Not-so-fat Tuesday

Healthy alternatives can still spice up a Mardi Gras menu


Credit: Ron Soltys

Today is Mardi Gras, and that means it’s time for Cajun food.

Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, is a celebration prior to Lent during which people prepare for the upcoming fast by gorging themselves on food. The traditional method of doing so is with spicy, Southern cuisine.

Cajun cooking, which has its origins in several European and African cultures, is as much a Mardi Gras tradition as flashing for beads and drunken partying, and likewise, it is considered by many to be unhealthy.

Amy Merda, a registered dietitian who works with North Canton City Schools, said typical Cajun dishes are high in fat and cholesterol, which can lead to severe health problems if eaten regularly.

“You see a lot of heart disease and diabetes,” Merda said of people in the deep South, where Cajun food is a dietary staple. “Food is very important in their way of life. They are proud of their food.”

Some popular Cajun foods include gumbo, jambalaya, red beans and rice, king cake and blackened fish.

Merda said eating a lot of food during Mardi Gras should not have any long-standing effects on a person, so long as he or she normally eats healthy.

“The overall damage is minimal,” she said. “It’s like Christmas or Thanksgiving. One day of eating like a total pig is not going to hurt you. It’s about balance.”

Merda said Cajun food has some nutritional benefits as well.

“With Creole cooking, they do use a lot of spices,” she said. “It opens up all your senses and makes you sweat out a lot of impurities.”

Merda offered several tips to make healthier Cajun food:

n Shellfish is high in cholesterol, so replace it with fish like salmon, which is high in cholesterol-reducing fatty acids.

n Rather than using peanut oil and butter, cook with canola or olive oil.

n Steam or boil food to reduce the amount of fat.

n Cook using poultry instead of beef and pork.

Contact features reporter William Schertz at [email protected].