Ask Peggy

How can I decrease the fat and/or sodium in ethnic dishes?

DEAR PEGGY: Recently my husband has been diagnosed as borderline diabetic. He also has high cholesterol. I am very overweight and need to lose quite a bit of weight. Recently, I started to cook meals that are lower in fat and salt. We love all kinds of ethnic foods like Italian, Chinese, Mexican and Japanese. Are there any ways to decrease the fat and/or sodium in these types of dishes? Also, I see some recipes for salads and desserts calling for unsweetened coconut. I cannot find any at our local grocery stores or large retail store. Can I request this item or is it not made any longer? — S. S., Columbia, SC

Congratulations on your new healthy eating path! Here are some tips to lighten up foods in ethnic dishes:

When you eat at restaurants:

Italian Food

  • Choose thin-crust pizzas with veggie toppings and ask for half the cheese
  • Opt for pasta dishes with tomato sauce instead of Alfredo or butter sauces
  • Keep portion size in mind when eating pasta. Remember, 1/3 cup cooked pasta is 1 starch exchange (if you are familiar with the diabetic exchange system)
  • Have a garden salad to start your meal instead of bread and butter

Southwestern Food

  • Avoid the temptation of chips and salsa all together and ask your server to remove them from the table
  • Choose chicken soft tacos or fajitas instead of entrees served in crisp taco shells
  • Splurge on extra lettuce and salsa
  • Steer clear of deep-fried entrees like flautas, chimichangas, chalupas and chile rellenos

Asian Food

  • Look for entrees that feature vegetables, not meat or noodles
  • Skip sweet-and-sour dishes or “fried rice” entrees
  • Leave most of the sauce in the serving dish or on your plate
  • Look for items that have been stir-fried or steamed
  • Avoid entrees that are described as “battered” or “crispy”

When cooking at home:

Italian Food

  • Choose reduced-fat cheese and use less of it. Fool yourself by decreasing the amount of cheese mixed into a dish or layered in lasagna and leave the amount on top the same.
  • Stay away from Alfredo sauces and stick to red sauces. Try to make them from scratch using no-salt added tomato products. If you use prepared spaghetti sauce, compare labels to find the brand with the lowest sodium.
  • Increase fiber and nutrition by mixing in sauteed fresh veggies. Using fresh instead of canned vegetables also decreases sodium.

Southwestern Food

  • Again, use reduced-fat cheese and less of it.
  • Skip the sour cream if you can or go with the fat-free or reduced-fat variety.
  • The calories and sodium from tortillas add up really quickly. Stick to no more than one 8-inch tortilla or two 6-inch tortillas per serving.
  • Skip the prepared taco and burrito seasoning packets, which are high in sodium. Make your own by adding some chili powder, cumin, coriander, garlic powder, cayenne pepper, a dash of salt and a little bit of flour to your cooked lean meat. Add water and boil just like you do with the mix to make it saucy.

Asian Food

  • Use reduced-sodium soy sauce, but keep in mind—even reduced-sodium soy sauce is high in sodium, so use it sparingly.
  • Bulk up stir-fries with veggies and serve them over smaller portions of rice. Rice isn’t bad for you, but veggies are lower in calories than rice. As you know, it’s all about give and take when you’re trying to lose weight.

To answer your question about coconut

You’re right, it is very difficult to find unsweetened coconut in grocery stores. You can order unsweetened coconut through King Arthur Flour at or, which is a great resource for baking products.

You might also try markets like Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s for unsweetened coconut.