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When to Cut Calories and When to Splurge Without Losing Control

I live to eat. I love food of all kinds, from tofu burritos to pepperoni pizza, sake nigiri to saucy pasta, leafy green salads to mustard-covered hot dogs. This dietary variety—the balance between the healthful, low-calorie options and the more indulgent choices—keeps me from growing out of my jeans. In order to keep this balance you need to learn when to cut calories and when to splurge.

I try not to indulge too often in mayonnaise, cheese, oil, bacon, and all the other delicious fatty foods that I love, and I strive to find cooking methods that reflect that balance. But sometimes I just want cheese. Below are some tasty ways to cut some calories out of everyday meals—and some ideas about when to not worry about it so much.

Can’t Beat the Greek … Yogurt, That Is
Nothing can cut the fat out like Greek yogurt. Its thick, sturdy consistency and its sharp, tangy flavor is a perfect substitute for mayonnaise in many cases. One tablespoon of mayonnaise amounts to forty-nine calories and 4.9 grams of fat. (And when was the last time you made tuna salad with just one tablespoon of mayo?) Replace that mayo with nonfat Greek yogurt and you’re looking at zero fat, loads of super-healthful active probiotic cultures, and a mere 120 calories in an entire eight-ounce serving.

You’re probably wondering about taste. I love mayo like nobody’s business, but Greek yogurt’s no slouch, either. A little salt and pepper, some red or green onion, and a touch of mustard, and you’re looking at a tuna salad that will make your mouth, your tummy, and your nonexpanding thighs all happy. But sometimes there’s no substitute for delightful mayonnaise. There are those of us who keep a special place in our hearts for that pleasantly fatty condiment, and to cut it out of things just breaks those hearts. Greek yogurt is great for all sorts of things, from dips to sandwiches to cereal. But, let’s face it, if you’re going to eat a BLT, there’s no point whatsoever in replacing the mayo with anything besides more mayo. You could use good mustard instead of mayo, but if you’re eating a bacon-based sandwich, maybe you should just go with it.

Olive Oil Is Good for You and All, But …
Any nutritionist will tell you that, as far as cooking oil goes, you should opt for olive oil over canola or vegetable oil. Olive oil is flavorful, more healthful, and more versatile. It is, however, a significant source of fat. A healthful, easy way to cut down on olive oil, or any cooking oil, is to replace it with chicken or beef stock. Or, if you’ve got a vegetarian agenda, vegetable or mushroom stock also works well. A lot of sauces and soups start out with a mirepoix (diced carrots, onions, and celery) that needs to be sautéed in oil. Replace it with half a cup of stock and sauté as directed. The veggies will still sweat, their flavors will still meld the way they’re supposed to, and your soup or stew or sauce will still be delicious.

But olive oil—or any fat, really—is good for browning. It’s what caramelizes things, giving them that beautiful and tasty golden sheen. It’s the subtle, delectable, savory crispness that makes seared scallops the most amazing thing ever, turns grilled cheese sandwiches ambrosia, renders french fries golden and perfect, and makes a roasted turkey succulent. In other words, some things just taste better with the fatty love of oil. Default to olive oil whenever possible, of course.

Become One with Whole Grains
If the Atkins diet backlash has taught us one thing, it’s that whole grains are better than no grains. There are still those carb fascists out there who insist that if you eat anything with a whiff of yeast or flour in it, you’ll immediately be partaking firsthand and wholeheartedly in the obesity epidemic that is the plight of seventy-five million Americans.

But whole grains have always been an essential part of the food pyramid—both the old and the new version. So, swap your white bread and bleached flour for whole wheat. Try a flaxseed croissant or give whole-grain bread and whole-wheat tortillas a whirl. They’re not always less caloric, per se, but the whole grains are more useful to the machinations of our metabolism, so those calories have meaning.

This is not to say that if you eat a bacon cheeseburger on a whole-grain bun or a super burrito with extra carnitas wrapped in a whole-wheat tortilla that somehow those delectables suddenly become diet food. Sometimes it’s better to stick with the good old-fashioned bleached-white flour approach. Take bread pudding, for example. Be it the sweet or savory variety, it was never meant to be a low-cal dish, or even a particularly healthful one. So leave the flaxseeds out of it and go with a nice spongy, nutritionally negligible French baguette. But using whole-wheat flour to make cookies, for example, works quite well, depending on what type of cookies you’re making.

Say Cheese!
Speaking of staples of health and happiness, let’s talk cheese. I know we all wish we could live on Brie, or at least I do anyway. But there are lots of delicious cheese options out there that won’t bust your proverbial belt. Parmesan, for example, is surprisingly low in fat. And that’s the way it is naturally, so you don’t have to wonder suspiciously how they got the fat out, the way you might when considering low-fat cheddar. You can shave some good parmesan onto your salad and know that delicious savory, nutty taste is all it’s meant to be. Other good lower-fat cheese options are those made with goat milk, such as chèvre and feta. Both are yummy on almost anything, and as cheese goes, relatively low in fat.

But have you ever tried to make a grilled parmesan sandwich? Lower-fat cheeses don’t melt the way good cheddar, jack, Swiss, or even Brie will. So when you’re making a tuna melt or a grilled cheese sandwich or an omelet, don’t try cutting your calories with cheese; you’ll only end up with a dissatisfying sandwich experience. Go ahead and use the cheeses that were meant to melt: mozzarella, Emmentaler, Gruyère, and Camembert, to name just a few.

Personally, I don’t want to live in a world without cheese. So I’m going to keep reaching for that balance and hope that life will stay delicious—while I still fit in my pants.

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