I just had a healthy-eating wake-up call.
After purchasing a few sessions with a trainer at my gym, I started writing down what I was eating. When I proudly showed up with my dutifully recorded log of healthy meals, I was expecting praise and maybe even a congratulatory high-five for my smart eating choices. After Sarah, my trainer, quickly tracked her finger down my neatly typed pages, she looked up at me and said, “Let’s talk about condiments.” Turns out, as she quickly explained, my seemingly innocent squirts and scoops were quietly adding on hundreds of calories to all of my meals.
In hopes of becoming better informed about what I put in my body, I took a closer look. All it takes is a glance down the grocery aisles to confirm that we’re a condiment-crazed culture. From breakfast to dinner, and all our sips and nibbles in between, how much are these seemingly harmless add-ons really adding up?
The Truth Is in the Numbers
Not all savory and sweet additions are a bad choice, but the truth is that most of our average condiments pack huge amounts of high-fructose corn syrup, sugar, sodium, and oil. Think barbecued chicken is a healthy choice? Not exactly. Because the sauce is pretty much all sugar, this slathered dish is like a dessert and an entrée all wrapped up on one high-calorie plate. Added sugar and any chemical-sounding ingredients on an item’s label are sure signs that a condiment is inching an entrée toward the dessert category. Health-food stores usually have versions of ketchup, barbecue sauce, and all our other usual favorites sans these icky additions.
Whatever your condiment of choice—fries smothered in ketchup, salad drenched in dressing, toast soaked in butter—you won’t be dunking recklessly anymore if you read on.
- 1 tablespoon butter: 102 calories. And who stops at a tablespoon?
- 1 tablespoon seedless strawberry jam: 50 calories.
- 2 tablespoons peanut butter: 188 calories. Healthy, but very high-cal.
- 1/4 cup hollandaise sauce: 62 calories; eggs Benedict includes easily this much.
- 1/2 cup maple syrup: 411 calories. No one can resist drenching her pancakes with this.
Lunch and Dinner
- 1/4 cup barbecue sauce: 95 calories.
- 1 tablespoon mayonnaise: 90 calories (and 10 grams of fat!).
- Cheese: Depends on the type. A slice of cheddar has 113 calories; a tablespoon of parmesan sprinkled on pasta has 20.
- 3 tablespoons ketchup: Three squirts have around 50 calories—and, more than likely, a whole lot of high-fructose corn syrup.
- 3 tablespoons teriyaki sauce: 50 calories and tons of sugar, too.
- 3 tablespoons sour cream: 80 calories.
Snacks and Dips
- 2 tablespoons spinach dip (or crab dip, or onion dip, or any variation thereof): over 100 calories.
- 2 tablespoons tartar sauce: 80 calories.
- 2 tablespoons cocktail sauce: 20 calories. A better alternative, but still packed with sugar.
Salad Dressings (All in 2-Tablespoon Servings)
- Ranch: 148 calories
- Bleu cheese: 140 calories
- Honey mustard: 120 calories
- Vinaigrette: 90 calories
Finding Smart Alternatives
Try spreading toast with sugar-free or low-sugar jam, or just crushing up some fresh fruit on top of it. When it comes to pancakes and waffles, these can also be topped with fresh fruit, agave nectar, or (emphasis on the or) even syrup—just in moderation. Instead of the usual ketchup on eggs or hash browns, salsa and hot sauce can be even more flavorful.
Lunch and Dinner
I’ve found that using hummus in place of creamy condiments has a very satisfying effect. Plus, I end up ingesting more protein and a lot fewer calories than I do when I eat mayonnaise. Other creative, more natural alternatives are Greek yogurt and a sprinkle of parmesan cheese in place of sour cream on a potato, or soy sauce instead of sugary teriyaki sauces.
Snacks, Dips, and Dressings
- Salsa: Salsa is pretty much always a low-cal, safe bet. Still, always check ingredient lists, as some brands will sneak in sweeteners.
- Hot sauce: This is usually made from vinegar and spices and is so flavorful that you never need to use more than a dash or two.
- Mustard: Another almost always safe bet. Just watch out for those sweet blends, like honey mustard, which usually have a lot of added oil and sweetener. When in doubt, go with a simple yellow or Dijon.
- Guacamole: While avocado is fairly high in calories (about eighty calories in a quarter of one avocado), its heart-healthy fats and lack of additives still make it a good, creamy alternative.
- Olive oil and vinegar: Olive oil has a lot of calories, too, but because it contains all heart-healthy fats and no added sugars, a little can go a long way atop salad greens. Other good salad toppers: hummus and salsa. My personal fave? Fresh lemon juice, olive oil, and garlic microwaved for a minute. Amazing.
It’s not about avoiding condiments altogether; we’ve just got to use them wisely. Got a craving for mayo? Have some. The key truly is moderation—having a smear of the real stuff will be a lot more satisfying than tasteless, chemically enhanced, nonfat versions. But if I’m just looking for a little extra flavor for my baked potato, salsa and hummus can definitely do the trick.
Updated February 28, 2011