There's nothing quite like coming in from the cold and sitting down to a hot, hearty meal. The icy temperatures seem to make us yearn for foods that will warm us up inside, stick to our bones, and soothe the soul. "We are warm-bodied creatures, and as the weather cools we actually crave more calories so we can stay warm," explains Sandra Allonen, a registered dietitian with Harvard-affiliated Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital.
But digging into comfort foods all winter -- like a savory beef stew, spicy spaghetti and meatballs, macaroni and cheese, fluffy pancakes, gooey pizza, or buttery mashed potatoes -- comes with health risks.
COMFORT FOOD CONSEQUENCES
The "stick to your bones" ingredient in comfort foods is typically saturated fat (from red meat, heavy cream, butter, cheese, and coconut products). Any kind of fat takes longer to digest and makes you feel fuller, but just 1 gram of fat has nine calories, about twice the calories in carbohydrates or protein, so fat-laden foods make it easy to shovel in more calories than you need.
Eating too much saturated fat, in particular, increases your blood levels of "bad" LDL cholesterol and raises your risk for heart disease.
Other typical comfort food ingredients are refined carbohydrates (such as those found in white flour, noodles, or white rice) and -- of course -- sugar. These are easily digested and can rapidly elevate your blood sugar. Eating too much sugar and refined carbs is associated with weight gain, inflammation, and diabetes.
Potatoes, although in the vegetable family, are another comfort food staple. They are rich in carbohydrates and can raise your blood sugar in a way similar to sugar. Eat them only in moderation.
Salt is another common component of comfort food. While we need a certain amount of the sodium in salt for health, consuming too much makes us retain fluid and gain weight, and in some people it leads to high blood pressure. Too much salt can also negate the effects of blood pressure medications.
SHOULD YOU BAN COMFORT FOODS?
Despite all of the unhealthy ingredients, you don't have to banish comfort foods from your diet. That could lead to a feeling of deprivation, which can trigger an eating binge.
Instead, place a strict limit on how often you eat your comfort food favorites and the portion size when you do have them. "A little indulgence once in a while won't hurt you," Allonen says. "The problem is indulging every day."
That means it's probably okay if you occasionally enjoy a very small portion of lasagna, a dab of mashed potatoes, or single slice of pizza. But don't make those foods part of your regular meal rotation.
Dietary guidelines recommend limiting saturated fat to no more than 10% of your daily calories. The American Heart Association recommends a daily salt intake of no more than 2,300 milligrams (mg), and an ideal target of less than 1,500 mg (especially if you have high blood pressure or heart disease).
If a strict limit on comfort food isn't appealing, take heart: there are plenty of ways to make them healthier. "You don't have to reinvent them. Just revise them by swapping out some of the ingredients," Allonen suggests.
Generally speaking, you can
- ditch full-fat dairy products like cream and butter, and instead use nonfat Greek yogurt, skim milk, low-fat sour cream or cheeses, or vegan cheese (made from tofu or nuts)
- ditch red meat in favor of poultry, fish, or legumes (beans or lentils)
- ditch sugar or syrup and use fruit (berries, applesauce, or citrus) or sweet vegetables such as carrots or corn
- ditch white rice and use whole grains like brown rice, oats, barley, quinoa, or teff
- ditch white flour and use whole-grain flours (such as whole wheat, buckwheat, or cornmeal) or even grated cauliflower to make pizza dough
- ditch refined-grain noodles and use noodles made of whole wheat, black beans, lentils, or zucchini
- ditch salt and use herbs and spices, such as oregano, rosemary, basil, thyme, chili powder, cloves, cumin, curry powder, nutmeg, or cinnamon
- ditch mashed potatoes and try mashed cauliflower.
"Think of oatmeal pancakes with berry compote on top," Allonen says. "Or mac-and-cheese made from whole-wheat pasta, low-fat cheese, and skim milk. Or shepherd's pie with ground turkey and mashed cauliflower instead of mashed potatoes."
Other ideas: vegetarian chili, lasagna with tofu "ricotta," or black bean tacos in soft whole-wheat tortillas. "Get creative," Allonen says, "and you'll find you can enjoy all of your favorites.