14 Healthier Ingredient Substitutions You Never Thought to Try

Nutritionists and food experts reveal their sneaky secrets to cut fat, sugar, and calories out of your favorite recipes using healthier ingredient substitutions—without slashing any flavor.

By Marissa Laliberte
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    For Healthier Hamburgers

    Substitute: Beans, oats, and veggies for red meat. Why: Use one ounce of ground beef per patty, and replace the rest with a mix of red beans, mushrooms, onions, oatmeal, and tomato paste—you’ll get the same meaty texture with healthy, nutrient-dense substitutes. “Take the bad stuff out, put the good stuff in, and use them in a way that makes the food more interesting and flavorful,” says Joel Fuhrman, MD, author of The End of Dieting: How to Live for Life.

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    For Healthier Fries

    Substitute: Light-skinned sweet potatoes for fries. Why: Cut light-skinned sweet potatoes into rounds, season with sea salt and your choice of seasonings, and bake. Like orange sweet potatoes, these spuds are higher in fiber and have a lower glycemic index than white potatoes, so they won’t spike your insulin, says Devin Alexander, New York Times bestselling author and The Biggest Loser chef.

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    For Healthier Desserts

    Substitute: Cinnamon for sugar. Why: The spice amplifies added sweetness (vanilla does, too), so desserts might only need half the called-for sugar, says Anjali Shah, health coach and The Picky Eater blogger who uses this trick in her low-fat breakfast muffins. Start with a teaspoon and add to taste from there. The end result, says Shah, will be “less sweet, but with other spices and salt, you can trick your taste buds into thinking there’s more sugar than there is.”

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    For Healthier Mexican

    Substitute: Refried beans for cheese. How: Cut the fat in Mexican cuisine by replacing half the cheese with refried or black beans, and use some cheese on top of your dish for extra flavor in those first bites. Shah puts beans inside enchiladas for a gooey, comfort-food texture.

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    For Healthier Spreads

    Substitute: Pureed nuts for butter. Why: For a buttery spread or dip with less saturated fat, Fuhrman recommends making “garlic nutter” by blending a couple heads of roasted garlic with cashews, water, and nutritional yeast. “It tastes so much better [than butter] because of the roasted garlic flavor,” he says. For variety, add ingredients like mustard, tomato paste, or lemon and basil.

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    For Healthier Salads

    Substitute: Fresh salsa for bottled dressing. Why: Bottled sauces are often high in fat or sugar. Dress your greens like Alexander, who drains liquid from fresh salsa, then adds lime juice and a hint of olive oil. Or try Fuhrman's take: Blend nuts and seeds with tomato paste, balsamic vinegar, and almonds—or orange, cashews, sunflower seeds, and white wine vinegar.

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    For Healthier Chinese Food

    Substitute: Chinese five-spice powder for hoisin, oyster, or duck sauce. Why: Cut down levels of sneaky sugar in bottled sauce (hoisin packs 4 grams per 1 tablespoon serving) and instead swap it for Chinese five-spice powder. Alexander says while it won't give the exact flavor sauce, it will provide a “richer taste that’s very similar.”

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    For Healthier Soup

    Substitute: Pureed beans or nuts for cream. Why: Fuhrman blends 1/2 cup of cashews with five pounds of carrots. “You get that creamy feel, and now it’s good for you,” he says. Or replace 1/2 cup of high-fat cream with 1/2 cup pureed cannellini beans and 1/4 to 1/2 cup of broth for a thick broth that’s higher in protein and fiber, says Shah, who makes creamy asparagus soup.

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    For Healthier Frosting

    Substitute: Avocado for butter. Why: Swap some of the butter in chocolate icing with an equal amount of avocado and you'll add vitamins, minerals, and healthy monounsaturated fats without losing any of the creamy texture. Adjust cocoa powder or other ingredients as you like, but “in a true fudge-type icing, you’re never going to taste [the avocado],” Alexander says.

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    For Healthier Ice Cream

    Substitute: Frozen bananas for ice cream. Why: Just two ingredients—frozen bananas and cocoa powder—but “it gets just as thick and rich as chocolate ice cream in a good food processor,” Alexander says. Peel and freeze two bananas, then cut into 1-inch pieces and blend in a food processor with 2-3 tablespoons of unsweetened cocoa powder for a few minutes until smooth. Serve immediately. Fuhrman's “nice cream” blends frozen fruit with nuts for creaminess, and either vanilla extract or cocoa powder.

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    For Healthier Dessert Crusts

    Substitute: High-fiber, crunchy cereal for graham cracker crumbs. Why: Finely crush Grape Nuts, Kashi 7 Whole Grain Nuggets, or the cereal of your choice with a bit of cinnamon and you'll add significantly more fiber to your crust. “Depending what fillings you put in your pie, you might not even taste the difference,” says Alexander, who recommends the swap in strong-flavored fruit bakes rather than light pies such as lemon merengue.

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    For Healthier Pie Crusts

    Substitute: 100% fruit spread for butter. Why: While butter holds a crumbly pie crust together, adding just enough fruit spread (generally, around 1 tablespoon) to dry ingredients will cut saturated fat and cholesterol, Alexander says. Instead of a buttery taste the natural fruit flavors will complement what's under your crust.

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    For Healthier Baking

    Substitute: Pureed fruit for agave or maple syrup. Why: Agave and maple syrup may appear “healthier,” but they act just like sugar in the body, says Shah. Instead, pureed fruit adds fiber while cutting calories and sugar from a recipe.

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    For Healthier Cream Cheese

    Substitute: Low-fat cottage cheese for cream cheese. Why: With less fat, fewer calories, and more protein than regular cream cheese, puréed low-fat cottage cheese (use a food processor to get the lumps out) is a great swap—and you won’t be able to tell the difference, Shah says.

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