The Argument for Comfort Food

From Dr. Josh Axe, DNM, DC, CNS.

Autumn is (finally) upon us, and with it comes some of the best parts of the season: cozy sweaters, roaring fires, pumpkin everything and, of course, comfort foods.

As temperatures drop, we tend crave heartier foods to warm our bodies, as well as baked sweets that can boost lagging serotonin levels due to seasonal affective disorder. The problem is that our go-to comfort foods usually aren’t the best for us. And as we pile on the baggy sweaters and thick sweaters that hide an expanding waistline, it’s easy to lose track of exactly just what we’re eating.

Luckily, a healthier diet doesn’t have to mean getting rid of your favorite fall dishes. Instead, lighten them up with some of my favorite tricks.

Swap out refined carbs for healthier options.

Refined carbs like white pasta and white rice offer no nutritional value. They enter the bloodstream almost immediately after eating, spiking blood sugar levels and then causing them to crash, which can leave you feeling drained afterwards. Additionally, insulin converts the sugar into stored fat instead of energy, thus depriving your brain of much-needed fuel while also causing you to pack on the pounds.

You can continue to enjoy your favorite casseroles and curries by switching to complex carbohydrates instead. One hundred percent whole-grains are a good option, but not your only one. If you’re going for pasta, brown rice versions are a good substitute (especially for those avoiding gluten), while spiralized zucchini or sweet potato can give you that same noodle fix in a completely grain-free package. For rice-based dishes, consider swapping white rice for quinoa or, my personal favorite, riced cauliflower.

Sweeten foods naturally.

Whether you’re making a dessert or preparing a warm bowl of oatmeal, chances are high that the ingredients list includes some kind of sweetener. And while all sweeteners are a no-no if you’re on the ketogenic diet or another very low-carb eating plan, if you do want to indulge in a sweet treat, natural alternatives are definitely a better option.

Raw honey from your local farmers market, for instance, is full of antioxidants and vitamins and is low on the glycemic index, meaning it won’t send your blood sugar into a tailspin. Use this to sweeten oatmeal or pancakes, or to drizzle on yogurt.

If you’re baking, coconut sugar is a terrific option and available at most grocery stores. It measures like regular sugar and can even be turned into a substitute for confectioner’s sugar — for every cup of coconut sugar, add one tablespoon of arrowroot powder and blend until smooth in a food processor.

Additionally, maple syrup, dates, brown rice syrup, and blackstrap molasses are other natural sweeteners to consider. 

Sneak veggies and other superfoods into your foods – including desserts!

Hiding veggies in foods isn’t just for kids; it’s a great way to lighten up your fall favorites. I love adding black beans to baked goods for texture along with extra nutrients and fiber. You won’t believe the fudgy-ness they add to these gluten-free chocolate black bean brownies.

In addition to being one of the most nutrient-rich foods on the planet (each piece of the fruit is packed with healthy fats, fiber, protein and vitamins), avocado is awesome in desserts, lending a creaminess that you may mistake for actual cream. Try it in this chocolate avocado mousse recipe

Enjoy good-for-you drinks.

A few of fall’s best comfort foods are actually drinks, and I’m certainly not opposed to a frothy latte or a warm cider. The trick to lightening up these drinks is skipping the pre-made mixes and whipping up your own from scratch. If it’s meant to be creamy coconut milk will become your new go-to kitchen ingredient. Not only is it good for you, but it’s natural sweetness and thick texture make it the perfect base for homemade pumpkin spice lattes or chai tea.

If it’s cider that you’re after, this spiced apple cider recipe will become your new favorite. With 100-percent apple juice, fresh fruit, and a few more festive ingredients, it’s excellent for cold mornings, sipping by the fire, or even as an adult-only beverage with an added shot of whiskey. 

Skip low-fat foods.

When you want to give your favorite foods a lighter spin, it can be tempting to reach for pre-made, low-fat versions. The problem is that low-fat foods—like cheeses, milks, and even cookies—are typically full of sugars, genetically modified ingredients, artificial preservatives, and a host of other yucky ingredients that replace the fat, mimic the taste of the original version, and extend shelf life.

Instead, you’re better off buying the full-fat version and having a smaller portion: Skip the low-fat chocolate product and have two squares of rich, dark chocolate instead. Or forget the low-fat cheese, and cut yourself a tasty hunk of fresh, locally raised cheese from the farmer’s market to enjoy with your wine.

After all, some comforts are better left unchanged!

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