Comfort Food Recipe Swaps for Diabetes

Fat, Sugar, and Refined Carbohydrate Swaps

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Ingredients in a cookie

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Eating a well-balanced, nutrient-dense diet is an important part of preventing and managing diabetes. Certain nutrients such as carbohydrates, saturated fat, fiber, and sodium are accounted for when creating an individualized meal plan for people with diabetes. Additionally, lifestyle, cultural preferences, medical history, medicine, and food preferences should be acknowledged.

Oftentimes people with diabetes want to know how they can prepare certain indulgent foods in healthier ways for the infrequent times they veer from their eating plan. There are certain ingredient swaps that improve the nutrition profile of your recipe. This doesn't mean you should eat large amounts of sweets and other less healthy food choices, but you can cut a portion of fat, calories, and carbohydrates by making some substitutions.

Fat Swaps

With the rise of the ketogenic diet, and the acknowledgment of the benefits of low carbohydrate meal plans for those people with diabetes, fat has become a highly talked about nutrient. Fat provides flavor and can keep us satiated. Fat is also important for hair, skin, and nails, and for the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins.

Fat contains no carbohydrate, which is good for blood sugar control, but it does contain double the calories than carbohydrate or protein. One gram of fat contains nine calories versus 4 grams of carbohydrate or protein.

Many low carbohydrate recipes are rich in fat, which isn't necessarily a bad thing; but if you are overeating fat calories, you can gain weight which can negatively affect your blood sugar.

Additionally, not all fat is created equal with regards to health. Saturated fat and trans fats can have a negative effect on cholesterol and lead to an increased risk of atherosclerosis. On the other hand, unsaturated fats, such as mono and polyunsaturated fats (found in nuts, seeds, avocado, and fatty fish like salmon) can have favorable effects on cholesterol.

The American Diabetes Association Standards of Care suggests, "The type of fats consumed is more important than total amount of fat when looking at metabolic goals and CVD risk, and it is recommended that the percentage of total calories from saturated fat be limited."

To reduce the amount of saturated fat in your favorite recipes you can use some of the following ingredients:

Avocado

Avocados are rich in nutrients, heart-healthy fats, contain no preservatives, and are naturally low in sodium and cholesterol.

When baking, you can use avocado to replace half of the butter in your recipe. Doing so will decrease the saturated fat content significantly.

If you decide to replace all the butter with avocado, you'll need to make some alterations to your oven temperature and you may not yield the same result. When replacing all the butter, reduce your oven temperature by 25% and increase your baking time to prevent your cake from rising up in the middle or, alternatively, caving in. Lowering the heat will also prevent the cake from browning.

Avocado can also be used as a spread or topping to replace of butter, sour cream, cheese, and mayonnaise. For example, 2 tablespoons of avocado contain 50 calories and 0.5 grams of saturated fat, while 2 tablespoons of butter contain 204 calories and 14.6 grams of saturated fat. Swapping avocado for butter saves you roughly 150 calories and 14.1 grams of saturated fat.

Heavy Cream

If a recipe calls for heavy cream, you can usually cut calories and saturated fat by substituting with half-and-half or whole milk.

By comparison, 1/2 cup of heavy cream contains 206 calories, and 13.8 grams fat, while 1/2 cup of half-and-half contains 157 calories and 8.7 grams saturated fat. One half cup whole milk contains 75 calories and 2.3 grams fat.

This may not work perfectly for every recipe, but you can always start by reducing the quantity of the heavy cream and adjusting the taste as you go.

Full-Fat Cheese

Replace full-fat cheese with low-fat cheese to reduce calories and saturated fat. The end result likely won't be as creamy and rich, but it will still have good flavor and texture. Using non-fat cheese is not going to yield the same result and isn't recommended because non-fat cheese varieties usually have added preservatives.

Eggs

If you are looking to replace eggs in baking to reduce the saturated fat content, you can substitute eggs with homemade flax or chia egg. This eggless "egg" is typically used in vegan cooking and offers a ton of healthy fats, fiber, and nutrients. It is not usually recommended for replacing more than one or two eggs in a recipe.

To make a flax or chia egg, combine 1 tablespoon of ground flax or chia meal (you can purchase it ground or grind it yourself in a coffee grinder) with 3 tablespoons of water. Let the concoction sit for 15 minutes and use it to replace one egg.

Chocolate Substitute

Chocolate is a common ingredient in baked goods and is rich in calories, saturated fat, and sugar. Carob often replaces chocolate in recipes, yielding a lower-calorie, lower-fat product. Carob is also caffeine and gluten-free. It is rich in filling fiber, which is the indigestible part of carbohydrate, has been linked to a healthier weight, improved blood sugar control, and reduced cholesterol.

Carob pods contain bioactive compounds such as dietary fiber, polyphenols, flavonoids, cyclitols, (like d-pinitol) and tannins. These compounds have been associated with a variety of health benefits including, glycemic (blood sugar) control, cholesterol reduction, anticancer effects, and many more.

You can use unsweetened carob chips or carob powder to replace chocolate in recipes. Most of the time, you can use substitute carob for chocolate using a 1:1 ratio. For example, if a recipe calls for 1 cup of chocolate you can use 1 cup of carob instead.

Reduce Sugar

Consuming large amounts of added sugar is discouraged, but if you are looking to reduce the sugar in a recipe, most of the time you can simply reduce the amount of sugar and still yield the same result.

The American Diabetes Association Standards of Care suggests, "As for all individuals in developed countries, both children and adults with diabetes are encouraged to minimize intake of refined carbohydrates and added sugars and instead focus on carbohydrates from vegetables, legumes, fruits, dairy (milk and yogurt), and whole grains."

Healthy Ways to Increase Sweetness

Baking is a science and sometimes you need to experiment a few times to get the perfect result. When cutting sugar in recipes, try adding some of these to help increase the sweetness of a recipe (to taste):

  • Cinnamon
  • Vanilla
  • Nutmeg
  • Fresh or pureed fruit

Refined Carbohydrate Swaps

Some recipes call unbleached flour or all-purpose flour; these types of flours are rich in refined carbohydrates and low in filling fiber.

High amounts of refined grains and added sugars are discouraged as they tend to raise blood sugars quickly and cause them to fall quickly afterward. The good news is that today there are many different types of flours that can be used for baking.

Whole-Grain Flour

Whole-grain flour contains more fiber, protein, and micronutrients than all-purpose flour. Depending on what you are making, you may be able to substitute 100% of all-purpose flour for whole-grain flour. The result will likely be denser, but this will vary based on what you are making and what type of flour you are using. Recipe alterations, including adding more liquid maybe necessary.

Using a whole white wheat flour (a whole-grain wheat variety) is often the easiest swap. This type of flour, made from white wheat as opposed to red wheat, has a milder flavor. Using this type of flour is usually an easier transition for those people who are accustomed to eating white bread.

In yeast bread that needs to rise, substitute whole wheat flour for half of the all-purpose flour, without making other changes. Certain whole grain flours, such as teff flour, sorghum flour, and whole cornmeal can add sweetness. If you are using a whole white wheat flour, you'll probably need to add less sweetener to acquire the same level of sweetness.

Coconut Flour

Coconut flour is a gluten-free flour that is extremely rich in fiber, which means it absorbs a ton of liquid in baking. It can be very tricky to bake with especially when making recipe substitutions, but for those who've mastered it, they seem to love it.

Almond Flour

Almond flour is a common ingredient that is used in low-carbohydrate baking. As compared to all-purpose flour, almond flour contains 5 grams of carbohydrate per 1/4 cup, as opposed to 23 grams of carbohydrate per 1/4 cup. Almond flour is also rich in fiber and contains a good amount of calcium, iron, vitamin E, and magnesium.

In addition to baking, almond flour can be used in place of breadcrumbs for meatballs, and breading for chicken or fish.

Chickpea Flour

Chickpea flour, also known as gram, besan, or garbanzo bean flour, is made from dried chickpeas. It can be made at home (by grinding dry chickpeas in a food processor or coffee grinder) or purchased at the grocery store in the specialty food or international section.

It has been a staple in Indian cooking and for good reason. Chickpeas are chock full of nutrition, rich in filling fiber, protein, iron and many other micronutrients. They also contain polyphenols which act as antioxidants and protect against free radicals.

Chickpea flour is gluten-free and has a lower glycemic index than white flour. Researchers conducted a systematic review and meta-analysis of 54 randomized control trials in adults or children with impaired glucose tolerance, Type 1 diabetes and Type 2 diabetes, and concluded that low glycemic index diets may be useful for glycemic control and may reduce body weight in people with prediabetes and diabetes.

You can use chickpea flour when making pancakes, as well as other savory and sweet dishes.

A Word From Verywell

Not all food is created equal when it comes to health, but certain indulgent foods can be made healthier when using recipe substitutions. If you have diabetes and are looking for recipe substitutions, using whole foods like avocado, flax, almond flour, chickpea flour, and lower-fat dairy products can allow you to enjoy your favorite comfort foods once and a while.

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Article Sources

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  2. Goulas V, Stylos E, Chatziathanasiadou MV, Mavromoustakos T, Tzakos AG. The functional components of carob fruit: linking the chemical and biological space. Int J Mol Sci. 2016 Nov;17(11):1875. doi:10.3390/ijms17111875

  3. Zafar MI, Mills KE, Zheng J, et al. Low-glycemic index diets as an intervention for diabetes: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Am J Clin Nutr. 2019 Aug 2;pii: nqz149. doi:10.1093/ajcn/nqz149