Rice cakes. Cottage cheese. Melba toast. Diet staples bland enough to send you down to Staples to buy some Styrofoam peanuts to add a little flavor to your eating plan. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Sure, if you really want to move the needle on the scale, you’re going to have to cut out a lot of fat, sugar, and sodium, but that doesn’t mean your new regimen of steaming, blanching, and boiling has to condemn you to a life of bland eating. Many condiments can spice up your cuisine without adding any calories, and in some cases, they can even accelerate your weight loss! Here are eight of our favorites.
Until recently, ketchup had been the king of the condiments. Americans have found very few meals that couldn’t be improved by being drenched in tomato-ey goodness. And ketchup has quite a number of healthy properties. Remember when the Reagan administration famously classified it as a vegetable in school lunches? OK, maybe that went too far . . . but it is chock-full of lycopene, one of the most potent antioxidants around. The only problem is that most brands are also chock-full of sodium, high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), and sugar, which substantially defrays the health benefits of the tomatoes. But more and more ketchup manufacturers are offering low-salt, low-HFCS brands; and if you can get your hands on them, you can drench your favorite meals with nutritional impunity. Or for the culinarily inclined, you can make your own ketchup and add the amount of sugar and salt that is right for you.
This sharp paste made from the crushed seeds of the mustard plant comes in colors ranging from yellow to brown and in sharpness ranging from tangy to eye-watering. Mustard has practically no calories or fat to speak of, and even if it did, a little goes a long way. After all, it is one of the only condiments to be weaponized. It is worth checking the labels as some are high in sodium and others can add sugar or oil for flavor and texture, but generally, mustard can be consumed guilt free—as much as your palate can handle. There are lots of gourmet varieties with ingredients like horseradish, white wine, or jalapeños added for extra zest.
In the last decade or so, salsa has overtaken ketchup as the number-one condiment in America. There are literally thousands of different kinds of salsas, though most contain tomatoes, onions, and peppers as their base. Very low in calories and high in flavor, salsas are a great accent to any dish, but as with all commercially prepared items, attention should be paid to the levels of sodium and high-fructose corn syrup. It’s a pretty easy thing to make yourself. A simple pico de gallo can be made by combining diced tomatoes and onions with minced cilantro and jalapeño and marinating those ingredients in lime juice. Make a big bowl on Sunday and have a healthy snack or sauce all week long!
4. Hot sauce I can go through two or three bottles of hot sauce a week. My refrigerator door rattles with tall skinny bottles of the stuff and I have been known to excuse myself from the dinner table in order to towel off my face. While many have said that the high levels of capsaicin (the “burning” component in chili peppers) I consume have deadened my taste buds to subtle flavors, I would argue that the hot sauce has opened my palate wide. I pity those who don’t have the iron stomach to withstand the delights offered by habanero, chipotle, and cayenne peppers. A little bit of hot sauce gives a ton of flavor with practically no calories, and the capsaicin is even believed to boost your metabolism. As always, keeping an eye on the sodium content is advisable.
5. Soy sauce
Needless to say, this isn’t a very good part of a low-sodium diet, but there are low-sodium versions available (although low-sodium soy sauce has through-the-roof levels of sodium compared to most other foods). Some studies have shown that soy sauce contains even more antioxidants than red wine and, as a result of the fermentation process used to make it, high levels of probiotics. It doesn’t have all the health benefits found in other soy products like edamame or tofu, but as a substitute for salt as a seasoning, you get a lot more nutritional bang for your buck.
Vinegar comes in many different varieties—malt, wine, rice, cider, sherry, balsamic, and on and on. The word itself comes from the French vin aigre, or “sour wine.” But unlike wine, vinegar has no alcohol and, depending on the variety, very few or zero calories. But it does have plenty of zip and tang. I find that a dash to my favorite soup or a sprinkle on my sandwich or salad adds lots of flavor without adding salt, fat, or sugar. In fact, studies have shown that vinegar helps stabilize blood sugar levels, and in one study, a test group of people who drank two tablespoons of vinegar before meals showed more weight loss than the group who didn’t.
Yogurt has the most calories and potentially the most fat of any of the condiments on this list. Full-fat yogurt, in fact, can have milkfat levels as high as ice cream. But low-fat and nonfat varieties serve as great substitutes for mayonnaise or a creamy dressing without adding too many calories to your dish. And with high levels of L. acidophilus and other probiotics, yogurt can also be very beneficial to your digestive system. Try mixing some plain nonfat yogurt with your favorite herbs or a little mustard or curry as a salad dressing or dipping sauce. Or try goat’s-milk yogurt for some flavor variety.
In different parts of the world curry can mean almost any number of combinations of savory spices. Besides the powder derived from the curry plant, curry powders and paste can contain many spices, including turmeric, coriander, ginger, garlic, cinnamon, cardamom, cumin, and fenugreek. There are commercially prepared curries from all over the world, from India to Thailand to the Caribbean. Keep an eye out for salt and fat content, and you’ll be on your way to giving your sauces, meats, fish, and vegetables a hit of amazing flavor without adding calories.