You can enjoy the creamy, rich dishes you love…and stay healthy!

As a health-conscious reader, you probably know that limiting carb intake while increasing fiber and reducing saturated fat is a healthful eating plan to follow. But you’re human, and it can be oh, so hard to resist carbohydrate-laden, high-calorie comfort foods like creamy mashed potatoes and rich pasta dishes.

Good news: With a few smart tweaks and swaps, you can enjoy even the most decadent-sounding comfort foods without sabotaging your health. Here’s how…* 

• Get the right amount of carbohydrates. You don’t need to eliminate carbs entirely, you just need to eat the right amount, which is probably more than you think.

Research shows that even people with diabetes who eat small, consistent amounts of carbohydrates with every meal or snack as opposed to eating excessive carbs at each meal or eating them once a day have better control of their blood sugar levels and body weight. However, the average woman who has prediabetes or diabetes should moderate carb intake to about 45 g per meal, and men should have no more than about 60 g per meal. (A health-care provider can help adjust amounts based on individual needs.) The allowance is more generous for those who don’t have diabetes, but everyone can benefit from sticking to these guidelines.

Some foods with 45 g of carbs: One cup of brown rice…one-and-a-half English muffins. Not too stingy!

• Fiber is your secret weapon. Fiber—especially the soluble kind—takes longer to metabolize than other carbs, so it improves blood sugar control and lowers insulin resistance in both people who have diabetes and those who don’t. Consistently getting the right amount of fiber can even lessen (or in some instances, eliminate) the need for diabetes medication. The American Diabetes Association recommends that women consume at least 25 g of fiber per day…men should get a minimum of 38 g daily. But aim for 44 g to 50 g a day to reap the health benefits above. Whole grains, beans, fruits and vegetables are all naturally high in fiber.  

• Don’t forget healthy fats. Replacing saturated fats and trans fats with monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs), such as olive oil, canola oil, peanut oil, nuts, nut butters and avocado, helps lower total and LDL “bad” cholesterol levels, improves the function of blood vessels and benefits insulin levels and blood sugar control.

The following are healthful comfort foods that meet the goals above…

CREAMY MASHED POTATOES

Instead of mashed potatoes loaded with saturated fat from butter, enjoy these mashed potatoes made with yogurt and a surprise ingredient…

What to do: In a large pot, combine 1 pound of peeled (I like to leave the peels on for extra fiber and nutrients) and halved russet (baking) potatoes and 1 small head of cauliflower, cut into florets. Cover with water, bring to a boil, then reduce heat to medium and simmer for 20 minutes, or until the potatoes and cauliflower are easily pierced with a fork. Drain and place in a large bowl with ⅓ cup of vegetable broth and 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Using an electric mixer on medium speed, beat until creamy. Add ½ cup of plain nonfat Greek yogurt and beat until just blended. Try adding garlic or rosemary if you desire. Makes six servings.

Traditional recipe: 250 calories per serving, 5 g saturated fat, 2 g fiber, 39 g carbs.

New recipe above: 132 calories, 1 g saturated fat, 3 g fiber, 19 g carbs.

Why it’s good for you: The addition of cauliflower is a sneaky-but-healthy nutrition hack—cauliflower delivers more fiber than potatoes while cutting the carb content of this dish in half! Plus, a 2014 study in BMJ offered further proof that diets high in produce are associated with lower risk for death, particularly cardiovascular mortality. Olive oil is a great source of MUFAs, and the yogurt adds creaminess and even a little protein while curbing carbs.

BROCCOLI PENNE

Instead of white, blood sugar–spiking pasta with high-fat alfredo sauce, have this healthful broccoli pasta dish with mozzarella…

What to do: Cook 6 ounces of multigrain penne pasta in boiling water. Add 2 cups of fresh broccoli florets to the pot during the last two minutes of cooking. Drain the pasta and broccoli, reserving ½ cup of the water. In a large bowl, place the pasta, broccoli, 1 cup of halved grape tomatoes, 6 ounces of fresh, part-skim mozzarella cheese cubed, ¼ cup of pesto sauce and 1 tablespoon of lemon juice. Add the reserved pasta water to the bowl, one tablespoon at a time, stirring gently until the ingredients are combined. Makes four servings.

Tip: Cook the pasta al dente (just until firm). Longer cooking times break down starches, which causes more carbohydrates to be absorbed into your blood, resulting in a faster rise in blood sugar.

Traditional recipe: 800 calories per serving, 30 g saturated fat, 4 g fiber, 69 g carbs.

New recipe above: 341 calories, 5 g saturated fat, 5 g fiber, 34 g carbs.

Why it’s good for you: A 2015 study confirmed what we already knew—diets rich in whole grains protect against diabetes, while diets rich in refined carbohydrates like conventional white pasta increase risk. High-fiber broccoli and tomatoes fill you up, which enables you to halve the amount of pasta in this recipe. Flavorful olive oil–based pesto means you can pass on the alfredo sauce—full of artery-clogging saturated fat—and get a dose of MUFAs instead. (Surprising: Multigrain pasta contains MUFAs, too.) Ideally, make your own pesto using fresh basil, Parmesan cheese, olive oil, crushed garlic and pine nuts. If you’re using store-bought pesto, choose a local brand, which is more likely to have high-quality ingredients and fewer preservatives than a big-box brand. Grilled chicken or trout goes well with this pasta dish.

*Note: The recipes in this article were developed for people with diabetes, but those who don’t have diabetes and people with other conditions can benefit as well.