Savannah Valley District

Making Comfort Foods Healthier

Christine Patrick, County Extension EFNEP Agent

When the weather gets cooler and the leaves start turning beautiful colors, you may look forward to eating warm, rich, and hearty comfort foods. Unfortunately, they can wreck your diet and cause you to pack extra pounds unless you modify your recipes or limit your portions. Research shows that the average weight gain between November and January is at least a pound, which is usually permanent. You can hide an expanding waistline under layers of winter clothing, but the ugly truth will be revealed when you put on those spring fashions.

 What is a Comfort Food?
“Comfort food” is any food or beverage that gives a comforting, satisfying feeling after you eat them. It provides temporary relief (e.g. stress relief) or a sense of emotional well-being (e.g. happiness, security, or a reward). According to a Cornell University study, women find comfort in candy, chocolates, and prepared snack foods, such as ice cream or potato chips. Men prefer hearty, home-cooked meals, like pasta, steak, or casseroles.

There are no “bad” foods, although some foods are worse for you than others. Many rich, creamy comfort foods are filled with artery-clogging fat, sugar, sodium (salt), and extra ingredients. You can splurge on an occasional small portion of decadent food, but it’s better to completely avoid the temptation.

To prevent craving comfort food that is unhealthy, eat a balanced diet of foods that make you feel full and satisfied longer. This includes protein foods to stabilize blood sugars and high-fiber foods, which send the message “I’m full” to the brain.

 The Most Popular Comfort Foods of the Season
Although most spring and summer dishes are light and full of healthy, colorful, leafy vegetables, the most popular fall and winter foods are warm, rich, and hearty dishes. The list includes macaroni and cheese; chili and stews; cream- and cheese-based casseroles; cream-based soups, bisques, and chowders; creamy pot pies with pastry on the top and bottom; fried side dishes (e.g. French fries, chili cheese fries, and onion rings); mashed potatoes, and a variety of sweet treats (e.g. Halloween candy, chocolate, cookies, and pies topped with whipped cream or ice cream).

 Ways to Avoid Winter Weight Gain
In addition to limiting the most fattening foods, follow these tips to avoid winter weight gain:

  • Drink plenty of water between meals and at mealtimes.
  • Eat tomato-based and broth-based soups and stews that contain lots of vegetables and are low in sodium. Broth-based soup eaten as an appetizer can fill you up so that you eat fewer calories during the meal.
  • Eat plenty of lean protein to feel full and satisfied.
  • Use only lean meats in soups, casseroles, and other dishes, and limit portion sizes.
  • Replace high-fat ingredients with spices and peppers to add pizzazz to your food.
  • Use low-fat milk or fat-free half-and-half instead of cream in recipes.
  • Replace each whole egg in a recipe with 2 egg whites.
  • Simplify your menus and limit food choices so that you aren’t tempted to eat everything.
  • Stick to your routine during the holiday season. If you splurge on comfort foods at a special meal or party, get your diet right back on track the next day.
  • Get at least 30 minutes of physical activity every day to stay fit and keep your metabolism perking. Exercise is a great non-food way to reduce stress.
  • Get plenty of natural sunlight. Winter’s shorter days and longer nights may bring on fatigue, depression, and cravings for sweets and starches. Take a walk outside to lift your mood and to give your body a chance to produce vitamin D. This may take as little as 15 minutes of sun exposure on arms and face, without sunscreen, twice a week.
  • It is easier to keep your weight stable than to lose weight. You can lose weight, or at least maintain your weight, by eating 100 calories less than your body burns each day. On the other hand, you will gain about 10 pounds in a year by eating 100 extra calories a day.

Clemson University Cooperative Extension Service offers its programs to people of all ages, regardless of race, color, gender, religion, national origin, disability, political beliefs, sexual orientation, or marital or family status, and is an equal opportunity employer.