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For Your Health: Welcome spring with healthier comfort foods

By Dr. Graham A. Colditz

Siteman Cancer Center

A bright spot for many of us last year was the opportunity to hone our cooking skills. This may have been more from necessity than any real desire to be the next José Andrés or Rachael Ray. Still, reluctantly or not, we’ve joined the ranks of our friends and family who already enjoyed cooking, and we learned how to double recipes, not burn the garlic and quickly convert teaspoons to tablespoons.

While we’ve no doubt missed supporting our favorite restaurants like we did before the pandemic, cooking at home has allowed us to explore a range of dishes we might not otherwise prepare, and to bring our own personal touch to them.

And with a bit of early spring chill still in the air, it’s likely that many home cooks have continued to turn to some of the hearty, flavorful favorites that helped get us through a winter that felt even longer than usual. These may include classic “comfort” foods like chili, casseroles, meatloaf, and dumplings but can really be any of the dishes we enjoy on a cold night.

As comforting as they may feel, though, these types of foods typically aren’t the healthiest choices. Red meat, cheese, full-fat dairy, and refined grains can often be key ingredients.

But, it turns out, it’s pretty easy to liven up these dishes for spring, making them healthier while keeping the qualities we love about them.

“I like to add ingredients that make these dishes more nutrient-dense, which often results in a lighter version overall,” said Lauren Gallen, a registered dietitian at Siteman Cancer Center in St. Louis. “Amp up the produce by, say, sneaking butternut squash, mushrooms or green pepper into chili, or mushrooms, cherry tomatoes, onions or bell peppers into sauce for lasagna.”

The result can be a healthier dish with even more flavor. Other healthy modifications, Gallen said, can include substituting Greek yogurt or lower-fat half-and-half for some of the cream, mayonnaise or sour cream in recipes; choosing whole-grain pasta over standard refined options; and cutting back on red and processed meats by working in leaner proteins like turkey, chicken, fish, lentils or beans. “Your family might not even notice!”

Outside of individual ingredients, it’s important to keep calories in mind as well, even when making healthier, lighter versions of comfort foods. In normal times, keeping calories and weight in check is hard for many of us. Not surprisingly, there’s some evidence that it’s been even harder than usual during the pandemic.

But some simple tips can be helpful. Following serving sizes listed on recipes is one way, Gallen said. Starting with a reasonable amount of food on a plate when you sit down to eat can make it easier to avoid eating too much. “Another tip is to slow down, really savor each bite,” which gives the stomach more time to tell the mind when it’s had enough, she said.

Coming off this long year, with the pandemic so prominent in our daily lives, it’s important that we not forget about our overall wellness. The foods we prepare and enjoy and find comfort in can be a big part of that.

“Whatever ‘comfort food’ brings to mind for you,” Gallen said, “selecting dishes and meals that are balanced with lean proteins, vegetables, and fiber are your best bet.”

It’s your health. Take control.

Dr. Graham A. Colditz, associate director of prevention and control at Siteman Cancer Center at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, is an internationally recognized leader in cancer prevention. As an epidemiologist and public health expert, he has a long-standing interest in the preventable causes of chronic disease. Colditz has a medical degree from The University of Queensland and a master’s and doctoral degrees in public health from Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

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