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How to make your favourite pies that little bit healthier...

Features | Published:

WE are currently in the midst of British Pie Week – 6 to 12 March – and it’s certainly an event worth celebrating given that us Brits appear to be a nation of pie fanatics, with 75 per cent of UK consumers eating at least one pie a month.

But how to dig into pies without sabotaging our healthy diets? Here, three of the UK’s top nutritionists – Michela Vagnini, Alix Woods and Cassandra Burns – explain simple steps on how to add a healthy twist to the nation’s favourite pies.

1. Steak and ale pie

‘Steak and ale pie is a comforting winter warmer dish and can be a classic meal for the whole family to enjoy,’ says Michela Vagnini, nutritionist at Natures Plus. ‘If you make your own steak and ale pie you can reduce the fat content, thereby reducing calories and you can use less salt and additives, which are a common feature in processed pies. If you want to make the pie less calorific, switch puff or short-crust pastry for filo pastry, which is much lighter and is quicker to work with, so helps give it a crispy crunch.’

Alternatively, if you want to make this even healthier you can skip the pastry altogether, as Quest Nutra Pharma nutritionist Alix Woods suggests: “Root vegetables such as carrot, parsnip, turnip and sweet potato are deliciously comforting in winter, but are also nutritious, containing vitamins, minerals, fibre and antioxidants. Make a stew with a mixture of veg, beans and meat of your choice. Make a big batch at the weekend and you’ll have enough to last you for some week nights as well.’

2. Shepherd’s pie

‘This pie is one of my favourites, and comes near the top of the list for nutritional value too,’ says nutritionist Cassandra Burns. ‘Lamb is a great source of protein but also vitamin B3, B12, zinc and selenium. And the potato topping can be a more nutritious – and less calorific – alternative to pastry. To further improve the nutritional value, I’d add vegetables such as peas and finely chopped carrots to the meat – as well as benefiting from the fibre and antioxidants in the vegetables, you’ll make the meat sauce go further too. And I’d use sweet potatoes for the topping, as they’re high in beta-carotene and tend to have a slightly lower glycaemic index than white potatoes.’

3. Chicken and mushroom pie

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‘This is a good example of a protein rich pie,’ says Alix Woods. ‘However, chicken and mushroom pie is often high in fats and carbohydrates, with the average pie having 47g of fat, of which 17g are unhealthy saturated fats, followed by overall carbohydrates, at 57g. Salt content is notable, too. So definitely a reason why eating a pie should be ‘treat’ and not a regular choice.

‘Puff pastry is moreish and can be comforting but lacks true nourishment, being full of saturated and hydrogenated fats and refined flour. These ingredients may send cholesterol levels rocketing, leading to greater heart health risks.

‘In its favour, a chicken and mushroom pie does contain some highly nutritious ‘life-giving’ ingredients like chicken, of course, which is an excellent source of low fat protein, providing many health benefits, as it is rich in vitamins and minerals. Chicken contains tryptophan, an amino acid that boosts mood, aids sleep and may help keep the blues away. Chicken may also prevent bone loss and keep our hearts healthy by keeping our homocysteine in check. It is high in selenium, which can help to boost your immunity and can aid weight loss.

‘I have to say, a chicken pie is the perfect comfort food for an icy winters night served with mashed potato. For healthier and lower calorie mash potato, use oat milk for cholesterol lowering anti-inflammatory benefits, as opposed to dairy milk that can form mucous. For added flavour add a good dollop of horseradish and some roughly ground black pepper. Both ingredients support digestion and immunity.’

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4. Steak and potato pie

‘If you’re trying to shift those stubborn pounds but want steak and potato pie back on the menu, you can make healthy tweaks to this dish,’ says Michela Vagnini. ‘For the gravy avoid stock cubes and ready-made stocks as they are usually rich in salt and flavourings. You can make healthier gravy by using a fresh homemade meat or vegetable stock. You can then add mushrooms, which gives it that woody and hearty taste that many of us love in gravy. For extra flavouring add onions, cloves and herbs and spices.

‘For an added healthy kick switch white potatoes for sweet potato, which is high in plant compounds called carotenoids. Carotenoids have antioxidant activity, which can convert to vitamin A in our body, which is a key nutrient for our immunity.

‘Other options are using different vegetables like parsnip, squash, carrots and peas. They will add more fibre and nutrients than potatoes like carotenoids, healthy levels of minerals like iron, calcium, copper, potassium, manganese and phosphorus and various vitamins.’

5. Cheese and onion pie

‘Cheese and onion pie can be super-high in calories, fat and carbohydrates, thanks to the flour in the pastry, the cheese and the added butter and cream that often go into making it,’ says Cassandra Burns. ‘And apart from the onion – which tends to be only a small amount compared to the other ingredients – a cheese and onion pie will rarely contain any other vegetables. To make it more nutritious, I’d look for a recipe that uses wholegrain spelt flour for the pastry – or, even better, higher-protein grain-free flour such as almond flour or coconut flour. I’d add in more vegetables such as leeks and steamed chopped carrots and would try swapping some of the cheese for a higher-protein, lower fat cheese such as cottage cheese.’

6. Apple pie

‘Being a sweet tasting dessert-type pie, it is high in sugar, especially fructose or fruit sugar from the apple filling,’ says Alix Woods. ‘Fruit sugar has the same effects on blood sugar as ordinary cane sugar has and therefore, it is necessary to limit and avoid, as sugar is highly addictive and an anti-nutrient.

‘For a healthier apple pie start with making a crumble crust only for the top of the pie. Use rough cooking oats to replace the refined flour as it is naturally high in fibre, can help boost your immunity and contains beta glucans which can help lower cholesterol.

‘To reduce calories even more, replace saturated butter with healthier fat choices like coconut oil, grapeseed oil and/or canola oil. A natural sugar alternative could be stevia, from the stevia plant, which may be a useful ingredient as it is 200 times sweeter than sugar, so only a little is required and it has no impact on blood glucose levels.

‘To help avoid sugar altogether, use the ripest apples you can find and add in a handful of raisins for added sweetness. Raisins add fibre and contain magnesium, which helps maintain energy and mood. Any dried fruit can be used if you want to add natural sweetness, but being dried does not mean it has fewer calories.

‘To increase the protein and healthy essential fat content, add some walnuts and or pecan nut chips to the apple mixture. Don’t forget cinnamon spice, that has long been known to balance blood sugar and it adds great warmth and flavour too.

‘To continue on our lower calorie healthy mission, you may want to avoid the cream and or ice cream and choose a healthier choice like a low-fat yoghurt or crème fresh.’

7. Fish pie

‘Fish pie is a great way to get your brain-healthy omega-3 fats and up your protein,’ says Michela Vagnini. ‘You can get the same warmth and comfort from a delicious fish pie made with cauliflower mash. Cauliflower mash is a healthier lower carbohydrate choice and you pack it full of delicious and immune-optimising ingredients like garlic, onion, celery, carrot, tomato. Why not make a big batch on this tasty meal, which freezes well so you have healthy homemade meals at the ready for later on?

‘Fish and herbs like thyme, oregano and dill are a perfect combo. Herbs will enhance the fish flavouring and can give your immunity a boost during winter time, helping to protect the whole family from cold and flu. Plus by using herbs you can reduce the salt content, as you don’t have to rely on it to get a great taste.’

8. Chicken and bacon pie

‘A chicken and bacon pie can be a good hearty meal,’ says Cassandra Burns. ‘Chicken breast provides lots of lean protein to fill you up, and there’s nothing wrong with a bit of bacon to flavour things up – often only a small amount is used relative to the chicken. This pie often contains vegetables such as carrots or celery, too. Again, to make it healthier I’d probably use an alternative flour such as wholegrain spelt for the pastry, and increase the vegetable content.’

9. Pork pie

‘A pork pie is an example of a very high-fat pie,’ says Alix Woods. ‘The fat content is just over 60 per cent of the total nutritional value. These fats are extremely unhealthy as they are saturated and carbohydrates are almost 30 per cent of the total nutritional value.

‘For a healthier pork pie, opt for filo pastry and wrap this around the leanest pork meat possible. To make the meal healthier always serve with a good side of steamed leafy greens and French beans.’

10. Banoffee pie

‘Banoffee pie can actually contain some useful nutrients if it’s made with good-quality ingredients,’ says Cassandra Burns. ‘For example, cream and butter can provide fat-soluble vitamins such as vitamin A and K, and bananas provide potassium, manganese and vitamin B6. But it can also be super-high in sugar and fat, so should only be an occasional treat. You could greatly increase the nutritional value by looking for a recipe for raw banoffee pie, which is often made with alternative ingredients such as coconut milk instead of cream, nuts instead of flour, and dates instead of refined sugar for sweetness. As well as being rich in nutrients, it will provide slower-releasing energy so you don’t get that sugar rush.’

  • For more information on Michela Vagnini, visit naturesplus.co.uk. More details on Alix Woods are available at qnutrapharma.com.

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