The majority of Americans turn to food at some point to feel better, and chances are that you have, too. Unfortunately, because of the way our brains are wired, we tend to seek foods that are high in starch, sugar, fat, sodium, or all of those.
Between their unfavorable nutritional profiles and the tendency to eat a lot of them, comfort foods can really get in the way of weight loss. However, they do not have to! A few substitutions and some portion control can give you the flavors you crave without tipping the scales. Lark’s 24/7 health coach can also help guide you towards smart choices and new ways to manage emotions and stress.
Gooey melted cheese and crunchy toast may be less comforting when you consider that a sandwich can have over 600 calories and a day’s worth of saturated fat. A few swaps to consider are using olive oil and a grill instead of butter and a frying pan, choosing thinly sliced whole-grain bread instead of thick white bread, and cutting back on the cheese. Avocado slices can add creaminess, while sliced apple or arugula can add crunch. The sandwich can become bigger, without filling out your waistline, with sliced tomatoes, zucchini, or mushrooms.
2. Tomato Soup
Tomato soup is one of those foods that sounds healthy, but often is not. Canned tomato soup can have 10 grams of sugar and 500 mg sodium in an 8-ounce serving, and a big bowl often contains far more than a single serving. Soup made with canned tomatoes, low-sodium vegetable or tomato juice (or low-sodium broth and tomato paste), along with diced celery, onions, basil, and garlic, is easy to make and packed with antioxidants and fiber. Non-fat yogurt can add creaminess if you like.
Making your own is a surprisingly easy way to get yourself a healthy pizza. A store-bought whole-grain crust or whole-wheat bread such as sliced bread, pita, English muffins, or bagels can be a good base. Next come diced tomatoes and basil, or store-bought pizza sauce without added sugar, plus a sprinkling of mozzarella cheese or a stronger cheese for more flavor. Then, the veggies can pile on. Leftover diced chicken is a good choice, too.
If you still want to dial for delivery or hit the freezer, there are still “better-for-you” options, such as cauliflower crust or thin crust, light or no cheese, and extra veggies. Choices such as thick crust, extra cheese, pepperoni, and sausage can more than double the calories, carbs, and fat.
4. Fried Chicken
Un-fried fried chicken is so easy to make, why would you choose fatty, starchy fried chicken? Instead, a mixture of Fiber One cereal or crushed almond meal, salt, garlic powder, pepper and paprika, along with egg white, makes a good coating for skinless chicken breast strips. Then the strips can bake with cooking spray or olive oil. This trick also works for “fried” fish, zucchini sticks, and cheese sticks.
Quick Tricks for Making Comfort Food Lighter
- Low-carb pasta subs include zucchini noodles (“zoodles”) and cooked spaghetti squash.
- Cauliflower often makes a good, low-carb, substitute for white potatoes.
- Coating with crushed bran cereal or almond meal instead of breadcrumbs or flour, then baking instead of frying, gives a satisfying result.
- Adding broth or pureed eggplant or zucchini to extra-lean ground turkey can moisten it.
- Unsweetened or at least 85% dark chocolate can satisfy a chocolate craving with far less sugar and fewer calories than brownies, cake, or ice cream.
- Portion size still counts. If you have to have the real thing, sometimes just a few bites will do the trick.
5. Mac and Cheese
The beautiful thing about macaroni and cheese is how many ways you can make it healthier while still keeping it creamy and comforting. Instead of white pasta, a mixture of cooked cauliflower florets and whole-grain macaroni boost fiber and cut carbs. Heavy cream and excessive mounds of cheese just are not necessary to get the creamy texture you crave. Instead, creaminess can come from ingredients such as fat-free cream cheese or sour cream, and just a bit of sharp cheddar, blue cheese, or parmesan can go a long way flavor-wise. Cooked broccoli florets can make you feel good about your choice, and that is comforting in itself.
6. Mashed Potatoes
When you sit down to a bowl of mashed potatoes and gravy, you are sitting down to a bowl of high-glycemic carbs and fat. How comforting is that? Instead of potatoes, pureed cauliflower is lower in carbs and calories, and higher in fiber. Carrots, turnips, and butternut squash can all do the same, and adding milk instead of butter further cuts calories and fat. Instead of greasy gravy, mushrooms cooked in low-sodium broth and a splash of sherry can do the trick.
7. Ice Cream
Why is digging into a carton of ice cream so comforting? That frozen blend of sweet creaminess can be irresistible, but are the calories, sugar, and saturated fat really worth it? A pint can have 1,400 calories, 100 grams of sugar, and 56 grams of saturated fat, or over 3 days’ worth. These are some alternatives that will not leave you feeling guilty when you wake up from your brain freeze.
- Pureed frozen ripe bananas
- Pureed frozen ripe bananas mixed with any combination of cocoa, walnuts, cinnamon, vanilla, berries, and peanut butter.
- Chunks of ripe bananas coated with melted chocolate and then frozen.
If these nutritious substitutes do not satisfy you, another possibility is to exercise portion control. Instead of a bowl-full of ice cream, a small scoop or a mini ice cream sandwich might do the trick.
When things get really bad, do you turn to chocolate? A small piece of dark chocolate can be a smart choice, but a slice of frosted chocolate layer cake with 500 calories and 100 grams of carbs may not make you feel better for long. Savoring an ounce of unsweetened chocolate gives you way more antioxidants than having sweetened dark or milk chocolate, or a chocolate cookie, brownie, or other chocolate-flavored dessert.