Lighten Up: Eating Well This Winter
Sarene Alsharif, MPH
The cold of winter, the howl of the icy winds, and the short gloomy days create the perfect setting for warm blankets, thick logs crackling in the fireplace, scented candles flickering in the background, and a cup of warm tea accompanied by relaxing comfort food. The thought of winter brings back many cozy memories only to be brought to life with our favorite comfort foods. Foods like warm cookies, oozing grilled cheese sandwiches, steamy pasta dishes, and bread straight out of the oven paired with a hearty soup help us relax after a stressful day and spread warmth to every cold limb in our body.
It’s not just the cookie or pasta that brings us satisfaction; the memories connected to those foods play a major role. They remind us of Mama’s cooking, Grandma’s baking, relaxing evenings with friends, family dinners, and many other happy memories. Enjoying these meals brightens our days and sharing them with friends and family brings joy and satisfaction.
Notice a similarity between those very different foods? If you said high in fat and sugar, you are right, as this tends to define comfort food. But consuming these delights on a regular basis will lead to an expanding waistline. So what should you do, stop eating the foods you love? Anyone who has attempted to diet knows that is a recipe for failure. What is the solution?
Does this scenario sound familiar? You are cuddled warm in the evening watching TV with a bag of chips next to you, munching along while enjoying your favorite show. You reach for some more chips only to find the bag empty. Who ate the chips? You opened a brand new bag and no one was sharing it with you. You did not realize you ate the whole bag; in other words, mindless eating. Without realizing it, you just consumed over one thousand calories. The solution according to Dr. Brian Wansink, the director of Cornell University Food and Brand Lab and author of Mindless Eating, is to put a serving on a plate and leave the bag of chips in the cupboard. Next time you want to enjoy some cookies over coffee with a friend make sure to put only a couple on your plate so you do not keep reaching for more. Visual keys are most likely to make us stop eating. Dr. Wansink found in his research that most people do not stop eating because they are full but due to an external trigger, like the empty plate.
Putting what we plan to eat on a plate is only part of the solution: focusing on what we are eating also helps us stop the mindless munching. Now back to the chips in front of the TV. This time you put a serving on your plate and begin surfing Facebook while munching along. But before you know it your plate is empty and you are not feeling satisfied at all. Do you remain frustrated because you did not enjoy your snack? Or do you go get another plate? The correct answer is neither! What you should have done was focused on the food you ate the first time around. Eat far away from electronics, books, televisions, and newspapers. Pay attention to what you are eating — its taste, texture, and smell. By focusing on what you eat, all of your senses register that you have eaten, inducing a feeling of satisfaction and satiety, thereby minimizing the amount of food you need to consume in order to feel full.
Most of us have been trained to finish all the food on our plates while plate sizes have been gradually increasing for years, according to Dr. Wansink. As a result, we keep filling bigger plates with more food, then forcing ourselves to finish every last bit, consuming even more calories. The painless solution is to use smaller plates, reducing the amount of food and calories without wasting food. Remember the hadith by Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him [PBUH]): “The worst container to be filled to its utmost capacity is the stomach. It is enough for people to eat what will suffice to keep them standing, but if that is not attainable, then one third for food, one third for drink, and one third empty for air” (Tirmidhi 2380). Using smaller plates will make adhering to that hadith much simpler. Overeating has numerous damaging effects: diabetes, cancer, heart disease, and obesity just to name a few. It’s easy to see how following the fourteen hundred year old advice of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) is crucial for maintaining a healthy body.
In addition to reducing your portions when enjoying your favorite foods, using healthier ingredients can boost nutrition or reduce calories without sacrificing taste if you make the right choices. Sneak pureed yellow squash into macaroni and cheese. Or simply add more vegetables to that lasagna. These small changes will ensure the whole family gets more fiber, increased nutrients, and less calories and fat without changing the taste or texture. The volume of the serving will not change, keeping the fullness factor (how full you feel after consuming a serving) the same according to Dr. Barbara Rolls, Chair of the Nutritional Sciences Department at Pennsylvania State University and coauthor of The Ultimate Volumetrics Diet.
Using healthier fats also makes meals more nutritious. By now you have probably heard that not all fats are created equal, and it is actually essential to include healthy fats in your diet. In short, saturated and trans fats increase cholesterol and risk of heart disease while monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats have positive health benefits and do not result in elevated cholesterol levels. Use olive oil, naturally rich in monounsaturated fats, whenever possible instead of butter or ghee, high in saturated fats, to help make meals healthier. Olive oil provides more than just healthy fat; it also fuels your body with vitamins and cancer combating antioxidants. No wonder olives and olive oil are mentioned numerous times in the Quran and Sunnah. “And a tree (olive) that springs forth from Mount Sinai, that grows oil, and (it is a) relish for the eaters” (Quran 23:20). Prophet Muhammad [PBUH] even recommended using olive oil generously all over the body in the hadith narrated by Abu Aseed: “The Prophet [PBUH] said: ‘Eat the oil and use it on your hair and skin, for it comes from a blessed tree’” (Tirmidhi 1775).
Olive oil provides nutrients and antioxidants in addition to the blessings of God and His prophet; but it is important to understand that fat is fat and the calorie content will remain the same. Reducing the amount of fat or oil you add to meals will minimize calories but may affect the moisture and texture of cakes and cookies. Have no fear, the solution is easy. Use apple sauce or freshly grated apples instead. Let’s say the recipe calls for one cup of butter; instead use half a cup of butter and half a cup of apple sauce or grated apples instead. Congratulations! You just eliminated 760 calories from your recipe with that one easy step.
Making calories just disappear is so exciting, but the healthy tricks do not stop there. Everyone loves cheese, but it is high in saturated fats. Grilled cheese sandwiches are a favorite comfort food for many, and so is homemade macaroni and cheese with gooey cheese sauce. Despite their amazing taste and happy memories, these dishes contain high amounts of saturated fats, which increase ones risk of heart disease. Reducing the amount of cheese will affect the taste but using smaller amounts of stronger cheeses will actually boost the flavor. Try sharp cheddar instead of plain cheddar, or parmesan, Swiss, blue, or many other strong, fragrant cheeses. These will intensify taste while using less cheese, resulting in reduced calories. Hend Alhinnawi, cofounder of Humanitarian Tracker from Los Angeles, California, uses low-fat mozzarella combined with Swiss cheese sprinkled with garlic herd and dried mint for an excellent taste and outstanding texture and fewer calories than a conventional grilled cheese sandwich. Experiment with different combinations of halal cheeses, use a low-fat version of your favorite cheese paired with a sprinkle of a stronger cheese for exceptional flavor, great texture, and less saturated fat.
Changing the cheese is not the only way to make a grilled cheese sandwich healthier. The bread is just as important. Use smaller pieces of bread or the 100-calorie thin buns to cut down on calories. When in the bread isle, compare the nutritional information on several varieties and select one with fewer calories per serving to help reduce calories even further. If you are looking for a boost in the nutrients, look for breads made from 100% whole grain flour. Check to see if you can actually see pieces of wheat, seeds, and grains in the bread because even 100% whole grain can be over-processed, reducing the nutritional content.
Whole wheat and whole grain are also important when deciding what grain to serve with a meal. Try whole grain or, for a gluten-free option, look for buckwheat pasta. Explore grains like barley, bulgur, quinoa, and wild rice, all of which provide protein, vitamins, minerals, fiber, and antioxidants. They are not lower in calories than regular pasta or white rice, but they are definitely packed with more nutrients. Try quinoa with stir fry, bulgur with chili and other tomato-based dishes, and wild rice mixed with white rice for a healthier, more fragrant companion for many meals.
Let’s face it, sometimes despite our best intentions we overeat or indulge in more cake than we mean to. The key is to keep tabs on those and make the proper tradeoff. For example, if you overate at lunch then eat less for dinner. If you visited family over the weekend and enjoyed some heavy family favorites, have a big salad with dinner for the rest of the week to counteract that weekend indulgence. Making appropriate tradeoffs will help you maintain your weight while still enjoying your favorites occasionally.
People exercise to keep the pounds off without monitoring what they eat thinking that exercise alone is enough to control their weight. Let us do the math: running 5 mph for one hour burns 560 calories for a person weighing 155 pounds. How many calories was the 16 oz. bag of chips we discussed earlier? Between 1800 and 2500 calories depending on the type of chips. Researchers have studied the link between exercise and weight gain and maintenance extensively. The bottom line is exercise alone is not enough to prevent weight gain, but exercise and diet control together are proven to be the most effective method to weight loss1.
Everyone enjoys food and has their personal favorites, but food is more than just about taste. It’s also about the memories and feelings attached to the dish. By making changes to preparation methods and serving styles, we can enjoy healthy, wholesome food without sacrificing taste or nostalgia while improving our health at the same time. Experiment with different foods; the options are countless so you are bound to find something that suites your taste.
Try these healthier versions of some traditional winter favorites. By incorporating healthy grains, less fat, more vegetables, and tasty herbs, these recipes are good for your taste buds and waistline.