Comfort Foods Made Healthy

Cooler weather often leads to cravings for our favorite feel-good foods, like bubbling mac and cheese, hot chocolate with mini marshmallows, or warm apple pie. Here's how to indulge and still lose weight.
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Blaine Moats

Why We Crave Comfort Foods

For years I carried around an extra 10 pounds. No matter how often I worked out, my weight stayed constant. So despite the fact that I thought I ate pretty well, I went to see a nutritionist. I was on board with her advice to switch to nonfat salad dressing and to learn to love hummus. But when she said, "Consider cutting back on bagels," I balked. A bagel with cream cheese has been my lifelong comfort food.

Whether it's chocolate cupcakes, mom's lasagna, or a big bag of salty chips, we all have favorite eats that give us more than just nutrients and calories. "We crave certain foods because we associate them with pleasant memories, like family celebrations, or consider them rewards because that's how they were presented when we were young," says Larina Kase, PsyD, coauthor of Joining the Thin Club (Three Rivers Press). That's why when we're sad or stressed we reach for cookies or muffins rather than celery or asparagus.

The good news is that when weighing whether to indulge in comfort foods, it doesn't have to be all or nothing. When I started limiting myself to half a bagel with light cream cheese two or three times a week, the weight came off! We've got smarter, healthier ways to hang on to your food faves.

Red Meats Made Healthy

When it's cold out or you need some extra soothing, nothing hits the spot like a big pot of stew, a spicy bowl of chili, or a juicy burger. "If you're yearning for red meat, then your body probably needs protein," says Claudia Gonzales, RD, a dietitian in Miami and coauthor of Gordito Doesn't Mean Healthy (Berkley Trade). But beware, most restaurant burgers and steaks are triple the size we really need.

Healthy Indulgence

If leaner meats, like turkey burgers or chicken, are just as appetizing to you, then go for it — with the right spices a turkey chili doesn't taste much different from one made of beef. But if only red meat will cut it, buy the leanest cuts available. "Read the packages and look for two words: loin or round," says Susan Mitchell, PhD, RD, a nutritionist, fellow of the American Dietetic Association, and member of Family Circle's Health Advisory Board. "Whether it's pork tenderloin, beef tenderloin, or ground round, you instantly know it's lean." When cooking a stew, be sure to replace fatty gravies with beef broth or stewed tomatoes, and also thicken sauces with evaporated nonfat milk or pureed vegetables instead of cream. Ordering a burger in a restaurant? Skip the cheese to save on fat and calories but pile on lettuce, tomatoes, onions, pickles, ketchup, and mustard. At a steak house, cut the steak in half as soon as it's placed on the table. Ask the waiter to put one portion in a to-go bag.

Tip: When making your own burgers add some shredded veggies, such as zucchini or carrots, for a leaner version.

Chocolate, Candy & Ice Cream Made Healthy

There's a special kind of joy that comes from a bite of your favorite childhood Halloween candy or a scoop of your best-loved Ben & Jerry's flavor. Sweets help release serotonin, which creates such a relaxing feeling that it actually helps many people go to sleep, says Julia Ross, RD, author of The Diet Cure (Penguin). And because ice cream and candy are generally handed out as special treats to children (my family went out for Friendly's ice cream sundaes after every piano recital or baseball game), it's no surprise we still use them to spoil ourselves as adults.

Healthy Indulgence

The good news: Dark chocolate has been proven to lower blood pressure and keep your heart healthy, and ice cream provides calcium, which every woman needs for healthy bones. So there's no need to give yourself a guilt trip, as long as you limit these sweets to about 150 calories a day.

To avoid downing the entire pint of ice cream, buy low-fat, individually packaged treats like Skinny Cow cones or ice cream sandwiches. If it's just the cool refreshment you desire, stick with fruit juice pops. "Or make ice cream a rare treat," says Lorraine Eyerman, RD, in private practice in New York City. "Instead of keeping a half gallon in your freezer, which is a constant temptation, go to your favorite ice cream shop one weekend each month and order a small cup."

As for chocolate, the best strategy is to indulge in one decadent truffle a day to satisfy your sweet tooth. "Choose a dark chocolate variety with nuts, which will provide you with some healthy fat too," says Mitchell. "Caramel, nougats, and other fillings add sugar and offer little nutritional value, and milk chocolate doesn't provide the same heart-healthy benefits you get with dark." Mitchell also suggests eating the chocolate as soon as you crave it, rather than trying to bargain your way past it. "If you say, well, I'll have a graham cracker first, chances are you're still going to eat the chocolate — and then you've consumed even more total calories."

Breads and Other Baked Goods Made Healthy

Cravings for raisin bread, blueberry pancakes, cookies, or cupcakes are common since wheat has gluten, which is a powerful endorphin stimulant, says Ross. Plus, these carbs, like pasta, give us an energy boost. Unfortunately, few people can stop after one cookie or one piece of French toast. Not to mention, if you look at a picture of a muffin from the 1950s and then look at one today, you'll see how much portion sizes have increased over the years, says Gonzales. Ditto for bagels: The typical New York-style bagel is so dense that just one can equal the calories found in half a loaf of bread. And not only have the portions changed, so has your metabolism: "You don't have the body that burns through calories the way it did when you were 8 and first fell in love with these treats," says Gonzales.

Healthy Indulgence

"Tweak your favorite recipes to make them healthier," says Mitchell. If it's a cake made with butter, swap in a healthier fat, like an olive oil spread or a fat substitute such as applesauce. Kick up recipes for banana bread or muffins by adding as many good-for-you ingredients as possible — cranberries, dried apricots, nuts, whole wheat flour, or flaxseeds. These extras offer heart-healthy vitamins, fiber, and omega-3s, plus they make the bread bulkier so a smaller serving is more satisfying. Instead of keeping a plate of cookies or an entire cake on the kitchen counter, freeze individual servings. "And never grab a treat when you're on the go. Always sit down at a table and savor it slowly," says Eyerman. If you have to have store-bought cookies, check out the wide variety of 100-calorie packs now available. You need only one or two bites to ease your craving, says Eyerman. And the small pack will keep you from bingeing once you've had enough.

Tip: Instead of smearing a muffin with butter, top it with some reduced-fat sour cream or low-fat vanilla yogurt.

Fried Foods Made Healthy

French fries, fried chicken, nachos, and mozzarella sticks are typically filled with trans-fatty acids, which raise cholesterol levels, potentially leading to heart trouble. In addition, cooking foods at very high temperatures (as with frying) is believed to produce the chemical compound acrylamide, which may cause cancer or nerve damage.

Healthy Indulgence

Whenever possible, go for the baked versions of fried foods. Instead of heading to a nearby chain on a Friday night, stay home and stick some hand-cut french fries or breaded chicken fillets in your oven. You'll save money and calories. "Baking foods reduces the fat but you'll still get the crispiness," says Eyerman. If you're out to eat with a bunch of friends, and everyone is keen on sharing the fried appetizer platter, don't let it knock your entire meal plan out of whack. For your main dish, go with a grilled salmon salad. "When the family is clamoring for fried chicken, you can relent but skip the gravy and mashed potatoes that often go with it," says Gonzales. Instead, pair the guilty pleasure with a healthier side, such as spinach salad, steamed green beans, or a baked sweet potato.

Tip: For extra crunch, top your baked chicken with panko bread crumbs (found in Asian markets).

Pasta Made Healthy

We begin to carbo-load about the same time we take our first steps. It makes sense because carbohydrates provide us with energy and raise our levels of feel-good endorphins and serotonin. The problem is, restaurant portions often lean toward the gargantuan (for example, the recommended serving is a half cup, while restaurant entrees can have as many as 6 cups) — and no one ever eats just one small plate of pasta at home either.

Healthy Indulgence

Forget what you've heard about pasta being an evil, diet-busting carb. The truth is, if you switch to multigrain, you can indulge in your craving every day because it contributes to your recommended daily allowance, plus you'll automatically eat less. The body has to work harder to break down whole-grain pasta, which contains more fiber and protein than the white kind, so you'll feel fuller faster. "And the varieties on the market today taste better than the ones you may have tried just a few years ago," Mitchell says. The USDA recommends at least 3 ounces of whole grains a day for the average woman. (This can be accomplished by eating a cup of cereal, one slice of bread, and a half cup of cooked pasta.)

Start your transition by mixing a quarter cup of cooked whole-grain pasta with a quarter cup of regular, and then up the percentage of whole-grain each day. "You'll be able to switch entirely to the healthier version in a matter of weeks without ever feeling like you're missing out," says Mitchell. If you feel cheated by smaller amounts of pasta, top it with a lean protein, like chicken, shrimp, or turkey meatballs, a fat-free marinara sauce, and lots of vegetables. Always keep a bag of frozen mixed veggies in the freezer, so you can throw it in the pot with the pasta as it cooks. Grated-cheese lovers should go with an extra-sharp variety, because you can top your bowl with less yet get the same flavor. And when you order pasta in a restaurant, ask the waiter for a half-size or appetizer portion — it will still be plenty big enough to satisfy.

Tip: Switching to multigrain pasta is a healthier way to get the mood-boosting endorphins you're used to.

Comfort Foods We Can't Live Without — and Their Healthier Versions

Chocolate Chip Cookies

Why I crave it: "They were the first thing my mom taught me to bake. There were nine children in my family, and we all used to bring our friends home from school to snack on these yummy cookies with us."

How I keep it healthy: "Instead of baking with regular chocolate chips I swap in heart-healthier 60%-cocoa dark chocolate chips. I'm still in the habit of making a lot of cookies, but now I send them home with guests or to my husband's office."

— Teresa Sellinger, 39, Dubuque, Iowa

Fried Catfish

Why I crave it: "The greasy, salty sensation instantly transports me back to summer nights at my grandparents' cabin in Texas, where we'd sit on the porch and eat platter after platter of catfish, corn bread, and tater tots."

How I keep it healthy: "When I feel like a taste of home, I go to a nearby restaurant that makes great catfish. But I skip the potatoes and corn bread and order a large side dish of green beans instead."

— Caroline Bollinger, 36, Brooklyn, New York

Peanut Butter and Jelly on Ritz Crackers with Whole Milk

Why I crave it: "Every day after school I would sit at my childhood kitchen table with this sweet and sticky snack while watching Josie and the Pussycats."

How I keep it healthy: "I still eat PB&J crackers about once a week, but now I buy organic peanut butter and whole wheat crackers, and I wash them down with skim milk."

— Lisa Smith, 39, Brooklyn, New York

Originally published in the November 1, 2008, issue of Family Circle magazine.