Strict calorie-counting is never ideal, but ultimately keeping our calories controlled is the key to preventing gradual weight gain.
Extra calories can slip into seemingly healthy meals without us realising via extra sauces, carb-rich ingredients such as rice and pasta, and more calorie-dense cuts of meat, chicken and fish.
That said, one easy way to take control of your weight without fussing about with calorie calculators is by swapping out some of these high-cal staples with healthier alternatives.
So, I’ve come up with five core ingredients you can use to make a heap of delicious, low-calorie meals, while also upping your nutrient intake. It’s a win-win.
Whether served simply as roast veg or subbed in as a healthier alternative to fries or pie toppings, many of us turn to potatoes and sweet potatoes when we’re craving something hearty to fill the plate.
While both of these veggies are nutrient-rich options, they do contain significantly more carbohydrate than some other vegetables, including pumpkin and carrots.
The beautiful thing about using a lot more pumpkin in your favourite mash or veggie chips is that you get the same dietary fibre, vitamins and minerals — minus a lot of carbs, making it one of the most underrated veggies for weight loss.
A ½ cup serve of pumpkin contains just 7g of carbs — that’s half the carbs of potato and sweet potato.
So, whether you slice it into homemade chips, mash it, or roast it and chunk into your favourite salads, you’re onto a low-cal winner with pumpkin.
READ MORE: The lowest-calorie snacks to munch on
2. Veggie rice
Just because we’re buying rice in panic proportions, doesn’t mean it’s the best choice nutritionally, especially when we’re trying to keep on top of our calorie intake.
A single cup of cooked rice contains at least 40g of carbohydrates or the equivalent of 2-3 slices of bread.
As rice is exceptionally easy to eat, and overeat, you will go a long way in slashing the calories of your favourite stir-fry or curry by swapping to veggie rice — you can either make your own from low-cal vegetables such as cauliflower or broccoli, or buy veggie rice alternatives in both the fresh and frozen sections of supermarkets.
While all seafood is good for us, often we forget that shellfish — prawns, oysters, mussels, crab and clams — are not only exceptionally rich sources of key nutrients that we get from few other foods, including iron, zinc and iodine, but that it is a low-cal choice of protein.
For example, 20 massive prawns contain just 300 calories, while 20 oysters contain just over 200 calories.
While fresh seafood can be a little pricey, supermarket packs of shellfish can be relatively inexpensive so don’t forget the tinned varieties of oysters and mussels which can be easy meal and snack options.
There is also crab meat, clams and mussels, which are all flavoursome ingredients to use with your favourite pasta meal, fish pie or seafood casserole.
4. Greek yoghurt
A relatively tart food when consumed by itself, Greek yoghurt can be a particularly handy ingredient to have when you’re looking to boost the nutritional content of many recipes, while cutting out much of the extra fat and calories.
Greek yoghurt can be used as a low-cal base to bircher muesli, as a topping alternative to sour cream in Mexican dishes and curries, and as a lower-fat wet ingredient to make healthy banana bread and muffins. Greek yoghurt can also be used to make a low-fat creamy sauce in your favourite pasta recipe. The key is to opt for traditional full-fat Greek yoghurt that contains 10 per cent fat, as opposed to the higher protein, low-fat varieties.
5. Bean pasta
Hearty home-cooked meals are where things are at right now, with pasta bakes, lasagne and creamy pasta dishes all popular family meal options. Pasta, while tasty and a dietary staple for many, is also high in calories and carbs, suiting those who are especially active, not those who are stuck indoors most of the time.
It’s hard to find an appealing alternative to pasta but the new bean-based pastas, made from konjac noodles or edamame, taste surprisingly good and can be substituted into most of your favourite pasta dishes. Definitely worth checking out in the health food section of supermarkets if a plate of pasta is your nightly go-to meal.
Author Susie Burrell is a leading Australian dietitian and nutritionist, founder of Shape Me, and prominent media spokesperson, with regular appearances in both print and television media commenting on all areas of diet, weight loss and nutrition.