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At this time of year, nothing hits the spot quite like comfort food—it warms you up and keeps you satisfied. In Canada, with its rich multicultural tradition, that can mean anything from cabbage rolls, to rice and peas, to congee (rice porridge).

Comfort foods can range from a favourite dish that provides comfort when you are feeling tired or stressed, to one that takes you back to your childhood or a particular celebration marked by wonderful memories.

Unfortunately, many comfort foods, no matter what culture they celebrate, can be high in calories, fat, and/or carbohydrates. However, “all foods can fit within a healthy lifestyle,” says Erin Krusky, a registered dietitian and a certified diabetes educator. “Not allowing yourself to have a food you really enjoy can result in overeating that food once you allow yourself to have it.”

Rather than viewing certain foods as bad—which can lead to feelings of guilt when you eat them—It can be helpful to give yourself permission to eat those foods once in a while. “Even though most people may say ice cream isn’t healthy, it can be healthy for a person with diabetes to go out for an ice cream cone on a hot day with a friend, as this activity could satisfy emotional and social needs,” says Krusky. “Feeling more connected to others can lead to better overall health.”

She adds, “If your comfort food is high in carbohydrates, try to have it with other foods that are low in carbohydrates, like vegetables, and lean sources of protein like fish. That way you will be able to enjoy your comfort food without a spike in your blood sugar levels.”

Or give your comfort food an update: Be adventurous and explore new flavours and ingredients. Many traditional dishes include fibre-rich ingredients such as pulses (beans and lentils).

Comfort food makeovers

Changing up a few ingredients can make comfort foods a healthier option that does not affect your blood sugar so dramatically. Here are some tips for updating your favourites:

• If you do not have time to make your broth from scratch, choose a store-bought one with no added salt, or at least with reduced sodium.

• Instead of a filler like breadcrumbs (which are used in meatloaf and other dishes), substitute oats or wholegrain breadcrumbs.

• Adding more veggies (especially those with low carb counts) to your comfort foods is always a good idea for people with diabetes. When making dishes such as macaroni and cheese, stews, or chili, add zucchini or dark leafy greens and reduce higher-carb ingredients, such as potatoes. This is also a way of keeping meat portions down to the recommended amounts.

• To cut down on saturated fat in dishes such as creamy mashed potatoes, use buttermilk and less butter. Also consider substituting sweet potatoes in fare such as baked stuffed potatoes, for higher nutritional counts.

• Baked goods made with refined flours can be tempting, but they can also send your blood sugar soaring. Instead, choose recipes that use whole-grain flours or smaller amounts of refined flours. If you are updating a favourite, start with small substitutions on your first try increasing the amounts each time you make it.

• You can also try lighter options for baked goods, such as a phyllo dough instead of a premade pie crust (you can find phyllo in the freezer section at the supermarket). Another option: Instead of a fruit pie, try a fruit crumble made with less topping.

Did you know?

Making too many changes to your diet at once can be difficult. Instead, start small. For more tips, visit Basic Meal Planning.

"Healthy eating is about so much more than food: how you eat is important, too." This is the theme of the Dietitians of Canada's annual Nutrition Month campaign, which offers tips, articles and more.. .


Here are three comfort food dishes you will want to put on your menu this winter.

Chana Masala

This recipe from CanolaInfo is featured in the recipes section of Diabetes Canada’s website. It is low in sodium and fat, and full of fibre, and the spicy flavours will warm you up on a cold day. You can also enjoy it with a roti shell or a whole-wheat chapati.

• 2 tbsp (30 mL) canola oil

• 1 tsp (5 mL) cumin seeds

• 1 small onion, finely chopped

• 1 tbsp (15 mL) grated fresh ginger

• 2 tsp (10 mL) garam masala

• 1 tsp (5 mL) curry powder

• 2 cans (each 540 mL/19 oz.) chickpeas, drained and well rinsed

• 1 can (796 mL/28 oz.) diced tomatoes, no salt added

• 2 tbsp (30 mL) lemon juice

• ¼ cup (60 mL) coarsely chopped fresh cilantro

In a saucepan, heat oil over medium heat and sauté cumin seeds for about 1 minute. Add onion, ginger, garam masala, and curry powder, and cook for 3 minutes, stirring constantly. Add chickpeas, tomatoes, and lemon juice.

Cover and cook for 10 minutes, using a spatula periodically to scrape bottom of pan to get all cooking juices.

Serve hot with basmati rice, naan bread or dosa, and a side salad. Garnish with cilantro.

Makes 4 servings

Nutritional breakdown per serving (without a side dish): 25 g carbohydrate, 7 g protein, 5 g total fat, 0 g saturated fat, 6 g fibre, 165 mg sodium, 170 calories

Root vegetable mash with coriander

This dish offers a nutritious and fibre-packed way to enjoy mashed potatoes with a Caribbean touch. This recipe, also from CanolaInfo, is featured in the recipes section of Diabetes Canada’s website.

• 2 medium (each 250 g) russet or Yukon Gold potatoes

• 1 large (250 g) sweet potato

• 1 large (250 g) parsnip

• 1 large (250 g) turnip

• 2 tbsp (30 mL) canola oil

• 2 tbsp (30 mL) coriander seeds

• 4 dried red chiles (such as chile de arbol), stems discarded

• ¼ cup (60 mL) finely chopped fresh cilantro

• ½ tsp (2 mL) coarse kosher or sea salt

Peel potatoes, sweet potato, parsnip, and turnip, and cut each into large pieces. Add to a large saucepan filled halfway with water. Bring water to boil; lower heat to medium and cook, partially covered, until vegetables are very tender, 15 to 20 minutes. Drain vegetables. Transfer to medium bowl and coarsely mash. Cover to keep warm.

While vegetables cook, in a small skillet, heat oil over medium-high heat. Add coriander and chiles, and stir-fry until coriander seeds are reddish-brown and chiles are blackened, about 1 minute. Turn off heat. Using a slotted spoon, transfer coriander and chiles to a mortar. Reserve spiced oil. Grind coriander and chiles with pestle, scraping spice blend into centre with spatula until it has the consistency of finely ground black pepper.

Add reserved spiced oil to mashed vegetables along with ground spice blend, cilantro, and salt. Stir well to combine, and serve warm.

Makes 8 servings

Nutritional breakdown per serving: 15 g carbohydrate, 2 g protein, 4 g total fat, 0 g saturated fat, 4 g fibre, 210 mg sodium, 90 calories.

Polenta with Tomatoes and Black Beans

This Italian dish is adapted from a new book, The 30-Minute Heart Healthy Delicious Recipes for Easy, Low-Sodium Meals, by Cheryl Strachan RD, and published by Rockridge Press. Polenta is made from cornmeal; the dish is originally from northern Italy. Adding beans and vegetables is an example of how you can boost the fibre for a comfort food makeover.

• 1 tbsp (15 mL) extra-virgin olive oil

• 1 small yellow onion, chopped

• 2 garlic cloves, minced

• 1 tsp (5 mL) dried thyme

• 1 can (398 mL/14 oz.) no-salt-added black beans, rinsed and drained

• 1 can (398 mL/14 oz.) no-salt-added diced tomatoes

• ⅔ cup (150 mL) cornmeal

• 2⅔ cups (650 mL) water, divided

• 1 bunch spinach, large stems removed

• ½ cup (125 mL) grated Parmesan cheese

Heat oil in a large sauté pan over medium heat. Sauté onion, garlic, and thyme until onion is soft, 3 to 5 minutes. Add beans and tomatoes, and simmer over low heat. Meanwhile, in a small bowl, combine cornmeal with ⅔ cup (150 mL) of water. Set aside.

In a small saucepan, bring remaining 2 cups (500 mL) of water to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to low, and stir in cornmeal-water mixture. Stir frequently until cornmeal is smooth and creamy, about 10 minutes, adding more water if needed.

When cornmeal is ready, stir spinach into beans and tomatoes. Cover, and cook until spinach is wilted, about 2 minutes. Stir to mix. Spoon cornmeal into bowls, and top with beans, tomatoes, and spinach. Sprinkle with Parmesan.

Makes 3 servings

Nutritional breakdown per serving: 57 g carbohydrate, 18 g protein, 10 g total fat, 3 g saturated fat, 11 g fibre, 263 mg sodium, 387 calories

For more ideas, including a healthier option for cabbage rolls, visit Recipes.

(This article appeared in Diabetes Dialogue, Winter 2020)

Author: Rosie Schwartz, RD, FDC

Category Tags: Healthy Living;

Region: National

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