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.

A Holiday Season Where You Don’t Get Off Track

I bet you’re expecting tips to stay on your diet and exercise game during the holiday season. There’s some at the bottom, but what I want to encourage you to do is to enjoy your holiday. Your diet will slip. You will miss a few workouts. Its fine.

Its fine if get back to your diet and exercise plan after your holiday is over. Its not fine if you spend Thanksgiving to New Years eating and drinking whatever you want while cutting back on all your activity. We fall into that trap so often. Its because we don’t plan to take the time off of our diet and exercise that will happen no matter how strict we try to be. We all think we’re much more disciplined than we are, so we go into the holidays with a plan that we’re going to eat healthy and hit all our workouts. Do you have a plan for when that fails?

For most people, there really isn’t much point in trying to stick to what has been working during the holidays. You’re likely traveling, eating food you haven’t prepared yourself, foods you may have been avoiding entirely, while being pressured by friends and family to stray from your diet. You’re busier, and every workout is time away from family and friends that are the focus of the holiday. Its like you were set up to fail here, and most people do. Be realistic about whats going to happen, and plan for that.

So you can plan to take some time off. If you’re gone for a week around Christmas, a few missed workouts and some less than ideal meals are no big deal. I wouldn’t want more than a week to go by like this, but most vacations aren’t longer than that anyway. If you do go on a two (or more) week vacation, pick the week in the middle where the most challenge is going to be for healthy eating and exercise, and take that week off. Knowing you have a week off will make eating healthy and exercising at the beginning or end of your trip that much more bearable.

The key thing here is to get right back into your plan as soon as the holiday season is over. If you aren’t visiting family on December 27th, you shouldn’t be eating like you are! If you can get back into it, missing a week is going to be unnoticable in the long run. Here’s some tips to get you back into it after a holiday break.

  1. Have something healthy ready for the first few days back from vacation while you’re readjusting. Its going to be busy – unpacking, catching up on work, writing thank you notes – so its going to be easy to slip into getting quick, unhealthy meals. Freeze a few of your favorite healthy meals, or premake something the night you get back for the next few days. I like baking chicken breast in the oven and throwing some brown rice in a rice cooker – 5 minutes of prep, and about 45 minutes later i can have 6-8 meals ready to be put in storage containers for the next few days. Its not exciting, but its super easy and healthy. Keeping nuts around to snack on is another easy, healthy option.
  2. Have a workout planned the day after you get back. It doesn’t have to be long, or even hard. It is incredibly important that you do it though. If you hit this workout, you’ll already be getting back into it. If you skip it, you’re starting off on the wrong foot. It might help to schedule your whole day after you get back before you even leave for your trip.
  3. Get in workouts when you can on vacation. I know I said not to worry, but if there’s an hour or so where you’re bored, invite someone on a quick 20-minute run, or suggest a sport. Touch football is a fun Thanksgiving activity that can serve as a workout. Skiing at Christmas is great if your family is into that, and nordic skiing is great cardio. Its easier to get back into your workout plan if you haven’t been completely sedentary – you’ll feel better overall, too.
  4. Write your plan out somewhere visible. A monthly calendar or a post it note on a fridge, somewhere you look frequently, should have a note on it to workout on the date you get back. This helps remind you that it is important to complete that workout, and your pre-vacation self expects it of you.

Being realistic with our expectations is important. We didn’t suddenly develop the willpower to eat healthy this Christmas when we didn’t have it last year, so lets be real and just accept it. If we do that, we can plan for it, and still have a positive outcome.

Weight Loss or Fat Loss?

Weight loss or fat loss – which is more important? Its fat loss, for a few reasons.

Weight loss shouldn’t be your goal. Weight is a highly variable measurement of the human body and it really isn’t that good for most people’s purposes. For competitive athletes like runners, boxers, rowers, and cyclist, weight is extremely important, but for the average person, its just not that useful. First of all, expect your weight to fluctuate by up to five pounds or so any given day. This makes it hard to track progress, though by measuring daily and observing trends, we can get a picture of how your weight is changing. Is that really your goal though? I would guess that if you think your goal is to lose weight, what you actually want is to lose body fat. Weight doesn’t measure body fat – it just measures weight. So lets measure what we actually want to change, rather than some other measurement that correlates with it. Not to say you won’t lose weight while losing body fat, but gaining lean muscle mass may make it seem as though your results are less impressive than they actually are. The best method of testing body fat is in a lab, which is great, but a bit overkill for most people. Calipers, used correctly, are another accurate and cost effective method of measuring body fat. Recently, some at home scales are capable of measuring body fat fairly accurately as well, which is the easiest method (many will even track the results of it for your and upload them to your workout logs – technology is getting pretty great).

Its also a lot easier to sell weight loss than body fat loss. Most people know their weight, and can pick a goal weight (which does not have a close relation to what you want to look like at that weight – everyone carries weight differently. One person might look slim at 150 pounds, while another might look portly at the same weight – height, build, body type, and muscle mass all play a part in what you weigh and are all different for everyone.) Body fat loss is a little more abstract. What does 5%, 10%, 20% body fat look like on a person? These are hard to picture for the average person. We just don’t talk about our bodies using this (superior) measurement in casual talk with non-fitness minded people. We can talk about a goal weight casually though, and losing 5 pounds is easily quantified by friends and family, so we frame dietary changes in the paradigm of ‘weight loss’ and ultimately end up short changing ourselves. The takeaway here: Use body fat, not weight loss. Maybe your friends won’t understand, but that’s fine. Keep telling them about your weight loss in pounds if you have to, but you keep track of it through body fat (if weight loss is your goal).

For those of us who are underweight and want to gain weight, the reverse applies – you want to gain lean mass, not fat. Weight gain in general isn’t the goal. Weight gain here is accomplished by increasing weight while maintaining the same body fat percentage. If you do that, you gain lean muscle mass and look better at the end of the program. If you ignore whether or not the weight you gain is lean muscle or fat…well, it often doesn’t end well.

You’ll notice that I will use these two ideas interchangeably. This is for practical reasons, as using different wording than what everyone is looking for might confuse and turn off some people. Hopefully after reading this, you will know the difference and can help spread that information to your friends and family.