We wanted to know how you're lightening up. So we asked readers to tell us the clever ways they have lowered the fat, increased the fiber, reduced the salt, avoided the cholesterol or cut the calories in family, cookbook, magazine or newspaper recipes. We wanted before-and-after recipes and we got lots of information about what happened in between.
We learned of your health status ("Since my husband had a heart attack, preparing meals has become a special challenge and an exciting adventure ... ")
We read about your efforts to convince others that low-salt, low-fat meals don't have to be low in taste ("Attached are three of my 'experiments' with modifying recipes that have even surprised the most stubborn non-believers ... ")
And we related to your point that nutritional enlightenment can lead to a permanent change in taste preferences. ("After eating lowered-fat dishes for a number of years, the normal creamed dishes sicken me with their richness ... ")
In fact, that's precisely why we're running this article now, when visions of rum balls, hangovers and chocolate Santas dance in everybody's head. We're not trying to be party poopers. Eating light is a year-round way of life, not just a New Year's resolution made after your belly has turned to jelly.
That's not to say there's no room for quality cheating. As Johanna Van Doren of Takoma Park wrote with her recipe for Diminished-Guilt Mocha Cheesecake: "While a cheesecake would not normally fall under the label 'low fat,' even the virtuous must have their vices."
But the holidays don't have to be a time for rampant overindulging. Party food doesn't have to be unhealthy food. A nurse in the cardiac rehabilitation program at Fairfax Hospital told us of a Halloween party where she brought pumpkin cookies, revised into a higher fiber version with oatmeal and Grape Nuts cereal to replace the almonds and chocolate chips.
The sources of the original recipes ran the gamut -- from "The Silver Palate Cookbook" to Parade Magazine to recipes on Bisquick boxes or supermarket brochures. Two readers attempted to concoct a healthy Toll House Cookie. A Crofton woman even tried to tamper with the 1950s classic, Tuna Noodle Casserole. Her revisions included changing the tuna packed in oil to tuna packed in water and the cream of mushroom soup to reduced-calorie mayonnaise.
The categories of recipes revised were a little less varied. There was a lot of homey, simple fare and interestingly, a majority of the recipes were for desserts: cookies, quick breads, pies and several cheesecakes. (Do people not realize the degree to which fats and calories are hidden in their main courses?)
Many of the revisions and substitutions that readers made were along the same lines. Butter was invariably changed to margarine or oil; spices replaced salt. To replace cream in soups, readers used either evaporated skim milk, nonfat dry milk or a mixture of yogurt and skim milk. Egg Beaters or egg whites replaced whole eggs.
In varying proportions, whole-wheat flour, wheat germ, oat bran and oatmeal were used to replace some of the white flour in baked goods. The skin came off the chicken, the meat came out of the chili, and the suet came out of the suet pudding. (Vegetable oil pudding?)
Other readers made simple, but substantive substitutions: In a paella recipe from "The New York Times Cookbook," a Silver Spring woman took out the ham, chorizo sausage and salt pork and put in fresh cod, mushrooms and tomatoes. "My family likes it better because it is less greasy ... " wrote Barbara Medina.
Ground turkey seems to be gaining popularity, and for good reason. Four ounces of Louis Rich's cooked ground turkey has 14.4 grams fat, 4.8 grams saturated fat. Four ounces of cooked ground beef (at 27 percent fat) has 22.4 grams of fat and 8.8 grams saturated fat. A reader used the turkey to make homemade sausage in a brunch bread recipe, and Pat Butler of Berryville used it in place of pork in a Chinese dish of Craig Claiborne's. "We have a 5-year-old daughter who is very broad in her tastes, but tree ears and lily bud are still a bit beyond her culinary grasp. I have not only substituted the pork with ground turkey, but have replaced the mushrooms and lilies," Butler wrote.
While readers made many positive alterations -- showing how minor changes can make big differences -- an equal number of recipes showed room for improvement. Some readers used artificial or packaged ingredients instead of fresh, made negative changes that canceled out the positives or simply revised the wrong kinds of recipes.
In one of the Toll House Cookie revisions, for instance, oats, wheat germ and whole-wheat flour were added for more fiber. Nonetheless, peanut butter and peanuts were added, which add fat and calories. The amounts of chocolate chips, shortening and sugar were slightly decreased.
These kinds of revisions make marginal changes, but still don't qualify the result as a food to be eaten on a more frequent basis, said Nancy Chapman, a registered dietitian who looked at the recipes and analyzed a handful of them for nutritional content. For some people, eating one real Toll House Cookie provides more satisfaction than eating four made with wheat germ.
In other recipes, the type of fat may have been changed, but not the amount. Cooks accustomed to saute'ing in lots of butter simply changed their saute'ing to lots of margarine. It's just not necessary to saute' a cup and a half of onions in 4 tablespoons of margarine, as one reader did with a "Moosewood Cookbook" cream of broccoli soup. Onions sweat; a tablespoon of any kind of fat is enough.
Nutrition misconceptions were detectable in a number of the recipes. For example, white sugar was commonly replaced by brown sugar, honey or molasses. All of the sucrose sugars contribute the same amount of calories per gram and are all broken down in the body identically, Chapman said. In the quantities used in baked goods, molasses and honey have only negligible amounts of trace minerals, she added. The point is to decrease the amount of sugar, no matter what kind it is.
A few people seem to be under the impression that buttermilk is high in fat. Although there is a buttermilk made from whole milk, lowfat buttermilk -- the type that is sold widely in the Washington area -- is only 1 percent fat.
Here are some before-and-after success stories: