The so-called science behind “negative calorie” foods has, sadly, been thoroughly debunked. There is no food, be it celery, grapefruit, lemons, etc. that requires more calories to metabolize than it returns in food value. Having half a grapefruit for breakfast instead of pancakes will certainly have a net negative calorie effect, but even eating 20 pounds of grapefruit will not cause you to lose an ounce. In fact, for the same calories as 20 pounds of grapefruit, you can eat an entire Sara Lee cheesecake (not that I am advocating that you do either).
There are an incredible number of flavor-laden foods that have very few calories, so you can use them to perk up the flavor of your food without loading up on calories. And if you can substitute them for higher-calorie products you’re using now, you can win-win with more flavor and fewer calories.
The Flavorful World of Herbs and Spices
Fresh herbs: Think of fresh herbs as lettuce with actual flavor. If you’ve never worked with fresh herbs and you aren’t familiar with their taste, pick up a few at your market and try them. If you feel silly eating a leaf, cut some slices of tomato (preferably Roma or Beefsteak that has more meat) and try them together. The acid in the tomato activates many of the essential compounds in the herb, and you’ll actually taste the herb more than you will if you eat the herb alone. Invite the girls over, and assign everybody a different herb to bring. Toss some fresh mint in a salad. Replace the lettuce in your BLT with fresh basil leaves and you might find you can cut back on the mayo.
Spices: Almost all spices are calorie freebies. Use the same method as with the herbs to sample some spices you may not have used before. Try spice blends. I cook a lot, and I have some truly odd spices on my spice shelf (really– do you know what a cubeb is?), but I find that spice blends give me a lot of bang for my shelf-space buck. I use some exotic blends like Garam Masala and Chinese Five Spice, but for every day I find McCormick Montreal Steak and Lemon & Pepper are my go-to flavors. My family can now consume steamed vegetables without butter as long as there’s Lemon Pepper.
Tang, Zip, and Zing
Hot sauces: I mean hot sauces, not salsas (though we’ll get to them). When I was in college, the dining commons had three things on every table: salt, pepper, and Tabasco. I ate a LOT of Tabasco. I find now I prefer the Mexican Cholula, but whichever you like, they both have zero calories and tons of flavor.
Vinegars: Many vinegars have zero calories, and most have fewer than 5 calories per tablespoon. Beware some aged and sweetened vinegars, which can have up to 25 calories per tablespoon, though compared to the roughly 120 calories per tablespoon of most oils, you can see where the calories in your salad dressings come from. Try mixing up your own salad dressings and see if you can be happy with less oil and more vinegar than the bottled kind uses.
Citrus: Lemon and Lime juice and zest, like vinegars, have that acid zing that wakes up tired food. Like salt, a little acid can make everything taste better. If you plan on putting sugar on fruit, try using half as much sugar and some lemon juice. It really works wonders for peaches, especially if they aren’t perfectly ripe. Try a lime juice marinade with little or no oil, and your protein (chicken and fish are best) will melt in your mouth.
Mustards: Most mustards have zero calories. Grey Poupon Dijon has 5 calories per teaspoon (so, 15 per tablespoon) because of the added wine. If you can increase the mustard and cut the mayo (90 calories per tablespoon!) on your sandwich, you’ll save big on calories.
Salsas: It’s not the salsa that gets you in the waistline, it’s the chips. Most salsas come in around 10 calories per tablespoon, even with some high-sugar items like corn and starchy protein like beans. Add some to your scrambled eggs, or brown (and drain well!) some ground turkey or lean beef (chili powder and garlic are good, too) and add the browned meat and your favorite salsa to a big bowl of greens for a taco salad. Pretend you have the giant fried tortilla bowl– you don’t usually eat it anyway, do you?
Chutneys: Chutneys are basically fruit salsas. They are often loaded with sugar or salt or both, but they are generally fat free and aren’t more than 20 calories or so per tablespoon.
Prepared root spices: I LOVE garlic. Many of the meals that come out of my kitchen have enough garlic to drop a vampire in his tracks at 20 paces. If I were really virtuous, I would always use garlic fresh from the bulb, but since the nice people at Gilroy Farms have made it so easy to slip their Minced Garlic into everything, I can be a little lazy. (If you can ever make it to the Gilroy Garlic Festival, it’s a hoot. The garlic ice cream is a little odd.) Gilroy Farms also makes a minced Ginger, and for the truly lazy, a Garlic-Ginger blend they call “Stir-Fry Seasoning.” If you like horseradish, do NOT buy the nasty stuff on the spice aisle that is half soybean oil and starch; go to the fresh fish counter and ask for prepared grated horseradish. (The good stuff will require refrigeration.) Every one of these items is zero calories and all flavor.
Salt: We love salt. Try not salting your popcorn or your chips and see if you still want them (I sure don’t). Salt not only makes almost everything taste better, it reminds our bodies that we need to drink more water. Have a salty snack and you’ll probably suck down 24 ounces of water or more over the following hour. If your doctor has told you that you are sodium-sensitive, you might try a potassium salt like NuSalt. I don’t think it tastes quite the same, but if you can’t have the real stuff, it’s better than NoSalt. If you want to feel really exotic, try some specialty salts like Fleur de Sel; it’s a lot to pay for salt but you’ll be amazed what a tiny bit, right on top where it hits your tongue first, can do for a savory dish. I’ve never been a fan of salt “replacements” like Mrs. Dash (it’s a textural thing– dried herbs don’t dissolve like salt), but popcorn-friendly toppers like “butter salt” or Kraft Macaroni & Cheese Topping (the same stuff that comes in the mac & cheese dinner, about 40 calories per tablespoon) are worth a try.
Soy sauce: Yes, this has all the drawbacks of salt, but along with the salt you get the meaty taste the Japanese refer to as “umami” (it ranks as a fifth “basic taste” along with sweet, sour, bitter, and salty). Add some soy sauce and a tiny bit of fresh minced ginger to one of those instant noodle products and for about 30 cents you’ll have a bowl of yumminess that tastes like you paid $7 for it at the local Japanese place.
I am second to none in my appreciation of butter, sour cream, mayo, and every other high-calorie, high-fat flavor enhancer you can think of. But there are a world of great tastes out there, many of which have virtually no calories. Broaden your culinary horizons and it might help make your backside a little less broad.