The attributes that make certain foods comforting often work against weight and health goals, but these simple, science-based diet tricks can help to prevent winter weight gain and bloating while letting you enjoy the warming, comforting traits of hearty winter foods.
Choosing kilojoule-laden comfort foods. Staying indoors with less incidental exercise. Skipping morning gym sessions for the doona. These behavioural hallmarks of winter are a recipe for weight gain. The combination of extra fat, particularly saturated fat, in comfort food favourites and less activity also increases your risk of heart disease and may exacerbate existing coronary conditions. So how do you prevent ‘middle year spread’ without forgoing your favourite warming, rich, melty meals? Try these dietitian-approved tips.
- Choose your fluids
Mistake: In winter, many of us increase our consumption of hot drinks as a source of warmth and comfort. Yet we may not consider the kilojoule contribution from milky coffees (a full cream large latte has more kilojoules than a Tim Tam). We may also fail to compensate for the dehydrating effects of caffeinated beverages by consuming more water, which can cause us to mistake thirst for hunger and overeat.
Solution: If you do feel like a milky coffee, opt for skim milk and choose the smallest size. Try to supplement one or two coffees with beverages containing less or no caffeine, such as fruit teas or green tea. While you may not feel like drinking cold drinks, make a point of keeping a water bottle (with a squeeze of lemon or lime if you prefer) handy and sipping throughout the day, aiming for a daily quota of 1.5 to 2 litres. This will also help to keep your appetite in check and prevent mistaking thirst for hunger.
- Prioritise protein
Mistake: Many of us shy away from meat, eggs and dairy and nuts in the belief that they promote weight gain. We may instead choose ‘lighter’ options such as salad or rice with vegetables and feel ravenous between meals, causing us to negate any kilojoule savings or even consume more than we need in extra snacks or increased portion size at the next meal.
Solution: Eat protein-rich meals during the day - starting with breakfast. Including protein foods such as lean meats, chicken, fish, nuts, seeds, legumes, eggs, dairy and soy products increases the satiety quotient of a meal and keeps you feeling full, in turn reducing the need to snack or overeat later (the extra 300 to 500 kilojoules from a hard boiled egg added to breakfast or lunch may well reduce your intake at dinner by significantly more). Bear in mind that nuts and seeds are high in kilojoules and keep portions to a small handful or less.
3. Introduce soup
Mistake: When we’re cold, we tend to feel hunger more acutely, which increases the risk of consuming more (and more kilojoules) than we need to maintain body weight. Yet this cold weather effect doesn’t actually indicate that our bodies need more food. This trap can cause us to consume more kilojoules than we need, setting the scene for kilo creep.
Solution: Augmenting your winter diet with low-kilojoule vegetable soup can combat both the feeling of being cold that can cause us to feel hungrier and moderate hunger and appetite before meals, which reduces the risk of overeating rich, high-kilojoule foods. Research suggests that consuming a healthy, energy-controlled soup before a main meal may reduce the energy you consume at your main meal. Beware that many bought soups are high in sodium and can contain low quantities of vegetables. Try making your own with minimal or no added salt and freezing it in daily portions to defrost as you need it. (If you work in an office, consider heating a small amount in the kitchen microwave and consuming a mug or bowl before lunch.) At dinner, serve soup as an entree.
4. Find healthy comfort foods
Mistake: It can be tempting to equate comfort foods with high-fat, high-kilojoule options such as bacon and eggs, cheesy melts and creamy pastas - each of which can easily contribute half of your daily energy needs in one meal (not to mention abundant saturated fat, which is a recipe for heart disease). This is often based on fond memories of scenarios in which these comfort foods made us feel good (like that croque monsieur grandma used to make when you were upset). Comfort food choices can be a less-obvious form of emotional eating.
Solution: There is nothing wrong with seeking comfort from food, but it pays to reimagine what ‘comfort food’ is. In fact, there are scientific reasons why many healthy foods are likely to induce feelings of comfort and calm. Consider whole cut oats, which are a healthy, slow-release, low-GI carbohydrate, made or served with hot skim milk and served with stewed fruit or berries. This balanced meal delivers the nutrients required for optimal synthesis of key feelgood neurotransmitters, is filling and maintains fullness, blood sugar and energy, preventing hunger pangs and cravings. Other healthy ‘comfort foods’ may include pan-fried mushrooms or avocado and poached egg with crunchy, wholegrain bread.
5. Smarten your methods
Mistake: Many favourite winter meals include unnecessary saturated fat, due to standard ingredients, cooking methods or both (think mashed potato made with full cream milk and butter and topped with lashings of melted butter or pasta sauce made with cream).
Solution: Look for opportunities to substitute ingredients such as cream, butter, full cream milk and puff pastry with healthier options such as carnation milk, small amounts of margarine, skim milk and filo pastry. When cooking, consider tweaks that may reduce the amount of fat (rather than frying, consider baking, steaming or grilling in foil). For stews, roasts and deep fried meals such as fish and chips, consider using a slow cooker or air fryer to upgrade the health quotient of comfort favourites. For side dishes, try trading mashed potato made with butter and full cream milk for mashed cauliflower with a sprinkling of low-fat cheese.
If you’re looking to prevent weight gain or other effects of winter’s dietary staples and sedentary lifestyle such as bloating and digestive issues, consider consulting an accredited practising dietitian, who can recommend food and recipe swaps, clue you up on reading food labels, advise on best choices when dining out and provide strategies to regulate appetite and portions, including meal composition and mindful eating.