Skinny Sweets

It's hard to resist those sweets around the holidays. But you might want to reconsider that impulse buy. While we all know most desserts aren't healthy, commercial cakes, pastries and candies can be downright bad for you. Store-bought goodies contain hydrogenated oils, which dramatically raise your risk of heart disease. According to the Mayo Clinic, these oils increase your LDL (bad) cholesterol and decrease your HDL (good) cholesterol. Adding further insult, a piece of frosted cake can contain as much as 18 teaspoons of sugar, which when combined with the 20 teaspoons of added sugars most Americans consume in an average day, far exceeds the 8 teaspoon recommended daily allowance.

But don't despair. You don't have to give up desserts completely. The healthiest way to indulge your sweet tooth is to make tasty treats yourself. "Desserts don't have to be decadent to be satisfying," says Marleen Swanson, M.S., R.D., a nutritionist at Johnson & Wales University. "Creating your own desserts allows you to control the ingredients, which can keep sugar, fat and calories in check."

Simply swap a few key ingredients with healthy alternatives, and reduce the fat and calories without cutting the taste. In this guide, we'll show you how to get rid of the worst health offenders and create delicious, wholesome desserts.

Recipe Cleanup

THE OFFENDER: Fats, commonly found in eggs, butter or lard-based products like Crisco. Most fats are calorically dense at 9 calories per gram. For example, you'll get 7 grams of saturated fat in just one tablespoon of butter. A study in International Journal of Obesity found that women who consumed large amounts of high-fat, sweet products had a higher BMI, or body mass index, which is an indicator of total body fat.

THE SOLUTION: Seek out recipes that use oil--they are lower in saturated fats. Canola oil contains just 1 gram of saturated fat per tablespoon, and olive oil just 2 grams per tablespoon. Pur?ed fruits and vegetables, such as apples, prunes, pumpkin or bananas, also make excellent replacements for up to one-half the butter in a recipe. This solution works best in bars or cake-like cookies.

To eliminate the fat calories and cholesterol from eggs, replace each egg with one-quarter cup egg substitute or simply use two egg whites for each whole egg.

THE OFFENDER: Full-fat dairy products. That creamy texture we love comes from saturated fats, known as artery-cloggers. The American Heart Association singles out saturated fat as the main dietary cause of high blood cholesterol.

THE SOLUTION: Leave whole milk to the elementary-school set. Switching to lower-fat or non-fat dairy products reduces about one-third the calories and fat. While non-fat products save substantially more calories and fat, they do not always compare favorably in taste or texture. Try using non-fat dairy products in combination with regular and/or light products for the best results.

Another way to trim the fat is to use cottage cheese as a substitute for cream cheese and sour cream. It not only lowers calories, but boasts more protein and calcium. Place it in a food processor or blender and pur?e until it's completely smooth.

If you really want to mimic the richness of whole milk or cream, try skim or low-fat evaporated milk or non-fat half & half.

THE OFFENDER: Sugar. With 48 calories per tablespoon, sugar adds nothing but empty calories to a recipe.

THE SOLUTION: Use less sugar than what's called for--up to one-third of the sugar can usually be eliminated with successful results. Another trick to enhance sweetness is to add a touch of cinnamon, vanilla or orange zest to recipes. Use just a pinch and all you'll detect is a hint of sweetness.

You can also replace some or all of the sugar with a sugar substitute. For cooking and baking, be sure to use a sugar substitute that can withstand the required heat without losing its sweetness. Aspartame, commonly sold as NutraSweet or Equal, cannot take prolonged heat; however, sucralose, sold as Splenda, can be used for baking. For cold treats, all sugar substitutes can be used interchangeably to save you unwanted calories.

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