The Problem With Sauces – how to make sauces and dressings work for your diet

I was in the grocery store today and overheard a discussion in front of the sauce aisle. It probably sounds like a lot of healthy-eating related discussions that people have with each other, especially when they are new to eating healthy and not on some fad diet. It went something like this:

“This sauce has water as its first ingredient and sugar is the second!”

“This one too!”

“Almost all of these have sugar and water as the first two ingredients!”

This is great! They were on the right track, but struggling. You should ALWAYS look at the label and ingredients when you buy something. It will give you all the nutrition info for calories, macronutrients (fat, protein, carbs), vitamins, minerals, and a list of ingredients in order of the amount (so the first ingredient makes up the biggest portion of the item, the second ingredient the second biggest portion…). Being able to read a label is a skill, and an important one at that. This couple was learning how to eat properly by learning how to select their own food, rather than follow a restrictive go/no-go list of foods from some fad diet. I was actually pretty excited to overhear this conversation, and thought that sauces are a popular sticking point in diets worth writing about here.

Sauces and dressings are primarily high in one of a few things: fat, sugar, or sodium. That’s why we like sauces! Low-fat options tend to add more sugar to make up for the low-fat, and carb-free sauces tend to be full of fat for the same reason. At any rate, you should learn how to incorporate healthy sauce and dressing options into your diet, and to make room for non-healthy options as well. One of my favorite sauce/dressing options is olive oil. Super versatile, its great on its own or as the main ingredient in a homemade olive oil dressing. Sauce is often used to add flavor to a dish, so one other option is to not use sauce and instead focus on seasoning the food so that it tastes good without anything. This is difficult, but a great skill to learn! The adjustment period can range from being pleasant to eating bland and tasteless food for a while, depending on your cooking ability. Your skill as a chef will improve significantly, however, if you learn to season properly.

Another option for sauces is to look for what your diet is lacking. Think of a high-fat sauce as just an option to add fat to your dish to create a more balanced meal. This would be the option for a carb and protein heavy meal. An example would be gravy (high fat sauce) with turkey (protein) and mashed sweet potatoes (carbs). Most sweet sauces end up in desserts or breakfast, and often on top of carbs (pancakes, waffles, pastries), so try to pair them with a fat and protein source as well (maybe a side of eggs with a whole-wheat pancake – I personally like Kodiak Cake brand pancake and waffle mix, which are whole grain and include a significant amount of protein as well). If your sauce choice is not healthy, at least put it on something that is good for you.

The other type of sauce that is common is the high-sodium options like soy sauce. If you don’t have any reason to avoid sodium (your doctor would tell you if you did, and its worth keeping an eye out for elevated sodium levels anyway), high sodium sauces might be a low calorie option to use in place of a high fat or carb sauce. They don’t go on everything, but they are an option. I would usually pair it with a low sodium dish – chicken breast, vegetables, brown rice and soy sauce, for example.

One case that I hear often exemplifies the issue I have with our idea about sauces: salads. So many times I have heard ‘oh the salad has as many calories as the burger, I’ll get the burger instead.’ NO. They might have the same calories, and you might not lose more weight with the salad, but its absolutely not true that they’re equal. The salad is way, way better for you and you know it! Focus on eating healthy first and weight loss second. That’s the goal, improving health. Weight loss is part of being healthy, but there are a lot of skinny people who are nutrient deficient, malnourished, have high blood pressure, high cholesterol…health issues we associate with being overweight. So the question here is, do you want to be skinny or be healthy? If the answer is skinny, that probably speaks to some serious body image issues that are at the root of your weight problems. Healthy is so much more important than skinny, and eating healthy is the easiest way to lose weight anyway.

In conclusion, think about your sauce choices. Become a better seasoner, don’t put an unhealthy sauce on an unhealthy dish, and try to balance your sauce choice with the nutrients already on your plate. If a healthy option has a high calorie sauce, try to substitute the sauce or avoid it, and if that’s not an option, accept it as part of the meal and don’t worry about it – nobody ends up overweight from too many salads. Too often we look at weight loss as unconnected from general health, and that is the wrong way to look at it.