A (Healthy) Shot of Southern Comfort

How a new generation of Southern foodies are keeping the culture, but ditching the calories

Within months—ok, weeks—of relocating to the South some years ago, my husband and I purchased a deep fryer. What can I say? We got caught up in the rich culinary scene, vowing to master fried chicken. Then we made friends with a family who owned an iconic Southern restaurant, and fell in love with sweet tea and banana pudding. Within a year, you guessed it, we had both packed on the pounds.

Switching to healthier eating habits is always a challenge, but if you live in an area with a long-standing tradition of buttery, deep-fried, cheese-infused, sugar-sweetened cuisine, it can feel almost laughably difficult. Not inhale your grandma’s perfectly moist, golden yellow corn bread with a big square of butter melting on top? HA!

But managing these temptations is exactly what we fans of Southern food have to do in oder to slim down and prevent diseases like type 2 diabetes. The next time you’re feeling the draw of some good local comfort food, remember these ten real-life tips from a nutritionist, healthy chef, and foodie who, being from the South themselves, know exactly what you’re up against:

1. Retool the right recipes.
“Lots of old recipes are heavy-handed, and you don’t need all that,” says Aimee Bowlin, author of CajunMamaCooks.com. When making grits, Bowlin cooks hers in water, not milk, and uses less butter and salt. Granted, if 90% of the ingredients in a recipe are high-fat and/or sugar, making a ‘healthy’ version is bound to fail—a sugar-free cupcake that’s high in fiber is no longer a cupcake. Instead, revamp recipes that can be just as scrumptious with less of the bad-for-you stuff. Mac and cheese, for example, can call for a stick of butter, unnecessary sugar, and a small mountain of cheese. But if you use whole-wheat pasta, ditch the sugar, use just a little butter, and a smaller amount of a more flavorful cheese like sharp cheddar, you’ll end up with something that’s still incredibly good. It may take trial and error, but the result will be healthier food that doesn’t leave you feeling deprived.

2. Beware of fattening veggies.
Veggies are good for you, sure, but “stewed” veggies can be code for “cooked in lard.” When vegetables that should be colorful and crisp are faded, and soft enough to eat with a spoon, it’s a clue that they’ve been overcooked in fat. If you’re at a restaurant and spot this kind of goopy pile of veggies on other people’s plates, order a side salad with fresh veggies instead (and season it with just a little dressing).

3. Add flavor, not fat.
Keep in mind that sometimes it’s the spices in a dish—not the carb-bomb breading and unhealthy trans-fat oil—that give food its signature flavor. Instead of fried catfish, try blackened catfish, suggests Mark Falgoust, executive chef of New Orleans’ Grand Isle Restaurant. Dredge fish in spices (for home cooks, the chef likes Paul Prudhomme’s seasoning blends), get a grill or pan nice and hot, and sear on both sides. “It’s super healthy—literally no oil,” Falgoust says.

4. Ease into whole grains.
If you’re new to brown rice and are iffy about its nutty taste, try it first in flavor-packed dishes like jambalaya or red beans and rice Bowlin says. The potential payoff is huge: A 2010 Harvard School of Public Health study found that eating five or more servings of white rice per week was associated with an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, but eating two or more servings of brown rice per week was associated with a lower risk of the disease. Or use half-white, half-brown rice: Replacing even one third of a typical daily serving of white rice with brown could lower risk of type 2 diabetes by 16%, researchers found.

5. Try this cheat for sauces.
Roux—or you may just call it gravy—is at the heart of many Creole and Cajun dishes, like gumbo or étouffée, but the fatty oils don’t have to be central to the roux. Instead, seek out recipes for oil-free or ‘dry roux,’ made by toasting flour—yes, you can use whole wheat!—in the oven or even in a microwave.

6. Skip the sandwiches.
Believe it or not, tailgates and barbecue joints can be relatively easy places to eat healthfully. In general, avoid the sandwiches, like po’boys, and focus on the meats, like grilled jerk chicken and pulled pork—the protein will fill you up without the bread, suggests Elesha Kelleher, a Louisiana-based registered dietitian.

7. Balance out brunch.
Avoiding the corn fritters is probably a good idea, but a healthy breakfast out doesn’t have to mean ordering egg white wraps. Look for surprisingly nutritious items like sweet potato pancakes; many local joints, like the Southern chainlet Tupelo Honey Café, use real, mashed sweet potatoes, which help cut back on refined flour. Whole wheat pancakes are a healthier option as well. In either case, say no to toppings like whipped cream, powdered sugar, and flavored syrups!

8. Banish the butter bowl.
A bowl filled with butter is the status quo at a lot of Southern restaurants (and probably on your kitchen counter, too), which makes it all too easy to add just a little more of the spreadable stuff onto your food. Ask the waiter to remove it (and hide your butter in the fridge), and you’ll be instantly saving yourself from extra fat and calories.

9. Have half a glass.
Coke, sweet tea, juice… they’re in most Southern homes and are often the first thing you’re offered when eating out or at a friend’s house. If you’re not ready to give them up cold-turkey (which you should really consider–these beverages are nothing but nutritionally void sources of sugar) keep it to half a glass, including ice. You’ll get a cold, refreshing gulp, which may turn out to be all you need to satisfy your craving.

10. Minimize the Mayo.
When you’re taking in the spread at a potluck, you know the mayonnaise-drenched stuff when you see it—the big platter of cole slaw, and the pasta, potato, and chicken salads… If that kind of comfort food is a weakness for you (I know it is for me), it can be hard to stop after just a few bites. Filling up your plate, and your stomach, with equally delicious, mayo-free options like fresh fruit salad, spice-rubbed grilled meats, and corn on the cob will allow you to indulge in a whole lot of Southern goodness, without wreaking havoc on your health.