It happens all the time. I’m scrolling through Pinterest and see a “healthy banana bread recipe” or a “healthy pasta dinner recipe.” Then I’ll click to the page, read over the healthy recipe ingredients, and be appalled at what they consider to be “healthy.”
By this time, we all know the basic principles of healthy eating: things like eat more vegetables and eat less sugar. So why don’t “healthy” recipes always follow those rules?
Because the people creating these recipes are often not registered dietitians. They may be nutritionists, but you don’t even need a degree to call yourself that.
So some “healthy” recipes you come across are probably well-intentioned, but just don’t cut it.
My other theory is that people have altered the original recipe to be a little healthier, but it’s still not a very healthy food to eat.
For example, if a cinnamon roll recipe usually has 2 cups of sugar and two sticks of butter in it, a recipe with 1 cup of sugar and 1 stick of butter is healthy then, right?
Nahh, that’s still not a healthy recipe. You definitely shouldn’t be eating it regularly.
I’m not at all bashing those who have taken a liking to nutrition and want to help others be healthy. I’m just explaining why not all recipes labeled “healthy” are actually healthy.
Instead, it’s up to us to decipher each recipe we find and determine if it truly is nutritious.
This post will give you the knowledge and tools to do just that! Keep on reading for the important things to consider when evaluating the health of a recipe!
Disclaimer: I myself am not a registered dietitian. However, I am a registered nurse who has studied nutrition extensively and taken formal nutrition courses. That being said, the information in this post does not replace the advice of a registered dietitian.
Evaluating the Health of a Recipe
Unhealthy Recipe Ingredients to Look For
First things first, I look for the BIG TWO I always talk about: sugar and salt. These two are huge for me, personally, because I’ve identified them as my major bloating culprits.
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Let’s start with sugar.
The big place it’s seen is in baking, but it does appear elsewhere. Lunch and dinner recipes with sauces will often have sugar as well.
The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends no more than 25g of sugar/day for women and no more than 36g of sugar/day for men, or 6 teaspoons and 9 teaspoons, respectively.
A lot of baking recipes (even healthy ones) you find online will get you pretty close to your max amount of daily added sugar. And if we’re honest with ourselves, a lot of the time we rarely stick with just one serving or one sweet treat in a day.
Other sources of sugar
Also keep in mind that although agave and coconut sugar are often considered less processed, they still do contain sugar.
However, there’s one important thing to note about coconut sugar. While it has about the same amount of calories as table sugar, it’s glycemic index is 35, about half that of table sugar. This means that coconut sugar breaks down slower in the body, resulting in less of a blood sugar spike than table sugar. Due to this, coconut sugar is a slightly better alternative to regular sugar. It may not really help you lose weight, but it will keep your blood sugar levels in better control and may be especially beneficial for diabetics.
What about honey and maple syrup?
Honey and maple syrup are both considered slightly healthier options because they have a lower glycemic index and taste slightly sweeter than table sugar. This means that you can usually use a little less in a recipe and have it taste just as sweet.
While coconut sugar, honey, and maple syrup all seem to be slightly better options, just remember that they still contain sugar. As Dr. Vasanti Malik concludes in an article on Harvard Health Publishing, the best thing to do is reduce overall consumption of all added sugars.
So when evaluating recipes, look for ones with naturally sweet ingredients, such as bananas and unsweetened apple sauce. I also don’t worry about really small amounts of sugar, honey, or maple syrup mixed into the batch, such as 1/4 cup or a couple Tablespoons. But if you’re trying to be really stringent, the naturally sweet foods are the way to go.
When it comes to baking, I don’t really consider salt. Oftentimes, there isn’t much salt added into baked goods. Plus it’s pretty crucial to the chemical composition of the recipe.
However, salt in savory dishes is a whole other matter.
Too many times I’ve encountered “healthy” recipes that have heaps of cheese or sauce added – making it a bloat-fest ready to happen.
And I kid you not, pretty much every dinner recipe can have the “salt to taste” omitted and be just as delicious.
With hypertension affecting almost half of US adults, salt consumption is no laughing matter.
Be your own healthy eating advocate and don’t be afraid to scrutinize and adjust recipes!
Oils are very controversial, and that’s because their use in the body is so complicated. But the main thing to know is that not all oils are created equal. Some are definitely healthier options than others.
Overall, the best oils to use are canola oil, hempseed oil, flaxseed oil, and walnut oil. This is due to their chemical composition and how they’re processed by the body.
When it comes to cooking, canola oil is the only one of these four that has a high enough smoke point. The rest are best for drizzling over salads or for use in sauces or dressings.
And if a recipe uses more than a sliver of butter, I won’t make it. Butter is a saturated fat and is just not healthy to eat in high amounts.
I won’t go any more in-depth here, as the oil topic could have its own blog post – and in fact, Registered Dietitian Sadia Badiei over at Pick Up Limes wrote a really wonderful post on oils that I won’t even try to upstage (you can read it here). She also includes a PDF with the oils that are and are not appropriate for use in cooking.
When a recipe claims to be healthy and then has copious amounts of red meat, I instantly click off. Red meat seems to be okay in moderation, but is steadily becoming more and more discouraged as part of a healthy diet.
Instead, look for recipes that use chicken, turkey, or fish. Vegetarian dishes with beans, quinoa, and nuts for protein are even better!
Healthy Recipe Ingredients to Look For
Particularly with lunches and dinners – or maybe a savory breakfast – if the recipe is healthy, then I’m expecting to see some vegetables.
It doesn’t necessarily need to be an extremely green meal, but I’d anticipate some bell peppers, squash, or at least something more than onions.
Vegetables provide us with fiber, vitamins, and minerals and keep our stomachs happy. So run down the list of ingredients and make sure your healthy recipe at least has one vegetable!
For those sweeter recipes, look out for some fruit!
Making a parfait? That’s the perfect time to top it with berries! Oatmeal? Try the same!
Healthy desserts are often made sweet by adding some whole, natural fruits either in it or on top.
A healthy, sweet recipe usually won’t miss the opportunity to provide you with fruit’s nutritional benefits.
From a carbohydrate side, watch out for those refined, starchy carbs that’ll hit your bloodstream really quick. Instead, scan the ingredients for whole wheat pasta or whole wheat flour. Brown rice and other less processed grains will also be much better for you.
Why Quantity is Important
We talked about the amounts of certain individual ingredients, such as sugar and butter.
Take a moment to also look at how much food you’re making and the expected serving sizes.
Just the other night I made a pasta dish that was only intended for two servings, but made enough for at least six – if not more!
With obesity on the rise, portion sizes are more important than ever. Make sure you consider how much of all the ingredients you’ll truly be eating in an individual serving.
What Are Your Goals?
Lastly, what are your goals? Do these healthy recipe ingredients align with them, and is the recipe aimed towards you?
For example, let’s say your goal is to lose weight. One day you’re scrolling through Pinterest and see a recipe for healthy gluten-free muffins.
Focusing on the word “healthy,” you click through and look through the ingredients. You realize that, while these muffins substitute almond flour for regular flour and are indeed gluten-free, they still include processed white sugar and are very calorie dense.
In this case, the recipe author may have meant: “Those with Celiac disease, look here at this recipe that is healthy for us gluten-free folks! You can eat it without getting symptoms!”
For some, this recipe may have been a healthier option. But for you, it didn’t match up with your goals.
And what if a recipe does promise to be fat-burning or help you lose weight?
Be a skeptic! How exactly is this recipe going to do that? Is it extremely low in calories? Does it use no added sugar?
Really investigate before making the recipe!
At the end of the day, you’re the one who puts food and nourishment into your body. And you’re the one who needs to figure out if something is going to be more beneficial or harmful to eat.
So when you first click on a recipe – even a “healthy” one – do some digging! Evaluate it and research these “healthy recipe ingredients” if need be!
Remember: just because it says it’s healthy doesn’t mean it is.
I hope you found this blog post helpful and learned something new! If you liked it, I’d greatly appreciate a share on Pinterest! Thank you!!