Healthy Options for Holiday Comfort Foods

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By Diane Henderiks

We all want to look and feel healthy all year-round so why is it so difficult to stay committed to a healthy eating and exercise regimen in the winter? Have the short, cold and dark winter days ever caused you to habitually overeat? Maybe it's the fact that you get out of bed in the morning freezing in the pitch dark and can look forward to the same when get out of work. Many of us then feel less motivated to exercise and more inclined to eat high calorie "comfort" foods.

Recipe: Diane's Swedish Turkey Meatballs

This article prompted me to think about what comforts me and in addition to a long bath, a warm fire and flannel PJs, there are certain foods that make the list: chicken soup, risotto and chili are but a few. Comfort foods are the culinary equivalent of a favorite old sweatshirt that you must wear on a cold evening to feel utterly warm and cozy. Subconsciously, the aroma, texture and heartiness of the fare stir up memories of days past.

After conducting my own informal poll of what people consider their favorite comfort foods, there was one resounding similarity in the responses: Comfort foods are those that evoke thoughts of home, family and security. I asked my son what his favorite comfort food is and he responded with "mashed potatoes and hot chocolate." To clarify, I asked what he thought "comfort food" meant and he said "food that makes you feel good when you are not feeling well or happy". Hmm … Is comfort food a mood enhancer? Can these foods actually make us feel better?

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Research has shown that high-fat, high-carbohydrate comfort foods stimulate the release of "feel good" chemicals in the brain and cut the level of stress hormones. Food is connected to our emotions and there are actually chemicals produced in the brain and body that control mood and food cravings.

The stress hormone cortisol triggers appetite-stimulating neurotransmitters that decrease a hormone called serotonin in the blood. The result is a craving for carbohydrate rich foods or "comfort" foods. Once you satisfy that craving with some kind of carbohydrate (healthy or not-so-healthy), you feel better because your serotonin levels increase.

The problem is that it is a short-term solution. Once your body utilizes these foods, you feel just like you did a few hours earlier: tired, lazy and blah, scavenging for junk food.

When we are feeling down, foods like macaroni and cheese, meatloaf, mashed potatoes and brownies seem to impart a feeling of delight. Delightful as they make you feel, comfort foods can do a number on your waistline if not consumed wisely.

First thing to do is identify whether you are eating for hunger or comfort. If comfort is the answer, try a distraction like a warm bath or a long walk. The key is to let your intelligence make your food choices instead of fleeting cravings. Deprivation leads to overindulgence, so enjoy your favorite comfort foods on occasion, especially the healthy ones, but be conscious of portion sizes. Planning, preparation and education are the key to preventing an expanded winter waistline.

Recipe: Diane's Mac and Cheese Casserole With Tuna and Kale

Comfort food should be uncomplicated, enjoyable to make and feel good to eat. Take the time to try out the healthy comfort food recipes below. Treat yourself to good health. It's all about lifestyle changes, not diets.

Diane Henderiks is a registered dietitian, the founder of and a "Good Morning America" health contributor.

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