Food substitutions: Keep the flavor, but lose the fat and added sodium

Soul food is full of flavor and tradition, but can be unhealthy; learn more about simple substitutions that can add health benefits without compromising taste.

If you read, “Transition from good greens to great-for-you greens,” you might know I love soul food. Unfortunately, traditional soul food is often full of fat and added salt. It’s important to note that you can be health conscious while still enjoying your favorite foods.

The following table contains some suggested guidelines you might try to modify your own recipes. While the bulk of the information in the table relates to ingredients that tend to be high-fat and high in calories, there are also steps you can take to reduce salt intake. The United States Department of Agriculture provides consumers with “Salt and Sodium: Ten Tips to Help You Cut Back.”  

High-fat and high-calorie ingredient substitution suggestions

When the recipe calls for…


Butter, stick margarine, lard, bacon or bacon fat

Soft, tub margarine (first ingredient on food label is a liquid vegetable oil), corn, olive canola, sesame, soybean or sunflower oil

Sour cream

Plain low-fat yogurt or non-fat yogurt, light or fat –free sour cream or blend low fat cottage cheese with lemon juice (1 teaspoon lemon juice for every half cup of cheese) – flavor it with herbs such as dill, parsley, oregano, garlic or thyme

Whole milk or 2%

Skim, 1% or ½% low fat milk

Full fat cheeses

Low-fat or fat-free cheeses


Skinless chicken or turkey or lean cuts of pork loin or tenderloin


Low-fat or fat free mayonnaise or whipped salad dressing, or plain low-fat yogurt

Salad dressings

Low-fat or Nonfat versions

Whole egg

Two egg whites or ¼ cup egg substitutes

Nuts in baked goods

Reduce the amount by half and toast them toasting the nuts strengthens the flavor

Pastry crust

Graham cracker crust or in a pinch frozen reduced calorie pie shell

Keep in mind that just because a recipe calls for a specific ingredient, it doesn’t always mean it’s mandatory to include it. Experimentation is one of the joys of cooking. By making simple ingredient substitutions or changes in preparation methods, your favorite recipes can be nutritious and delicious. Try a modification or two the next time you cook. Don’t try a complete lifestyle change overnight – take baby steps. You have a better chance of staying with your changes.

Be on the lookout for a Michigan State University Extension article series that shows you how to prepare health-conscious but flavorful soul food!

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