GETTING THE WORD that you have to change your diet for health reasons can be pretty depressing news. Most people, by the time they are adults, have developed rather habitual ways of preparing meals, not to mention some favorite recipes they have no intention of giving up.
"Most American families eat from the same ten recipes, over and over again," says Julia Lockard, an extension agent with the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension Service in
Baltimore County. "These are the meals we like to eat and that we are used to and that we continue to serve."
But altering your diet doesn't have to mean giving up your favorite foods, particularly if they are meals you prepare from scratch, says Lockard, who conducts seminars for the public on health and nutrition. A few modifications in the way a recipe is prepared can successfully reduce not only the amount of fat in your diet, but also levels of sodium, cholesterol and sugar. Often, you won't even notice a difference in taste, texture or satisfaction, she says.
Actually, efforts toward leaner, lighter fare can be beneficial to everyone at your table, says Mark Kantor, of the university's extension service in College Park. A food and nutrition specialist whose business it is to keep abreast of the latest dietary recommendations, he says guidelines such as those issued by the National Cholesterol Education Program should be kept in mind when making any change in diet.
Among other things, the NCEP suggests that individuals keep their blood cholesterol level below 200, that one's intake of cholesterol should not exceed 300 milligrams a day and that fat ** should make up less than 30 percent of one's daily intake of calories.
The goal may be 30 percent, but the typical American's diet today contains about 40 percent fat, says Lockard, whose recent workshop, "Cooking Lite," explored ways to modify recipes for restricted diets. In fact, she says, "three out of every five calories that we eat come from either fat or sugar."
The first step toward modifying traditional recipes is to determine just how much of the ingredient in question you are eating, says Lockard.
Once you decide to modify a particular recipe, you have a choice of, basically, eliminating an ingredient, reducing the amount of it or substituting it with something else.
"You need to look at the recipe and ask yourself, 'Is this a necessary part of the product?'" says Lockard. "For instance, sugar is rather important in baking a cake," and you have to experiment to see how much you can reduce it.
"On the other hand, salt can be eliminated in many cases or at least cut back quite a bit."
Indeed, sound judgment is involved. The single egg in a casserole may not be as detrimental to the health of someone with high blood cholesterol as is the butter or cup of mayonnaise in it.
"You really need to analyze the recipe," says Lockard. "Ask yourself, 'Is the ingredient there basically for flavor; is it there for texture; is it essential? Can I substitute something else for it?
"For example, sour cream is often used in a sauce for the consistency and texture that it gives. But low-fat yogurt can many times be used in place of sour cream." The sauce may have a slightly different taste, she says, "but it will have less fat, less salt and less calories."
Similarly, sodium can be minimized. "You can now buy tomato products without additional salt," says Lockard. "But they do taste flat. So this is where you need to experiment with herbs. You can substitute herbs for salt."
In fact, substitutions can be challenging, says Lockard, noting some possibilities with meatloaf, the weeknight staple that seems to be either adored or despised by American families. Lockard suggests substituting ground turkey for ground beef (a savings of 63 calories per three-ounce slice, she says).
Beyond that, she says, you can eliminate the egg, use bread crumbs instead of cracker crumbs, use skim milk instead of whole milk and substitute low-salt tomato sauce for the regular kind. "You can save as much as 150 calories and 18 grams of fat per serving," she says.
"Or try making your own creamed soups to use in casseroles." She suggests that a homemade variety using skim milk, margarine and less salt than the commercially canned type can cut the amount of fat in half and drastically reduce the sodium content.
Once you start modifying a recipe, Lockard says, keep track of how much you cut back each time you make it. And don't be discouraged, she warns. "You might have to experiment a little."
The accompanying suggestion boxes and recipes are based on information from the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension Service.
In this recipe, the amounts of sugar, walnuts and egg have been reduced. Margarine and yogurt have been substituted for butter and sour cream, and salt has been omitted. The new recipe has two-thirds the calories.
Apple Sour Coffee Cake
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup chopped walnuts
# 1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/3 cup margarine
3/4 cup sugar