As winter has tightened its grip, it’s natural to crave meals that bring comfort to both body and soul. In fact, research shows that eating certain foods that remind us of good times trigger happy thoughts and feelings of safety, love, homecoming and appreciation.

For many people, images of fried chicken, grilled cheese sandwiches, tomato soup and apple pie come to mind, but comfort foods are unique to each person. Studies have uncovered cultural, gender and age differences that can influence what food a person turns to for, well, comfort.

A 2003 study published in Physiology and Behavior found that women preferred sweets, including chocolate and ice cream, while men gravitated toward hot foods like steak and casseroles. Young adults craved snack foods, while older individuals sought foods like soup and mashed potatoes.

Comfort eating and weight

Experts have linked the obesity epidemic to overindulging in some comfort foods, such as french fries and chicken nuggets. According to Dr. David Katz, director of the Yale University Research Center, “People find comfort in foods that provide the most instantaneous gratification, which tend to be ones that are highly processed and generally loaded with starch, along with sugar, salt or both. Regular intake of calories from such foods feeds weight gain and obesity, and this is the source of a great deal more discomfort in the long run.”

“Comfort food may be a double-edged sword that dampens the body’s stress response while simultaneously increasing abdominal fat,” says A. Janet Tomiyama, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles. She was the lead researcher on a 2011 study of rodents published in Psychoneuroendocrinology, which found that stress results in greater production of the hormone cortisol, which in turn targets fat cells and also creates an increased desire for fat and sugar, which lowers cortisol levels. The net result is increased abdominal obesity.

Soothing eating strategies

Your favorite foods can nourish your body and spirit without sabotaging health, with these 11 strategies:

Mindful eating vs. emotional eating. Identifying if you select a “comfort” food to fill an emotional need is critical. We often practice emotional eating when we’re bored, happy or sad. Whether it’s ice cream or salty potato chips, learning how to control the behavior and use moderation is key. Identify the external cues that trigger comfort eating and keep a food log that also includes mood and environment in order to bring awareness to your eating patterns.

Stress reduction. The next time those comfort cravings attack, try a walk, meditation, or a relaxing activity, such as taking a bath or reading a book. A 2011 University of California-San Francisco study on stress and eating in heavy women found that mastering simple mindful eating and stress-reduction techniques helped prevent weight gain without dieting. Among women in the treatment group, those who had greater improvements in listening to their bodies’ cues or stress or cortisol levels experienced the greatest reductions in abdominal fat.

Get moving and socialize. Studies have reported similar biological responses to consuming comfort foods under times of stress across a variety of human, as well as rodent models. Tomiyama’s research found that consumption of these foods actually dampens our stress by decreasing levels of stress hormones.

“The key is not to beat yourself up if you give in to your yearnings, considering that guilt and shame can trigger overeating,” says Tomiyama. She recommends creating a strong social network and engaging in exercise, which are both effective in lowering stress hormone levels and cravings for sugar and saturated fat.

Portion control. Consuming a small amount of a desired food can provide you satisfaction without the guilt. For example, if you crave macaroni and cheese, dish up a one-half cup portion to include with your meal; if you gravitate toward comfort snack foods, preportion them to minimize overconsumption.

Revamp your comfort food favorites. Comfort foods don’t necessarily have to be unhealthy. Easy and delicious techniques and ingredient swaps can help turn standard favorites, such as meatloaf or pizza, into more nutritious versions.

Become whole. Use whole grain pastas, breads, flours and brown rice in place of refined white flours and grains to boost the fiber and health of a dish without losing the essence of the traditional recipe. For example, include whole grain pasta in your tuna noodle casserole or whole wheat flour in your buttermilk pancakes.

Boost vegetables. Add extra vegetables to recipes to add volume and nutrition without extra calories. Double the amount in stews and soups, or replace half of the potatoes with steamed cauliflower in your mashed potato recipe. Incorporating a variety of vegetables also enhances the color and beauty of the meal.

Go Greek. Greek yogurt is a perfect ingredient to maintain the creamy, rich flavor of sauces, soups, dips and dressings, without the saturated fat. Try nonfat or low-fat plain Greek yogurt in place of mayonnaise, cream or sour cream in a recipe. Even replacing half the amount will improve the nutritional profile in favorites like clam chowder or creamy coleslaw.

A little goes a long way. Sometimes adding a little bit of an intense ingredient can enhance a whole dish. A tiny amount of pancetta or gorgonzola, for example, can add flavor to a salad, soup or casserole without sacrificing nutritional integrity.

Baking magic. Baked goods and sweets are common comfort foods, especially during the holiday season. Add fruit and vegetable purees or yogurt to muffins, quick breads and cookies in place of up to half of the fat.

Home cooking. When craving comfort foods, it’s best to turn to your own kitchen. Not only will you have control over what goes into your recipe, but you can take pride in knowing you’ve created a true “happy meal” infused with its own special prize – good health.