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Recipe Makeover Strategies

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We created the Diabetic Heart Lifestyle website because of the lack of cookbooks and resources for people with both diabetes and heart disease. We are creating new recipes every week for you, our reader, but maybe you don’t want to wait for us. How about creating makeovers of your old favorites? Would you like some tips or a formula for turning your own recipes into food that is heart-healthy and diabetic-friendly?

Remember the four things that diabetic heart patients have to watch:

  1. Sodium (salt)
  2. Saturated fat
  3. Sugars and
  4. Starchy and refined carbs.

For any recipe to become healthier, we want to minimize all of these to a level that fits into our daily limitations. Sure, you can choose to make an exception or splurge, but this is about normal, everyday strategies.

Today’s strategies are based on those four substances. Once you identify what you need to eliminate or minimize, try the strategies below for revising your recipe. The Adjustments page of our website includes five of our favorite recipe makeover examples, substitutions for specific foods, and lots of tips so be sure to look there for more ideas!


In many recipes that call for a little salt, you can just choose to leave it out. It’s more challenging when a recipe calls for something that is very high in salt, like soy sauce, gravy mix, salad dressing (or salad dressing mix), onion soup mix, canned soup, or other canned products. (We realize all you foodies would not be working with mixes or canned products, but this is about everyday life and convenience!)

Consider these strategies to makeover your recipes that are high in salt:

  • For soy sauce, consider using Coconut Aminos, which tastes very similar to soy sauce. It is lower in sodium (270 mg per tablespoon) than even reduced sodium soy sauce (450-600 mg per tablespoon).
  • Make your own homemade broth to use instead of commercial broth or high-sodium bouillon. This can be used in place of gravy mixes, canned broth and other mixes that are salt-laden. For foods that rely on salt for flavor, consider seasoning with one of the many varieties of no-salt seasonings (see our Products we love page) or with a little lemon or lime juice, balsamic vinegar, or go spicy and use peppers or pepper blends.
  • Top your vegetables and meat with great sauces, like our Roasted Red Pepper Sauce, Green Kale and Herb sauce, or All purpose sauce, instead of using butter or high-sodium gravy mixes.
  • If you choose to use butter, buy unsalted butter (and see below for possible changes to reduce your saturated fat!)
  • If your recipe calls for cream based canned soup, make your own base instead of using a canned product. The salt in canned soups is completely unnecessary and easy to eliminate with a little prep time. As a last resort, you could use no-salt-added canned soup, but for the best flavor, we suggest making your own instead. Just Google “cream of anything” or “cream of something” for recipe options.
  • If your recipe calls for instant onion soup mix, gravy mix, Italian salad dressing mix, or other high-sodium ingredient, create your own blends with a combination of seasonings, no-salt bouillon, minced garlic, herbs, or whatever you are trying to replace.
  • Visit the Hacking Salt website for an amazing range of ideas, recipes and eating out tips.


For recipes that call for a small amount of sugar or honey (for example, to offset the strong flavor of vinegar), sometimes you can simply eliminate it, or add a small amount of artificial sweetener, such as a Stevia product, can work. Be sure to read our information on artificial sweeteners, and look for a product without added ingredients.

  • Berries can be a good source for adding sweetness, because they add fiber and other nutrients with minimal sugar. Avoid using high-sugar fruits like bananas and mangoes.
  • Use dates in place of jelly or other sweet fillings. They are sweet, but also contain fiber, which reduces the effect of the sugar.
  • All-fruit spreads do contain natural sugar, but are healthier than ordinary jellies and jams because they have no added sugar.
  • Sprinkle cinnamon, nutmeg or cocoa powder into a dish to enrich the flavor and give the illusion of sweetness without adding sugar.
  • Use low-fat or fat-free whipped topping in place of sugary frosting on desserts.

Saturated fat

Recipes with the most saturated fat are most likely to include butter, cream or animal fat, such as is found in ground beef, poultry skin, or processed meats like sausage and bacon.

  • Instead of cooking with butter, use olive oil, avocado oil, walnut oil, or other monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fats. (Try to avoid the use of highly refined oils, like “vegetable oil”; see our article on saturated fats for more information.)
  • For a spread, consider using a soft (tub type) margarine that has no trans fat.
  • For vegetable or meat toppings, instead of butter, keep a batch of our Roasted Red Pepper Sauce, Green Kale and Herb sauce, or All purpose sauce on hand.
  • Consider using reduced, thickened no-salt homemade broth to top vegetables and meats instead of butter.
  • For casseroles or other dishes that use cheese, consider using a stronger cheese in smaller amounts, instead of a lot of a mild cheese, to get the most flavor from a smaller amount of fat and sodium.
  • Replace ground beef with lean ground turkey or chicken and add olive oil to replace the saturated fat with a healthier fat. For juicy burgers, finely chop and sauté vegetables (like onions, celery and green pepper or mushrooms) and mix them into the meat before cooking, along with the olive oil.
  • If you do cook with beef, choose very lean products and trim any fat before cooking. Use cooking methods (like braising or slow cooking) that do not require fat to keep the meat tender.
  • Consider using nonfat plain yogurt in place of sour cream.

Starchy/refined carbs

There are several strategies you can use to reduce the presence of starchy and refined carbs in your recipes:

  • If your recipe calls for bread crumbs or breading, consider using Panko crumbs, which have a lower carb content and absorb less grease.
  • Avoid heavy breading on fried foods by using an oven or air fryer.
  • When possible, substitute high fiber carbs for refined ones, such as whole grain bread for regular, pasta with higher fiber and brown rice instead of white.
  • Cauliflower makes a great substitute for potatoes. While we haven’t tried it, cauliflower can even be used to create a pizza “crust”!
  • For baked products, whole wheat flour can replace white flour at about one-half to two-thirds cup per cup of flour. Almond flour can be used in some recipes, but will not produce the same texture in the baked product. We do not bake much, so we encourage experimenting if that is something you enjoy.
  • If you must include potatoes in your meal, use fresh potatoes with minimal added ingredients that you control, rather than processed or frozen potato products with added fats, sodium and other chemicals.
  • For pasta dishes, reduce the amount of pasta and use more vegetables. Or, consider something like “zoodles” (zucchini spiral sliced into noodle shapes). Just be sure to cook them very lightly on high heat to sear lightly and avoid letting them get mushy.
  • Use arrowroot powder for thickening instead of flour or cornstarch. Arrowroot powder is not carb-free, but you might be able to use less of it than you would flour (and it dissolves in water, like cornstarch, rather than having to be absorbed into butter to make sauce). Alternatively, consider simply simmering your soup or stock longer until it is rich enough without a thickening agent.

Final Tips

For all of these substances, recipe alternatives that do not rely on heavy use of salt, sugar, saturated fat and/or starchy carbs will be the healthiest option, but there will be times when you want to make alterations that can fit into your daily routine. Of course for some foods there are no easy alternatives. If your favorite dish is fettuccini alfredo or macaroni and cheese, you might find low-fat and high fiber ingredients unsatisfying. For those occasions, you can still minimize the damage:

  • Save your least healthy dishes for special occasions, or times when nothing else will do (rather than keeping them as part of your normal meal rotation).
  • Make smaller servings (or share your dish, if you’re eating out); for example, scalloped potatoes in muffin pan servings instead of a huge casserole.
  • Pair your dish with delicious and healthy side dishes, so you will be satisfied without filling up on your less healthy dish.
  • Eat your vegetables or salad first, so that when you get to your less-healthy dish, you don’t eat as much of it.

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