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Comfort foods don't always make you feel good

Wednesday - 1/22/2014, 8:35am  ET

GrilledCheese_Getty.jpg
Winter makes us crave rich, comforting foods. But instead of going greasy, reach for something warm and full of nutrients. (Getty Images)

WASHINGTON - When the weather is cold and blustery, many reach for comfort foods to keep them warm. Suddenly, melting, molten chocolate cake or mac and cheese replace fresh fruits and green salads.

"I think it is hard in the winter months to eat healthier," says Claire LeBrun, a nutritionist with George Washington Hospital and the George Washington Medical Faculty Associates.

LeBrun says in the winter, days are shorter and our bodies have lower levels of serotonin, a hormone found in the digestive tract that some researchers believe can influence moods.

"This can reduce your overall energy and increase your cravings for sugar or sweets," LeBrun says.

Sweets are especially problematic. Some research indicates excess sugar can depress the immune system, making individuals more susceptible to viruses and colds. A study conducted in 1973 at Loma Linda University in California was among the first to provide evidence of this link.

LeBrun says throughout the winter, it is important to eat foods that boost immunity -- foods high in vitamin C and beta-carotene, such as citrus, sweet potatoes and leafy greens.

She emphasizes it is possible to create meals that are both healthy and meet winter cravings for hearty and satisfying dishes.

LeBrun says winter is the perfect season for one-pot meals that use a lot of winter vegetables and a lean protein. And the slow cooker is the perfect tool for a one-pot meal.

Another seasonal favorite is roasted vegetables that are low in fat -- from Brussels sprouts to yams and cauliflower.

LeBrun says it's also possible to feed a winter sweet tooth with seasonal citrus fruits and lightly-sweetened teas.

Small squares of dark chocolate, LeBrun's sweet of choice, are another good treat: the flavor is so intense, it doesn't take much to do the trick.

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