Comforting food without guilt
The lighter versions satisfy your cravings for fewer calories.
By Elaine Magee, MPH, RD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic – Expert Column
Very hot macaroni and cheese with a crunchy golden brown crust; chewy, sticky chocolate-chip the hot cookies from the oven; or a large mound of fluffy white mashed potatoes with a puddle of melted butter dripping down the side – who he does not as comfort food?
Comfort foods relax and nourish us, but generally have a high nutritional price: they are usually high in fat, saturated fat, calories and, sometimes, sugar.
So, the answer is simply to resist comforting ourselves with these foods that we crave? Not if you listen to Rebecca Reeves, DrPH, RD, obesity researcher at Baylor College of Medicine.
"I do not think we should deny ourselves these foods to which we have emotional ties," says Reeves. "If we deprive ourselves, we just want to eat more and more."
Instead, Reeves suggests that we indulge in our homemade foods in moderation, especially when these foods are high in calories and fat.
2 ways to help Comfort Foods
Can a good come from eating comfort foods? You gamble! There are at least two ways in which comfort foods can help your body:
Many popular comfort foods offer significant nutritional value, especially when they have been prepared to be low in fat and sugar, and high in fiber and other important nutrients. Healthy and comfortable food choices include breads with higher fiber content, lean meats, and stews and casseroles that contain vegetables. One study found some evidence that comfort foods really work as stress reducers. Researchers at the University of California in San Francisco subjected the rats to chronic stress for a few days and found that these rats preferred eating sugar and fat to the common chow. (Who knew that rats would want the same types of foods when they are stressed out!) And when rats ate sugar and fat, their brains produced less hormones related to stress.
"However, comfort foods are addictive," says one of the researchers at UCSF, Mary Dallman, PhD. "And if eating them becomes a habit after the stress is over, then there is a downside, because these extra calories are mainly directed to the unhealthy abdominal fat pads."
Does it sound like someone you know?
4 ways to enjoy comfort food without guilt
It is possible to console yourself without consuming all those extra calories and fats. Here are four tips to enjoy homemade food without making a number in your diet:
Whenever possible, prepare a version of your comfort food that is lower in calories, fat, sodium and sugar. Can be done; just check out the Weightloss Clinic recipes for chicken, mac and oven-fried cheese casserole cups and chewable, chewable chocolate cookies. (I have also written a new cookbook, Comfort food transformations, which is full of these nutritionally refined recipes; look for it in your favorite online bookstore. Eat your comfort food when you are really hungry and stop eating when you are comfortable, not full. To make it less likely that you are eating for emotional reasons, enjoy your comfort food as part of a regular meal and not as a snack consumed on impulse. Increase the nutritional volume of your tasty and comforting foods by adding vegetables or beans when possible. For sweet and comforting foods, add more fruit, decrease sugar (or use half the sugar substitute), reduce the fatty ingredient by about a third, and change half the flour to whole wheat when you can.
Our favorite comfort foods
What are the favorite home foods for members of the WebMD weight loss clinic? We asked that question on The Recipe Doctor's message board and found that the WLC members are very similar to other Americans. They named foods like oatmeal cookies and chocolate, pudding, potatoes, pasta and fried chicken. Yum, yum, and yum!
To show you that I mean the businesses that lighten your favorite homemade meals, I have addressed some of the foods mentioned by these WLC members. Why spend 600 calories and 30 grams of fat on a plate that will taste just as good and be just as satisfying with 400 calories and 13 grams of fat?
Reeves agrees. "If you can modify the comfort foods for fat and calories and still have a delicious taste, then you can enjoy them even more," she says.
Light rosti with mushrooms and onions
Daily as: 1 cup of "foods with high starch content with 1 teaspoon of maximum fat" + 1/2 cup of "vegetables without added fat"
O 1 "frozen light dinner, pasta or rice dish with meat or fish or vegetarian with light sauce "+ 1 ounce regular cheese
I cut the steps to boil and grate the potatoes using frozen shredded chips. I also relieved this recipe by cutting the butter and changing to olive oil; using Louis Rich turkey bacon instead of sausages; and replacing regular cheese with a low-fat type. Feel free to substitute about 1/2 cup of lean ham and finely diced for the turkey bacon.
8 cups frozen chopped potato chips
1 teaspoon salt
6 slices of turkey bacon Louis Rich (or similar)
1 cup chopped onion
1 sprig of fresh thyme or 1 teaspoon of dried thyme
2 cups of raw mushrooms in cubes
4 teaspoons of olive oil
About 4 ounces of Jarlsberg Lite cheese, thinly sliced (or Gruyere substitute)
Add frozen chips to a covered microwaveable container; add 1/2 cup of water, cover and microwave in STOPS until tender (about 15 minutes). Drain, sprinkle with salt and let cool. Cover a large nonstick skillet with a little canola oil. Fry the turkey bacon in the pan, over medium heat, until it is crisp. Let cool on a paper towel, then crumble to pieces. Cover the same pan with olive oil or olive oil. Add the mushrooms and onions and cook until soft (about 5 minutes). Turn off the heat; Stir in the bacon pieces and the mashed potatoes. Heat a teaspoon of olive oil over high heat in a small nonstick skillet. Place 1 cup of the potato mixture in the center of the pan. Use a spatula to flatten it into a round, flat cake. When the bottom is well browned (about 2 minutes), turn it over and begin to brown the bottom while adding an ounce of sliced cheese on top. Once the bottom is lightly browned, turn the rosti into a plate of food or finish melting the cheese by placing the pan briefly under a grill. Repeat this step with the remaining mixture of potato, olive oil and cheese.
Yield: 4-6 servings
Per serving (if 4 per recipe): 380 calories, 16.5 g of protein, 49 g of carbohydrates, 13.9 g of fat (5 g of saturated fat), 33 mg of cholesterol, 4.5 g of fiber, 972 mg of sodium. Calories from fat: 32%.
Old-style tapioca pudding
Daily as: 1 cup of skim milk or 1% + 2 teaspoons of "sugar or honey"
Or 1 light dessert portion
Enjoy some fresh fruit with this pudding. It will add flavor and color, along with fiber.
3 tablespoons of tapioca per minute
3 tablespoons of Splenda
1 tablespoon of granulated sugar
2 tablespoons of light pancake syrup (or honey)
1/4 teaspoon of salt
1 large egg (use premium omega-3 egg, if available)
1/4 cup egg substitute
2 cups 1% or skim milk
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
Pinch of ground cinnamon (optional)
Add tapioca, Splenda, sugar, pancake syrup, salt, egg, egg and milk substitute to a medium nonstick casserole and beat until smooth. Let stand (do not stir), for exactly 5 minutes. Cook over medium heat, stirring frequently, until the mixture is full. boil. Add vanilla extract and ground cinnamon, if desired. Transfer the pudding to a medium bowl that is sitting in a larger bowl partially filled with ice. Let stand, stirring occasionally, for about 12 minutes. Place the spoon in 4 plates or cups to serve and eat immediately, or cover the plates with plastic and store them in the refrigerator (serve within 2 days).
Yield: 4 servings
Per serving: 131 calories, 8 g of protein, 19 g of carbohydrates, 2.5 g of fat (1.1 g of saturated fat), 60 mg of cholesterol, 0 g of fiber, 268 mg of sodium. Calories from fat: 17%.
Daily 1 cookie as: 1 serving of "light dessert"
Or write 2 or 3 cookies as 1 piece of "small muffin, coffee cake, donuts, etc."
Snickerdoodles are one of my husband's favorite cookies from his childhood, but this light version works!
1/2 cup canola margarine less fat (with 8 grams of fat per tablespoon)
1/4 cup light corn syrup
1/4 cup light cream cheese
1 1/4 cup of sugar (if desired, substitute Splenda for 1/2 cup of sugar)
1 large egg (use higher omega-3 eggs if available)
2 egg whites or 1/4 cup egg substitute
2 teaspoons of double-strength vanilla extract (or regular use)
2 3/4 cup unbleached flour (substitute whole wheat flour for 1 1/4 cups, if desired)
2 teaspoons cream of tartar
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon of salt
3 tablespoons of white sugar
3 teaspoons ground cinnamon
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Cover a cookie sheet with canola cooking spray, or cover it with a sheet of parchment paper. Mix the butter, corn syrup, cream cheese and 1 1/4 cups of sugar with a blender at medium speed. Add the egg, the egg whites or the egg and vanilla substitute, and beat them until they are mixed. Add the flour, cream of tartar, soda and salt to the bowl. Beat at low speed to form a dough. Refrigerate for 2 hours or until you are firm enough to handle. Add the 3 tablespoons of sugar and cinnamon to a small shallow bowl and mix well. Use a measuring cup or cookie spoon (1/8 level or a cookie level spoon) to make balls of dough, and roll them generously into the cinnamon and sugar mixture. Place in a cookie sheet, 2 inches away. Bake about 8 minutes or until ready, but not too hard. Remove immediately from the cookie sheet.
Performance: 3 dozen cookies.
By cookie (using the Splenda portion and whole wheat flour): 80 calories, 2 g of protein, 13.5 g of carbohydrates, 2 g of fat (0.7 g of saturated fat), 7 mg of cholesterol, 0.6 g of fiber, 85 mg of sodium. Calories from fat: 23%.
Originally published in January 2006.
Medically updated in January 2007.
SOURCES: Endocrinology 2004; 145: 3754-62. Brain, Behavior and Immunity 2005; 19: 275-80. Rebecca Reeves DrPH, RD, assistant professor of clinical research, Baylor College of Medicine, Houston. Mary Dallman, PhD, Department of Physiology, University of California, San Francisco.
Recipes provided by Elaine Magee; © 2006 Elaine Magee.
© 2007 WebMD Inc. All rights reserved.
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