A comfort food makeover

Comfort food can be healthy, too. — Photos from Flickr

Everyone reaches for comfort food sometimes. When you are feeling down or just need a quick pick-me-up, a bowl of hot and gooey macaroni and cheese, like the ones that got you through college, might just do the trick. Or maybe a bowl of steaming chicken soup, reminiscent of the one mom made, is just what you need. Comfort foods are simply that: comforting. They taste good, elicit memories, and warm your insides. Carbohydrate-rich foods trigger the release of feel-good hormones, and temporarily spike your blood sugar for a short-lived boost. Fatty foods help you feel full, provide a richness of flavor, and satisfy your taste buds. Salty foods also taste good, and keep you reaching for more.

Once in a while, you just need the real thing. But if you find yourself reaching for your comfort foods too often, here are some ideas for a healthier twist on some classic favorites.

Macaroni and cheese

Traditional mac-n-cheese is loaded with white flour, butter, and cheese. For your own version, try using 100 percent whole wheat macaroni pasta. The extra fiber will help you feel full sooner (causing you to eat less) and keep you full longer. You can also try using sharper cheese, which has a stronger flavor so you can use less, or choose lower fat cheese. To boost your daily veggies, try adding puréed cauliflower with the cheese, or mix in diced veggies like asparagus, bell peppers or broccoli crowns. You can also take a smaller amount and serve it with a green salad. This adds nutrition, cuts calories, and reduces the likelihood of that post-comfort food slump.

When you buy boxed mac-n-cheese, try choosing one made with whole wheat pasta and 100 percent real cheese, and aim for no added artificial colors or flavors. One brand that fits these guidelines is Annie’s 100 percent whole wheat mac and cheese.

Ice Cream

We all scream for ice cream, but the truth is the average one cup serving earns you 500 calories or more (equal to a full meal for some), and about 20 grams of saturated fat (the type of fat that clogs your heart, raises cholesterol, and contributes to inflammation). The 10 teaspoons of sugar are turned quickly into blood glucose, raising your blood sugar, making you feel happy, and then sending a message to your pancreas to release insulin, a hormone that drops your blood sugar, promotes fat storage, and causes inflammation in excess amounts. The next time you reach for a bowl of ice cream, serve it in a small bowl and eat it with a small spoon (ideally after you’ve kept your eye on the portion size). Try not to eat out of the container, and really enjoy each bite of this delicious treat. Being mindful and appreciating your dessert will help you eat less and eat more slowly. Other mindfulness tips include eating sitting down at the table, and without distractions like the TV, phone, or computer. You can also skip the typical fudge or whipped cream toppings, and try topping it instead with fresh berries (or warmed frozen berries puréed into a berry sauce). Adding a berry sauce makes you feel like you are getting more for significantly less calories, and some fiber and antioxidant vitamins too.

Chicken soup

Nothing beats homemade chicken soup when you are feeling down. Here are a few tips to make a more balanced soup. Try using whole wheat noodles, brown rice, barley, or farro in place of white rice/white noodles, and add green vegetables to the mix. These foods add heart-healthy fiber, which will help you feel full longer. Adding green vegetables to a soup you already love gives you a bonus dose of disease-fighting phytochemicals. Consider making homemade stock with chicken bones and lots of vegetables, including onions, garlic, and celery, in place of extra salt. If buying broth, look for low sodium versions. Eating salty foods can contribute to high blood pressure, and too much salt isn’t good for anyone. Ideally, aim for antibiotic-free and organic or local chicken.

If you are choosing a canned chicken soup, check the sodium on the label (aim for 600 mg of sodium or less per serving), and check that it is made with real chicken breast, extra vegetables, and in a carton or BPA-free can.

Chocolate chip cookies

A classic chocolate chip cookie right out of the oven is good for the metaphorical heart, but maybe not the biological one. To lighten the load, you can try using less chocolate, or look for a recipe that cuts the butter and/or sugar. Also try to avoid using artery clogging fats like lard, Crisco, or any partially hydrogenated “trans” fat.

To help satisfy you (and maybe help you eat less), try substituting half of the white flour with whole wheat pastry flour, or add some oats into the batter. You can also try white whole wheat flour, which is a naturally lighter type of whole wheat. To help you avoid the sugar crash without changing the flavor, use just a little less sugar than the recipe calls (for example use 1/4 cup if the recipe calls for 1/3 of a cup of sugar).

Like the ice cream, always watch portion size, put it on a plate, and eat it at the table. Try dipping it into milk to slow you down.

Burgers and fries

While I recently saw a one-pound burger on a restaurant menu, most of us just don’t need to sit down to 16 ounces of meat at one meal. Start off by making or choosing a smaller burger. Then, pick a meat that is at least 90 percent lean, and ideally antibiotic/hormone free, local and/or grass fed and grass finished. Lean turkey burgers are a delicious, usually lighter alternative as well. These changes will cut back on the calories and prevent the post-meal “food coma,” leaving you with some energy after you eat. Choose a whole wheat bun over a white flour bun to keep you fuller longer. Load your burger up with grilled veggies (try onions, red peppers, poblanos, zucchini, or mushrooms) in place of salt loaded condiments like pickles, relish, and ketchup. Choose just two thin slices (about ½ ounce) of a strong-flavored cheese like cheddar or Manchego in place of mild cheddar or processed American. Try oven roasted sweet-potato fries instead of deep-fried, or choose a green salad in place of the fries.

Remember, there is always a time for your comfort foods, but keep the traditional ones to once in a while so that you can enjoy the healthier versions more often.