Comfort Food Without the Guilt

Lighter versions satisfy your cravings for fewer calories.

By Elaine Magee, MPH, RD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Expert Column

Piping-hot macaroni and cheese with a crunchy golden-brown crust; chewy, gooey chocolate-chip cookies warm from the oven; or a big mound of fluffy white mashed potatoes with a pool of melted butter dripping down the side -- who doesn't like comfort food?

Comfort foods soothe and nurture us, but they usually come with a steep nutritional price tag: They're generally high in fat, saturated fat, calories, and, sometimes, sugar.

So is the answer to simply resist comforting ourselves with these foods we crave? Not if you listen to Rebecca Reeves, DrPH, RD, an obesity researcher at Baylor College of Medicine.

"I do not believe we should deny ourselves these foods which we have emotional attachments to," says Reeves. "If we do deprive ourselves, we'll just want to eat more and more."

Instead, Reeves suggests that we indulge in our comfort foods in moderation -- especially when these foods are high in calories and fat.

2 Ways Comfort Foods Help

Can any good come from eating comfort foods? You bet! There are at least two ways in which comfort foods can actually help your body:

  • Many popular comfort foods offer significant nutritional value, especially when they've been made over to be lower in fat and sugar and higher in fiber and other important nutrients. Healthful comfort food options include higher-fiber breads, lean meats, and stews and casseroles containing vegetables.
  • One study found some evidence that comfort foods really do function as stress reducers. Researchers at the University of California at San Francisco subjected rats to chronic stress over a few days and discovered that these rats preferred to eat sugar and fat to ordinary chow. (Who knew that rats would want the same types of foods when they're stressed out that we do!) And when the rats ate sugar and fat, their brains produced less stress-related hormones.

"However, comfort foods are addictive," notes one of the UCSF researchers, 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 primarily directed into the unhealthy abdominal fat pads."

Sound like anyone you know?

4 Ways to Enjoy Comfort Food Without Guilt

It is possible to comfort yourself without consuming all those extra calories and fat. Here are four tips for enjoying comfort food without doing a number on your diet:

  • Whenever possible, prepare a version of your comfort food that's lower in calories, fat, sodium, and sugar. It can be done; just check out the Weight Loss Clinic recipes for Oven-Fried Chicken, Mac and Cheese Casserole Cups and Chewy, Chippy Chocolate Cookies. (I've also written a new cookbook, Comfort Food Makeovers, that's full of these nutritionally fine-tuned recipes; look for it at your favorite online bookstore.)
  • Eat your comfort food when you're truly hungry, and stop eating when you're comfortable -- not stuffed.
  • To make it less likely that you're eating for emotional reasons, enjoy your comfort food as part of a regular meal and not as a snack eaten on impulse.
  • Pump up the nutritional volume on your savory comfort foods by adding vegetables or beans when possible. For sweet comfort foods, add more fruit, decrease the sugar (or use half sugar substitute), reduce the fat ingredient down a third or so, and switch half of the flour to whole wheat when you can.

Our Favorite Comfort Foods

What are the favorite comfort foods of WebMD Weight Loss Clinic Members? We asked that question on The Recipe Doctor message board and found that WLC members are a lot like other Americans. They named foods like oatmeal and chocolate chip cookies, pudding, potatoes, pasta, and fried chicken. Yum, yum, and yum!

To show you I mean business lightening your favorite comfort foods, I've tackled a few of the foods mentioned by these WLC members. Why spend 600 calories and 30 grams of fat on an entree 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 comfort foods for fat and calories and still have them taste delicious, then you can enjoy them even more," she says.

Light Rosti with Mushrooms and Onions

Journal as: 1 cup "starchy foods with 1 tsp fat maximum" + 1/2 cup "vegetables without added fat"
OR 1 "frozen dinner light, pasta or rice dish with meat or fish or vegetarian with light sauce" + 1 ounce regular cheese

I cut out the steps of boiling and grating the potatoes by using frozen shredded hash browns. I also lightened this recipe by cutting the butter way back and switching to olive oil; using Louis Rich turkey bacon instead of sausage; and replacing regular cheese with a reduced-fat type. Feel free to substitute about 1/2 cup of lean, finely diced ham for the turkey bacon.

8 cups frozen shredded hash browns
1 teaspoon salt
6 slices Louis Rich turkey bacon (or similar)
1 cup chopped onion
1 sprig fresh thyme or 1 teaspoon dried thyme
2 cups diced raw mushrooms
4 teaspoons olive oil
About 4 ounces of Jarlsberg Lite cheese, thinly sliced (or substitute gruyere)

  • Add frozen hash browns to a microwave-safe covered container; add 1/2 cup water, cover, and microwave on HIGH until tender (about 15 minutes). Drain, sprinkle with salt and set aside to cool.
  • Coat a large, nonstick pan with some canola oil. Fry turkey bacon in the pan, on medium heat, until nicely crisp. Let cool on paper towel, then crumble into pieces.
  • Coat the same frying pan with canola or olive oil cooking spray. Add mushrooms and onions and cook until soft (about 5 minutes.) Turn off heat; stir in the bacon pieces and shredded potatoes.
  • Heat a teaspoon of olive oil over high heat in a small, nonstick frying pan. Scoop 1 cup of the potato mixture into the center of the pan. Use a spatula to flatten it into a round, flat cake. When the bottom is nicely browned (about 2 minutes), flip it over and begin to brown the underside while you add an ounce of sliced cheese on top. Once the underside is lightly browned, either turn the Rosti onto a dinner plate or finish melting the cheese by putting the pan briefly under a broiler.
  • Repeat this step with remaining potato mixture, olive oil, and cheese.

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