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Healthier Baking: Strategies and Recipe Ideas

The nutrition of desserts will always fall short, so I guess we’ll have to keep eating our vegetables. But the good news is that there are ways to bake that can make it less bad for you. Yes, you can avoid that heavy post-binge heap of guilt and complementary five extra pounds on the bathroom scale. Healthier baking starts with knowing what makes baking less healthy.

Healthy Baking: Strategies and Recipe Ideas

By: Brooke Haubenstricker, PBC, BLOC Staff Coach

Coach Brooke Specializes in coaching beginners of all athletic backgrounds and masters athletes (age 40+). She is also passionate about coaching lifters with psychological disorders. She places a high importance on her clients’ overall quality of life, which can mean pursuing higher weights through traditional strength training methods or experimenting with alternative programming strategies while still having a strength foundation. Get coaching from Brooke Haubenstricker.

Welcome, my fellow sugar addicts and avid bakers. I wish I could tell you that there was a way to magically make baked goods healthy—with balanced macros, a great micronutrient profile, and low calories to boot—but sadly, we can’t survive on cake alone. The nutrition of desserts will always fall short, so I guess we’ll have to keep eating our vegetables. But the good news is that there are ways to bake that can make it less bad for you. Yes, you can avoid that heavy post-binge heap of guilt and complementary five extra pounds on the bathroom scale. To do that, we first have to understand what makes baking less healthy.

Simple Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates are organic compounds that our bodies turn into glucose, which is our main source of energy. Sugar, starch, and fiber fall into this category (although fiber’s caloric content is not absorbed). There are two main types of carbohydrates:

  • Complex carbs have long, complex strings of molecules that make it more difficult for the body to break down. As a result, the glucose from those carbs is released more slowly, causing a more gradual incline and decline in our blood sugar (akin to burning a couple of logs in the fireplace). Complex carbs typically have higher fiber and starch contents and go through little to no processing, such as steel-cut oats, brown rice, beans, peas, and most vegetables.
  • Simple carbs have short, simple strings of molecules, so they are broken down more rapidly. This leads to a spike in our blood sugar (“sugar rush”) which is quickly followed by a steep drop (like building a fire in your fireplace with only newspaper). Simple carbs tend to be low in fiber and starch and oftentimes go through processing and refinement, like refined sugar, white flour, fruit, and the sugar found in dairy products.

When our blood sugar rises, our pancreas releases a hormone called insulin to maintain a normal blood sugar range. It helps regulate our metabolism and store extra glucose in our muscles, liver, and body fat. When we eat simple carbs and spike our blood sugar, our body responds by releasing a lot of insulin. If this happens frequently over a long period of time, the chronic high levels of insulin can be taxing on our pancreas and lead to metabolic dysfunction. Our bodies will become less sensitive to the insulin we release (meaning it won’t work as effectively), ultimately leading to type 2 diabetes. To clarify, I’m not saying eating a cupcake will give you diabetes, but for your long-term health, be careful about what kinds of foods you’re making a staple in your diet.

Fat

The truth is that even though fat is an essential part of our diet and helps with performing a myriad of bodily functions, our body doesn’t need much of it. The majority of people can pick up all the fat they need from their non-dessert foods, which means fat-filled desserts can tip us over the edge with our macros. In addition, fat is more calorically dense than carbohydrates and protein (nine calories per gram vs. four calories per gram), which makes it easy to rack up those unwanted calories.

High Carb + High Fat

Most of us will admit that fat is delicious, and fat paired with sugar is extra delicious: cheesecake, ice cream, doughnuts—those warm, ooey-gooey chocolate chip cookies that call to you when you’re at the grocery store. But this combination of high carb and high fat is what leads many of us down a bad road with our nutrition. Most desserts fall into this category, which poses a problem for us when we consider our metabolism.

Our bodies love to burn carbs. It’s a straightforward process and has great energy yields—plus trying to store carbs as fat is a highly inefficient process. The opposite is true of fat. Our bodies really, really like to throw dietary fat into our fat stores as it’s much easier than converting it into glucose. So when we eat these kinds of foods, we get plenty of energy from the carbohydrates, so all the fat gets stored for later use. It may seem unfair, but that process was necessary for our ancestors’ survival for thousands of years. It just doesn’t translate well to 21st-century cookies and fried food.

Healthier Baking Strategies

Now that you have a basic understanding of what makes desserts both delicious and terrible, you can manipulate those variables to create wonderful desserts that you can sustainably enjoy for the rest of your healthy, strong life.

Tip 1: Sub Out Some of the Fat

It may sound strange, but you can substitute fat (specifically oil and melted butter) with certain low-fat foods when baking. Applesauce, mashed overripe bananas, and pumpkin puree are three popular fat substitutes. It does have a couple of caveats, though. The most obvious one is that the type of substitute you use has the potential to affect the taste of the food you’re making. I will say that after baking with these substitutes for several years, I rarely taste the substitute, and if I do, it’s faint. It shouldn’t be an issue at all if you’re making a small substitution or baking something with a strong flavor like chocolate. Another thing to keep in mind is that these substitutes can affect the texture of what you’re baking. For instance, baking chocolate chip cookies with pumpkin puree can result in a softer, more delicate cookie.

The more fat that’s in a recipe, the stronger the effect of the substitute. It’s for that reason that I do a 50/50 split on most bakes (with a general goal of keeping the fat around ¼ cup). So if I need ½ cup of butter or oil, I’ll fill up my ½ cup halfway with my substitute, then “top it off” with my liquid or melted baking fat of choice. It’s a slightly healthier bake that preserves most of the original texture.

Tip 2: Reduce the Sugar

My goodness, do bakers love their sugar! You’ll find heaps of it in most American recipes, but the truth is, most desserts taste lovely with less than one cup of sugar. My “sweet spot” is in the 1/2 to 2/3 cup range, but in certain recipes, I don’t add any sugar at all. (Mixed berry pie filling doesn’t need a sweetener. Just sayin’.) If you’re skeptical, you can start small. Take out 1/4 cup here and there. If you’re used to dousing your tongue in sugar, it may take a little time for your tastebuds to adjust, but it’s well worth the effort.

Depending on what you’re making and how much sugar you’re removing, the texture of the dessert may change slightly. Sugar can add a nice “crunch”—like when it’s used in a pie crust—so reducing it could result in a softer baked good.

While this works for most desserts, it won’t work for all desserts. For instance, meringue is typically made with egg whites, sugar, and a little cream of tartar. Sugar plays an integral role in the structure of the meringue, so taking some of it out could result in mushy meringues. But this strategy works beautifully in many other desserts like cakes, muffins, cookies, sweet breads, and even whipped cream.

Tip 3: Find Recipes That are Already Reasonable

There are recipes out there that have already done the heavy lifting for you! They have less sugar, less fat, occasionally less simple carbs, and they’ve already been tested by dozens—or sometimes hundreds—of other people. Less experimentation means more successful bakes. Win-win. When selecting a recipe to try, I recommend following the suggestions in tips 1 and 2.

Other Strategies: Natural Sugars and Flours

There are two other commonly used strategies for making bakes healthier, but I wouldn’t recommend starting with them right away because they’re a bit more complicated and won’t be as effective as the tips I mentioned above. However, I thought they were worth mentioning due to their popularity.

While perusing healthy baking recipes, you’ll probably see a pattern with the sugar. Honey, maple syrup, agave nectar, molasses, turbinado sugar, and other “natural sweeteners” are often used instead of refined sugar. (Sidenote: Brown sugar is refined sugar mixed with a small amount of molasses, so it’s not considered a natural sweetener.) This is because your body will break them down a little more slowly than refined sugar, leading to less of a spike in blood sugar. This breakdown will still happen more rapidly than with complex carbs, but it’s a small improvement.

There are two main considerations when baking with these natural sweeteners. One is that they can be sweeter than refined sugar, so you should check the substitution ratio before using them. The second is that many of these sweeteners are liquids, which introduces more water into the dough. Wetter dough may have different time and temperature needs than the original recipe, making it a trickier bake. Or you may need to modify other ingredient quantities to reduce the dough’s wetness (such as adding less liquid).

The other strategy is to use less processed flours. Adding whole wheat flour instead of white flour is a very common substitution, but you can play around with all sorts of flours. Personally, I like blitzing rolled oats in a blender or food processor to make oat flour and adding that to my bakes. It can create a hardier texture and add a warm flavor to the bake. When you play with flours, you’ll want to keep a close eye on the ratios here as well. Some flours are more absorbent than others, which means you’ll need less of it (or you’ll risk making cement!).

I would highly recommend doing partial flour substitutions. For example, if I were to completely replace white flour with oat flour in a recipe, it would result in a smaller, much denser baked good. Whereas if I only replace 25% of the flour with oat flour, I can still enjoy the flavorful complex carb without compromising the texture or rise on the bake.

As I’m sure you’ve caught on to by now, “healthy baking” isn’t about transforming desserts into something they’re not. It’s about minimizing the negative impact they can have on your body while preserving the deliciousness of the dessert!

Top 5 “Healthy” Baking Recipes

(Please note that I am a celiac, so I always bake with 1:1 gluten-free flour. All of these recipes call for regular flour, though.)

Vegan Low-Fat Chocolate Cake by The Spiced Life(Recipe very closely adapted from Joanne Chang.)

Healthy Chocolate CakeThis is the first chocolate cake I made from scratch, and it will be the last because the chances of topping this decadent beauty are slim to none. Other than skipping the espresso powder, I make it exactly as directed. And no, it doesn’t “taste vegan”! It’s a simple, quick cake that’s surprisingly moist for having such little oil and no eggs. It’s also absolutely divine with vanilla low-fat ice cream or frozen yogurt. Keep in mind that this won’t make your stereotypical tall, fluffy cake; it’s small but rich. A good choice if you’re prone to devouring chocolate cakes.

Healthy Blueberry Muffins by Cookie and Kate

Healthy Blueberry Muffins

Kate has a treasure trove of wonderful baking and cooking recipes, but this recipe is one of my absolute favorites. It’s pretty healthy on its own, and it serves as a fantastic base for other muffins. I’ve already used it to make chocolate chip muffins and cinnamon sugar muffins.

I do make a few substitutions, though: white sugar instead of honey or maple syrup, sub out a little of the oil for applesauce, and I actually make vegan buttermilk (mix ⅔ cup non-dairy milk with 2 tsp vinegar and allow to sit for 5 minutes before using) instead of using Greek yogurt.

Low-Fat Choc Chip Cookie Sticks by Cafe Delites

chocolate chip cookie sticks

[Photo Credit: cafedelites]

My least favorite part of making cookies is rolling all of them out into little balls, and this genius recipe introduced me to the idea of making one large cookie slab. For those of us who lack patience (or are juggling a kid or two), this is glorious. The one adjustment I make to this recipe is reducing the sugar to 2/3 cups.

Oatmeal Raisin Cookies by Amy’s Healthy Baking

Oatmeal Raisin CookiesDon’t be fooled: most oatmeal raisin cookies aren’t healthy! They can pack as hard of a punch to your diet as chocolate chip cookies. You can rest easy eating the oatmeal cookies from this recipe, though, because they aren’t drowned in butter and overloaded with sugar. These heavenly cookies are the perfect balance of soft and chewy, and they can be whipped up in a pinch. The only minor change I make is to use brown sugar instead of honey or agave, but that’s my personal preference.

Diana’s Famous Pumpkin Gut Bread by Eating Richly

pumpkin bread baking healthyI had to share this recipe because of how quirky and tasty it is, but it’s also a good example of how to modify a normal baking recipe to make it healthier. Before diving in, note that this recipe makes two loaves of bread, so that’s why the ingredient quantities are so high. Quick and simple: when I make this recipe, I reduce the sugar to 2 cups (1 cup brown, 1 cup white) and do a 75/25 split with applesauce and the oil. Easy-peasy.

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