Ending the Low-Fat Muffin Craze

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Forget the low-fat muffin. It's not very good for you, especially when it's the size of a softball. Instead, focus on recipes that use healthy fats, whole grains, and less salt and sugar.

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If you're still obsessed with counting fat grams, it's time to move on and concentrate on just eating healthy. Low-fat diets are no better for health than moderate- or high-fat diets and in some cases, may be worse for you, according to researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH). It's time to put more focus on the the type of fats eaten.

Nutrition experts at the HSPH and chefs and registered dietitians (RDs) at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) worked together on The Great Muffin Makeover and developed five muffin recipes that use healthy fats, whole grains, and less salt and sugar. A typical low-fat muffin bought at a coffee shop may appear heart-healthy, but its downfall is in its size (about the size of a softball) and the amount of refined white flour, sugar, sodium, and calories it contains, practically obliterating any health benefits of the heart-healthy fat in it.

"It's time to end the low-fat myth," said Walter Willett, professor of epidemiology and nutrition and chair of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard. "Unfortunately, many well-motivated people have been led to believe that all fats are bad and that foods loaded with white flour and sugar are healthy choices. This has clearly contributed to the epidemic of diabetes we are experiencing and premature death for many. The lessons contained in these healthy muffins -- that foods can be both tasty and good for you -- can literally be life saving."

One of the recipes created by the food and nutrition experts was for a Blueberry Muffin boasting a mere 130 calories compared to the 450-calorie muffin sold at a national coffee shop chain. The Blueberry Muffin makeover recipe is made with a mixture of white, whole-wheat, and almond flours and uses canola oil, a heart-healthy fat.

"There are so many ingredients available to home bakers who want to offer their families healthful, flavorful, baked goods," said Richard Coppedge, Jr., chef-instructor at the Culinary Institute and a Certified Master Baker. "These five recipes not only include a wide variety of whole grains and nut flours, they also demonstrate how more unusual ingredients like canned chickpeas and extra virgin olive oil can be used in baking."

The HSPH and the CIA offer a dozen healthy baking tips that can be used to bake a healthier muffin. Here are a few from the HSPH press release:

  • Downsize the portions. The mega-muffins popular in bake shops are two to three times the size of the muffins your grandmother might have baked.
  • Go whole on the grains. It's easy to substitute whole wheat flour for 50 percent of the white flour in recipes without harming taste or texture. And with a few recipe alterations, delicious muffins can be made with 100 percent whole grains.
  • Slash the sugar. You can cut 25 percent of the sugar from most standard muffin recipes without any negative impact on flavor or texture, and in some recipes, cut back even more.
  • Pour on the oil. Liquid plant oils -- canola, extra virgin olive oil, corn, sunflower, and others -- help keep whole-grain muffins moist and are a healthier choice than melted butter or shortening.
  • Bring out the nuts. For extra protein and an additional source of healthy fats, add chopped nuts.
  • Scale back the salt. The best way to reduce salt is to make a smaller muffin and to pair muffins with foods, such as vegetables and fruits, that are sodium-free.
  • Pump up the produce -- and flavor! Fresh whole fruit and unsweetened dried fruit naturally contain sugar, but unlike other sweeteners, they also contain fiber and important nutrients. Using fruit in your muffins means you can have a lighter hand on the added sugar. Cooked or raw vegetables, such as caramelized onions, sliced jalapeños, and chives and other fresh herbs -- together with a whole range of spices -- can add interesting textures and savory flavors to muffins.

More information about The Great Muffin Makeover and links to recipes for all five muffin recipes can be found here.

Image: Olga Utlyakova/Shutterstock.


This article originally appeared on TheDoctorWillSeeYouNow.com, an Atlantic partner site.

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Beth Fontenot is a registered dietitian and a licensed dietitian/nutritionist. She serves on the Louisiana Board of Examiners in Dietetics and Nutrition and writes for TheDoctorWillSeeYouNow.com.

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