My Cooking Substitutions To Balance Taste and Health

Nutrition, Recipes , , ,
Most people will agree that eating awesome food feels great in the moment, but may feel plain awful after finishing. My stomach has never agreed with my food choices, and so after years of treating it poorly and paying for it dearly, I gave in and started cooking better to avoid nights in the bathroom. Before I go into logistics of how I substitute in recipes to cook healthier, I want to explain something for clarification’s sake:
  • A vegetarian (also called lacto-ovo or ovo-lacto vegetarian) is one who does not eat meat: no fish, no chicken, no beef, no pork, etc. They do eat dairy and eggs.
  • A pescatarian eats fish but no other types of meat.
  • A vegan is one who does not eat meat AND also does not eat any animal products: no eggs, no milk, no honey, no nothing with any piece or product of any animal.

I am a vegetarian/ovo-lacto vegetarian. But to muddy the waters, I avoid egg since I have a mild allergy to it and I generally cook vegan except for the occasional cheese. My substitutions in food are generally to alter a recipe towards being more vegan and more heart-healthy. By more heart healthy, I am referring to reducing cholesterol and saturated and trans fats. I’ll explain why I make each substitution in regards to health below.

Seeking the balance- butter or olive oil?
Seeking the balance- butter or olive oil?

1) Butter– If a recipe calls for butter, I use olive oil instead in the same proportions. To convert, use this measurement: a stick of butter is equivalent to half a cup of butter and thus I would use half a cup of olive oil instead. I also don’t hesitate to decrease the amount of oil from the conversion if I think the item I’m making honestly does not need that much fat to keep its consistency and general taste.

A note about oil: Many people think that oil is inherently unhealthy. But it really all just depends on what you call “healthy” and what oil you are using. Oil is fat inherently. However, the fat from olive oil (specifically extra-virgin) and many other oils is mainly monounsaturated fats, meaning there is one double bond and there are less hydrogen molecules attached and this actually decreases LDL (“bad cholesterol”) and increases HDL (“good cholesterol”). Monounsaturated fats also normalize blood clotting factors and benefit blood glucose and insulin levels, which reduces one’s chances of acquiring type 2 diabetes. In these ways, unsaturated fatty acids are good for your health. One point to note, however, is that all oils have a temperature at which they smoke, and when this happens, it becomes trans fat. Trans fat does the opposite for your health- it increases your LDL and decreases your HDL. Therefore, it is important that when you are cooking meals at high temperatures that you take into account an oil’s smoke point. For instance, olive oil’s smoke point is about 375 degrees Fahrenheit, while grapeseed oil’s is 420 degrees Fahrenheit. Therefore, it would be healthier to use grapeseed oil over olive oil to saute food if you are planning on frying, baking, or sauteing over 375 degrees.

Why extra-virgin olive oil is better than butter: Olive oil contains 33% saturated fat, while butter contains 66% saturated fat. Saturated fat increases LDL and total cholesterol. Also, olive oil has no cholesterol in it, whereas butter has 33mg of cholesterol for each serving. Higher levels of total cholesterol and LDL and lower levels of HDL all increase the risk of atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), the leading cause of heart attacks, stroke, and vascular disease. Therefore, replacing butter with olive oil drastically reduces one’s risk of heart disease.
Seeking the balance- eggs or not?
Seeking the balance- eggs or not?

2) Eggs- Eggs are a little trickier to find a replacement for, as they provide meals with fluffy textures. I vary my substitutions of eggs based on what kind of food I am preparing.

Sweet Baked Good: If I’m making sweet baked goods like muffins or cake that don’t depend on egg for textures (unlike quiche or pies for example), simply replace each egg asked for with either 1/2 of a banana mashed or 1/4 cup applesauce.
Savory Meal: If I’m making a savory meal asking for one or two eggs, I mix 1 tbsp of ground flaxseed with 3 tbsps of water and let it gelatinize before adding it to the meal.

Recipe requiring more than 2 eggs: Food that demands eggs for the majority of its texture like quiche or pies need something like silken tofu or Ener-G Egg Replacer. The egg replacer will have explanations on its packaging of conversions for each egg. If using tofu to replace egg, it is better to have a recipe that is already using tofu within its recipe as a replacement.

You can read more about egg substitutions here and here.

Why replace eggs? Honestly, there is a lot of controversy about whether the cholesterol in egg yolks increases one’s blood cholesterol and thus one’s risk of atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries). Some studies say eating eggs is worse than smoking for your health (examples include this and this) and others recommend eating three eggs a day for the sake of your health (click here)! Whether or not you are sold on the cholesterol debate about eggs, you might be convinced that eating eggs is indirectly associated with animal cruelty (from this) or at the very least that they are one major avenue of salmonella transmission and are also not great for the environment.
With all the different types of milk, why choose cow's?
With all the different types of milk, why choose cow’s?

3) Milk and Milk Products- Milk is one of the easiest substitutions to make. Just replace the required milk from the recipe with the same amount of almond, rice, soy, or hemp milk. Enjoy! The only exception is whole milk, which is more fatty and thus needs a milk with more substance. It can easily be replaced with low or high fat coconut milk.

Cream is also often a very important ingredient in thickening up food. Though some people may argue that alternative milks (almond, rice, soy, or hemp) will work just as well taste-wise, I find that most of the time I am disappointed in the texture. The best replacement for the texture of cream in my opinion is either high fat coconut milk (Thai Kitchen has some good high fat ones; the “lite” version will not be thick enough to give you the right consistency) or coconut oil or yogurt (or a combination of them).

Cheese is honestly the most difficult to emulate in my opinion. Cheeses mixed into food are easily replaced with recipes involving tofu such as these for a replacement ricotta: here, here, or here. These recipes will work well for recipes needing ricotta such as stuffed shells. What I’ve found is that the key to fake cheese is blended cashews and nutritional yeast. The “nacho cheaze” from this recipe is also pretty good. In general, fake cheeses don’t tend to be a dead ringer, so keep this in mind before you take your first bite. There are also commercially produced “cheeses;” my favorite brand is Daiya.
Why ditch the cow’s milk? Did you know that humans needed to evolve mutations (genetic changes) in order to become lactose tolerant? It’s true! Being able to drink another species’ milk is actually NOT normal. Even now, only 35% of people with European ancestry can digest lactose. Other populations have much much lower rates of tolerance. That means the vast majority of people get sick drinking milk or consuming other food with lactose in it. If that is not a good enough reason to ditch the cow milk, then the amount of saturated fat and cholesterol per serving might. Cow’s milk may also increase one’s risk of prostate and ovarian cancers (see this article). Alternative milks are lower in calories, more nutritionally dense, and do not contain lactose, gluten, or casein (Note: If you want to know more about the negatives of casein, reference The China Study by T. Colin Campbell.). If you are still touting your doctor’s advice to drink milk for healthy bones, think again. You can acquire plenty of calcium through almonds, beans, tofu, dark leafy greens, and calcium-fortified alternative milks, none of which have the negatives of cow’s milk (reference here). Calcium is also not the only factor in developing strong bones. Vitamin D is an essential vitamin for absorption of calcium and weight-bearing exercise is also a key to strong healthy bones.
To eat meat or not- that is the question.
To eat meat or not- that is the question.

4) Meat- When I first became vegetarian, I used fake meat products like GimmeLean and Field Roast to replace meat in recipes a lot of the time. However, as I ventured into cooking healthier and trying new vegetables and new ways of preparing them, I found not only did I feel like I needed “meat” flavoring less, but I also liked the taste of it less. Although you can obviously find numerous fake meat products to replace meat in recipes, I usually just replace meat with sautéed mushrooms (especially Portobello), black/kidney beans, or marinated and baked or sautéed tofu. As far as meat “stock” for soups, I just use vegetarian stock or vegetarian/vegan bouillon. I’m not the biggest fan of seitan, tempeh, or TVP but those are great options for getting similar taste and texture to meat in meals as well.

Why stop eating meat? This calls for a whole new post. Read more on this here.

For more information about other healthy substitutions, click here or here.


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