Comfort Food Without the Guilt

Lighter versions satisfy your cravings for fewer calories

Medically Reviewed by Kathleen M. Zelman, RD, LD, MPH on February 02, 2007
7 min read

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.

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?

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. (I've 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.

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 entrée 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.

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.

Yield: 4-6 servings

Per serving (if 4 per recipe): 380 calories, 16.5 g protein, 49 g carbohydrates, 13.9 g fat (5 g saturated fat), 33 mg cholesterol, 4.5 g fiber, 972 mg sodium. Calories from fat: 32%.

Journal as: 1 cup skim or 1% milk + 2 teaspoons "sugar or honey"
OR 1 portion light dessert

Enjoy some fresh fruit along with this pudding. It will add flavor and color, along with fiber.

3 tablespoons Minute Tapioca
3 tablespoons Splenda
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
2 tablespoons light pancake syrup (or honey)
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 large egg (use higher omega-3 egg, if available)
1/4 cup egg substitute
2 cups 1% or skim milk
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
Pinch of ground cinnamon (optional)

  • Add tapioca, Splenda, sugar, pancake syrup, salt, egg, egg substitute, and milk to a medium, nonstick saucepan and whisk until smooth. Let stand (don't stir), for exactly 5 minutes.
  • Cook over medium heat, stirring often, just until mixture comes to a full boil. Stir in vanilla extract and ground cinnamon, if desired. Transfer pudding to a medium bowl that is sitting in a larger bowl partly filled with ice. Let stand, stirring occasionally, for about 12 minutes.
  • Spoon into 4 serving dishes or cups and eat immediately, or cover dishes with plastic wrap and store in refrigerator (serve within 2 days).

Yield: 4 servings

Per serving: 131 calories, 8 g protein, 19 g carbohydrate, 2.5 g fat (1.1 g saturated fat), 60 mg cholesterol, 0 g fiber, 268 mg sodium. Calories from fat: 17%.

Journal 1 cookie as: 1 portion of "light dessert"
OR journal 2 or 3 cookies as 1 piece of "small muffin, coffee cake, doughnuts, etc."

Snickerdoodles are one of my husband's favorite cookies from his childhood, but this light version does the trick!

1/2 cup less-fat canola margarine (with 8 grams of fat per tablespoon)
1/4 cup light corn syrup
1/4 cup light cream cheese
1 1/4 cup sugar (if you like, substitute Splenda for 1/2 cup of the sugar)
1 large egg (use higher omega-3 eggs if available)
2 egg whites or 1/4 cup egg substitute
2 teaspoons double-strength vanilla extract (or use regular)
2 3/4 cup unbleached flour (substitute whole-wheat flour for 1 1/4 cups of this, if desired)
2 teaspoons cream of tartar
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt

3 tablespoons white sugar
3 teaspoons ground cinnamon

  • Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Coat a cookie sheet with canola cooking spray, or line with a sheet of parchment paper.
  • Cream together butter, corn syrup, cream cheese, and 1 1/4 cups sugar with a mixer on medium speed. Add the egg, egg whites or egg substitute, and vanilla, and beat until blended.
  • Add the flour, cream of tartar, soda, and salt to mixing bowl. Beat on low speed to form a dough. Refrigerate for 2 hours or until firm enough to handle.
  • Add the 3 tablespoons sugar and cinnamon to small, shallow bowl and blend well.
  • Use a measuring cup or cookie scoop (1/8 level cup or level cookie scoop) to form balls of dough, and roll each generously in the cinnamon-sugar mixture. Place on a cookie sheet, 2 inches apart. Bake about 8 minutes or until set, but not too hard. Remove immediately from cookie sheet.

Yield: 3 dozen cookies

Per cookie (using part Splenda and whole-wheat flour): 80 calories, 2 g protein, 13.5 g carbohydrate, 2 g fat (0.7 g saturated fat), 7 mg cholesterol, 0.6 g fiber, 85 mg sodium. Calories from fat: 23%.