I love to eat. I won my first cooking contest in fifth grade. In college, I wondered if my boyfriends were attracted to me or to my cooking, and today I spend most of my vacations cruising local markets and ferreting out the best restaurants.
In my midthirties, then, it came as no surprise to discover that I’d stockpiled a warehouse of clothes in successively larger sizes. Most middle-aged Americans gain one to three pounds every year, but I was tired of being one of them. I knew that a crash diet might take off excess pounds but was unlikely to be a system I could live with to maintain a healthy weight. My solution was to adopt several commonsense changes in my food habits, replacing junk, refined, and processed foods with nutritious, unprocessed, whole-grain foods, cutting way back on fats and sugars. What makes this diet not only tolerable but sensational is my generous use of fresh herbs to add their myriad flavors and textures to my meals. Let me explain how I do it.
Give your body a break
If you normally reach for white flour, white rice, or other processed foods, start replacing them with whole foods: whole-grain flours and pasta, brown rice, unprocessed fresh fruits and vegetables, and fresh herbs. They’re rich in the natural fiber, vitamins, and other nutrients that commonly are stripped away in processing. If you love bagels and cream cheese, choose a whole-grain bagel; instead of cream cheese, substitute a little drained nonfat yogurt stirred with lots of snipped chives and save about 90 calories or 10 grams of fat for every 2 tablespoons of spread. Spread your favorite sandwich with Dijon mustard flavored with French tarragon or minced fennel tops instead of mayonnaise. Herbs add nutrients as well as their diverse flavors to just about any food. Be creative. Write down your winning combinations so that you can re-create them whenever you want.
Herbs help you cut down on fats
Many herbs, especially those that taste bitter, aid digestion as they add flavor. Garlic chives add a gentle hint of garlic to meatballs and meatloaf. Sour and bitter spring herbs such as arugula, sorrel, chicory, and dandelion stimulate the taste buds and give spark to bland foods. Use them as bedding for grilled or sautéed fish, poultry, and other meats; toss them into green salads. Hot, spicy herbs such as garlic, hot peppers, mustard, and horseradish have been found to increase metabolism, as has fennel seed. In The Green Pharmacy (Rodale Press, 1997), James Duke reports that adding 1 teaspoon of mustard and 1 teaspoon of red pepper sauce to every meal raised the metabolic rate of one study’s subjects by as much as 25 percent. But more important, the attention-getting flavors of these spices help make up for the flavor lost with a decrease in fat. On the other hand, I’ve found that I can decrease by a third the amount of fat called for in recipes for savory soups, stews, and entrees and never even miss it. Small amounts of herbed oils and butters add a special touch but few calories.
Go for salads and vegetables
Increasing the proportion of vegetables in your diet can help you lose weight; this doesn’t mean restricting yourself to nothing but plain raw carrots or celery stalks, though. Vegetables don’t have to be boring; adding herbs is the easiest way I’ve found to make them the highlight of your meals.
Mix bite-size pieces of arugula, sorrel, sweet violet leaves, chicory, and tender dandelion leaves—all rich in vitamins—in with your usual salad greens. A few whole leaves of basil and lemon balm and the same number of 1-inch sprigs of dill and/or fennel give each bite a different flavor. Basil and mint, chervil and tarragon, and cilantro and grated carrots are all winning combinations while salad burnet, parsley, and chives seem to complement virtually everything. Infused oils add extra flavor without a lot of fat; try using herb-infused vinegars, too.
Freshly snipped herbs enhance steamed, sautéed, roasted, and grilled vegetables. Roasted beets are delicious with mint and orange zest. Sprinkle balsamic vinegar and tarragon on cooked parsnips, or lemon balm on carrots. I like to serve several vegetables, each tossed with a different chopped herb, with or without a splash of herb-infused oil or vinegar. Dill, basil, tarragon, fennel, cilantro, lemon balm, and mint are all good choices here.
Herb vinegars contribute outstanding flavor to many foods without adding a single calorie. Use one to deglaze a sauté pan, then cook it down with water or stock for a tangy low-fat sauce. Brush a different one onto grilled, steamed, or roasted meats, fish, or vegetables.
Salad oils contain 120 calories per tablespoon, and some restaurant salad dressings contain as much as five parts of oil to one part of vinegar. Try using only one part of oil to one of vinegar, and for even more flavor, make that an herbal vinegar. My favorites for salad dressing are the mild champagne, seasoned and unseasoned rice wine, and balsamic vinegars. White wine and red wine vinegars are tasty but more acid; you may want to dilute them with a little water or fruit juice to make them palatable without adding a lot of calories from fat.
Debbie Whittaker, a frequent contributor to The Herb Companion, demonstrates her healthy cooking style as the Herb Gourmet in Denver, Colorado.