Meal Plan Created By: Amanda Kostro Miller
Cooler weather often has us craving comfort foods—hearty chili, pot pies, or lasagna to warm you up from the inside. And if we’re feeling a little down, we often turn to sweets for a bit of comfort. Comfort foods are typically high-fat, high-carb, high-calorie foods, often sweet, providing temporary pleasure that makes us just feel better.1
There are psychological reasons we’re drawn to them, too. Not only do they make us feel better by triggering the brain’s reward system, they can evoke a sense of nostalgia—think about grandma’s macaroni and cheese—and they’re associated with special occasions like Thanksgiving and Christmas gatherings—creamy mashed potatoes and warm, buttery rolls.
Comfort foods make us feel good, but they’re not always good for us. Is it possible to have good-for-you comfort foods? The answer is, “Yes.” This month we’ve put together a week of crave-worthy comfort foods that are also good for your heart.
Download The Printable Meal Plan
The Good and Bad of Comfort Foods
Interestingly enough, comfort foods do seem to have a place in our diets. But let’s take a look at the best way to achieve the feel-good benefits.
Benefits of Comfort Foods
According to Lesley Rennis, Borough of Manhattan Community College professor, there are benefits to eating comfort foods. Not only do they taste good, she said, “They actually lessen the impact of stress hormones.” She further explained that our bodies make serotonin, which makes us feel calmer, when we eat sweet and starchy foods and that these foods also decrease the stress hormone cortisol. Studies have shown that after eating carb-rich foods, people feel less depressed, anxious, or irritable.2 However, the benefits of feeling better may not outweigh the negative effects of high-fat, high-calorie, sugary foods.
Disadvantages of Comfort Foods
Lowering stress hormones and reducing feelings of being anxious or depressed may sound like excellent excuses to reach for that bowl of ice cream or serve up an extra helping of mashed potatoes, but do the benefits really add up? Comfort foods are often high in saturated fats, sugar, and sodium.3 Each is associated with increased risks of heart-related issues.
How to Make Comfort Foods Heart-Healthy
Since we know there are some benefits to eating comfort foods, let’s take a look at how to make them healthier, but still satisfying.
Swap out the ingredients:
Here are just a few tweaks you can make to your favorite comfort food recipes to make them healthier:
- Pasta: switch to a whole-grain version instead or try spiralizing zucchini. If it’s lasagna you’re after, swap the pasta sheets out for zucchini or eggplant. You’ll reduce the calorie count and add vitamins and minerals.
- Meat: try out a leaner meat option like bison instead of a steak or use ground bison to make Sloppy Joes.
- Burgers: go out on a limb and try a hearty plant-based option -- you may be pleasantly surprised.
- Creamy sauces: when you’re after that decadent alfredo, swap the heavy cream for evaporated skim milk.
- Ice cream: reach for a sorbet instead -- it’s lower in fat and calories, but just watch the sugar amounts.
- Chocolate: enjoy small portions of dark chocolate instead of milk chocolate or try out a healthier pudding recipe like our Warm Chocolate Pudding.
Choose a different cooking method
Another way you can make comfort foods healthier is to switch up the cooking method. Craving salty chips? Rather than reaching for a bag of chips that have been fried and heavily salted, try using an air fryer recipe like this one for Air-Fryer Sweet Potato Chips. Steaming, baking, or grilling are other excellent ways you can modify cooking methods to make comfort foods healthier.
Healthy Recipes For Comfort Foods
So there you have it. Comfort foods can be healthy and still give you that comforting feeling that makes you happier or takes you back to childhood memories. Just follow our simple suggestions and try out our free 7-day meal plan, developed by a Registered Dietician, for satisfying comfort foods you’ll feel good about. From a Cafe Mocha Protein Shake to satisfy a chocolate craving, Black Bean and Sweet Potato Chili recipe to warm you up—all of the comfort and none of the guilt—to a Slow Cooker Veggie Pot Pie that will take you back to childhood while being healthy for your heart, we’re sure your comfort food cravings will be cured.