You know that you need to eat right for your heart. You may even be starting to adjust to what a heart-healthy diet means: eating plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains while limiting your fat, cholesterol, and sodium intake.

But what’s often less clear is exactly how you can make changes in your diet to ensure that you’re getting enough of the foods you need—and not too much of the ones you don’t. One smart way to accomplish this is by understanding what foods can be used as low-fat substitutes for less healthy options.

General Tips

Fortunately, there are many food substitutions that will allow you to continue to enjoy many of your favorite recipes (including desserts) while taking better care of your heart. Before you start making specific substitutions, keep in mind these general guidelines from Johns Hopkins Medicine:

  • Try to limit the number of substitutions you make in any given recipe. By making more than one or two substitutions at a time, you risk changing the original texture and taste of the food.
  • Pay special attention to measurements when using substitutions. Using too much or too little of a substitution can affect the outcome of your meal.
  • In addition to the substitution ideas below, ask your doctor or nutritionist for advice. Cookbooks and magazines might have other suggestions and some food packages list substitutions as well. Compile a list of your favorites to use again.

Here are some heart-healthy substitutions for different types of meals recommended by Johns Hopkins Medical, the Mayo Clinic, and the American Heart Association (AHA):

Standard Substitutions

Although you may be a stickler for following a recipe to the “T”—especially if you’ve been using it for years—rethink your method. You can make many recipes healthier for your heart by simply substituting lower-fat or fat-free ingredients in place of saturated fats, trans fats, and cholesterol.

Worried they won’t taste the same? Many of these substitutions are so good that you’ll notice little or no difference in taste when they’re used in recipes. Here are some standard swaps to try.

Instead of using:

Use this:

1 egg

2 egg whites, 1 egg white plus 1 teaspoon vegetable oil, or ¼ cup commercially made, cholesterol-free egg substitute

1 whole cup milk

1 cup skim (fat-free), 1 percent, or 2 percent milk

1 cup butter (or vegetable shortening)

1 cup polyunsaturated soft margarine made from canola, corn, safflower, soybean, or sunflower oil

1 cup sour cream

1 cup non-fat plain yogurt, 1 cup non-fat sour cream, or 1 cup non-fat (or low-fat) unsalted cottage cheese (whip cottage cheese in a blender to smooth consistency and add 1 teaspoon lemon juice)

1 cup heavy cream

1 cup evaporated skim milk, 1 cup skim (or 1 percent) milk, or ½ cup plain low-fat unsalted cottage cheese

8 ounces cream cheese

8 ounces non-fat cottage cheese, 8 ounces light or fat-free cream cheese, or 4 ounces skim ricotta cheese plus 4 ounces tofu

½ cup oil

½ cup applesauce, ½ cup applesauce plus ¼ cup skim milk, ½ cup prune puree

1 ounce (1 square) unsweetened baking chocolate

3 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder or carob powder plus 1 tablespoon vegetable oil or soft margarine; if using carob (which is sweeter than cocoa), reduce the sugar in the recipe by ¼

1 ounce regular cheese

1 ounce low-fat or skim milk cheese


Creative Substitutions

If you want to try a few more creative options for substitutions, you have many choices. It might surprise you to find what kinds of ingredients you can use with success in place of the standard ones in your favorite recipes.

Instead of using:

Use this:

Butter, margarine, or oil

Baby prunes

Oil for sautéing

Low-sodium tomato juice


Herbs such as garlic or garlic powder, lemon juice, flavored vinegar, cumin, or nutmeg

Dry bread crumbs

Crushed bran cereal


Soy milk, rice milk, or almond milk

Egg yolk (1)

Soy lecithin granules (1 tablespoon)

Egg (1)

Nut butter (3 tablespoons) or silken tofu (¼ cup)

Buttermilk (1 cup)

Soy milk (1 cup) plus lemon juice (2 tablespoons)

Sour cream (1 cup)

Soy yogurt (1 cup)


Cream cheese

Heavy coconut cream blended with a dash of lemon juice

Ricotta cheese

Mashed soft or silken tofu blended with a dash of lemon juice

Whipping cream (1 cup)

Soy milk (¾ cups) plus vegan melted margarine (? cup)


Dry mustard (½ teaspoon), salt (½ teaspoon), ground black pepper (? teaspoon), lemon juice (1 tablespoon), oil (1 cup)


Snack Swaps

It’s not just recipes that you can improve upon by using low-fat, healthier substitutions: snack foods including desserts are also fair game. Try these alternatives the next time you feel a snack attack coming on.

Instead of eating:

Eat this:

Regular potato chips or corn chips

Pretzels or low-fat reduced sodium potato chips

Fried tortilla chips

Baked, reduced-sodium tortilla chips

Regular cookies and crackers

Fat-free or low-fat cookies and crackers (examples: rice cakes, fig and other fruit bars, ginger snaps, molasses cookies)

Regular baked goods

Baked goods made with unsaturated oil or soft margarines, egg whites or egg substitutes, and fat-free milk

Devil’s food cake

Angel food cake

Ice cream

Fat-free or low-fat ice cream, fat-free or low-fat frozen yogurt, sherbet, ice milk, or blended frozen fruit with non-fat yogurt

Ice cream bars

Frozen fruit bars

Regular pudding

Pudding made with fat-free or low-fat milk


Whole grain bagel or toast with jam or Smart Balance spread and cinnamon sugar


There’s no limit to the kinds of substitutions you can use for different types of foods. Try these additional ideas for heart-healthy meals.

  • When using dressing on your salad, choose a fat-free or low-fat dressing instead of regular salad dressing—or choose oil and vinegar.
  • Instead of using a cream-based pasta sauce, try tomato, marinara, or clam sauce—or make a low-fat sauce from blended non-fat yogurt, lemon, garlic, and parmesan.
  • Top your baked potato with salsa or low-fat yogurt rather than butter or sour cream.

Instead of thinking of substitutions as limitations, think of them as what they are: creative variations on foods you already know and love. Don’t be afraid to by swapping ingredients. While decreasing the fat and cholesterol in your diet, you just might find a new favorite dish.