protein.
4. Accompany with a small serving of whole grains or nutrient-dense starch. Quinoa (which qualifies as both a whole grain and a protein), barley, bulgar, wheat berries and brown, black or red rice are whole grain powerhouses. They’re high in fiber, so they’ll fill you up fast and make you feel full longer. Potatoes, sweet potatoes, bananas or plantains are decent starchy fruits and vegetables. The danger areas for all of these are serving size and method of preparation. The calories can add up quickly, especially if you’re pairing that potato with butter and sour cream!
5. Drink the essence of life. Water – sure, it’s boring, but it pairs well with every food out there, it’s necessary to the function of every single cell in your body, and it adds zero calories to your meal. A glass of wine or juice, or a beer or soda are okay every once in awhile, but if you’re regularly drinking more than 10 percent of your daily calories, you are seriously hampering your weight loss efforts.
Given the above formula, you can pick almost any kind of meal or snack and make it a healthy one. Here are a couple of examples of popular “favorite” foods:
Burritos: 1/8 cup of cooked brown rice, 1/2 cup of black beans, 1/4 cup of fresh homemade salsa and a slice of avocado wrapped in two or three bibb lettuce leaves. Total calories: about 230 (compared to around 400 for the same burrito wrapped in a tortilla with sour cream).
Spaghetti: Start with a huge salad or your favorite steamed veggie. Then add spinach and a can of cannellini beans (or 1/2 pound diced, sautéed chicken breast) to a high-quality tomato sauce (or make your own simple sauce with tomatoes, onion, garlic and basil). Pour 1/2 cup of the sauce over 1/2 cup of cooked whole grain pasta. I prefer brown rice pasta to whole wheat pasta, but that’s just me. For dessert, try a couple of Medjool dates or a fresh Anjou pear.
Try this with any of your own favorite recipes. As long as you make an effort to add fresh produce, reduce the amount of fat and processed carbohydrates, and don’t drink your calories, your meals will automatically undergo a calorie-reduction transformation!