Do holiday comfort foods help put you in the Christmas spirit? Here's some food for thought on what science says about this perception.

It's hard to think of Christmas and New Year's celebrations without thinking of food — particularly rich, creamy decadent comfort foods.

Whether it's the meals that remind us of childhood, the ubiquitous sweets or the coffee drinks with more calories than cheeseburgers, many of us indulge during the holidays only to start the new year wishing we hadn't.

As a busy student in an online degree program, you may find these temptations even harder to resist. Maybe you feel like treating yourself for completing a successful Fall II term. Or you want to relax and splurge during your break from studies. 

What is it about comfort foods that make them so alluring? And how can you enjoy the season without regrets come January?

The science of comfort foods

For many of us, food is more than fuel for our bodies. Certain foods make us feel good (at least temporarily) and we may eat far more than the amount we need for energy. What we choose to eat and how much we indulge depends on both emotional and physical needs.

"People overeat during the holidays for a variety of reasons that can be boiled down to emotions and stress, nutritional deficiencies and perception," says Wade Morris, an adjunct psychology professor at Saint Leo and mental health counselor in private practice.

Stress: Your course work is done, so what's there to be stressed about? Plenty. Finances, scheduling demands, travel and even family can make December tense.

Typical comfort foods are carbohydrates and sugar-rich choices, Morris says. Both of these types of foods stimulate a dopamine release in the brain, causing a comforting effect. When stress is high, your brain needs to release this in order to relax. The quote "stressed spelled backwards is 'desserts'" actually has some science behind it.

Nutritional deficiencies: From a nutritional standpoint, overeating can stem from a macronutrient or micronutrient deficiency. On a macro-level, people tend to skip breakfast or eat less during the day and binge in the evening, especially when a large holiday dinner awaits.

The better plan of action, Morris says, is to have breakfast and lunch before dinner to help safeguard you from starvation-induced overeating.

On a micronutrient level, stress-related eating and appetite spikes have been connected to deficiencies in vitamin C, magnesium and calcium, Morris says. A quality multi-vitamin can help balance all nutrient panels. When your hormones are balanced nutritionally, it's easier to cope with food cravings.

Perception: Our expectations about food can also instigate overeating throughout the holiday season, Morris says. In one study, participants were asked to eat a bowl of soup. What they didn't realize was that bowls contained a mechanism that continuously refilled them before they were emptied. Researchers discovered that people will continue to eat until there is nothing more visible, beyond feelings of satiety. It works the other way, too. Use smaller plates or bowls, and you'll have a full plate and feel satisfied without excessive portion sizes.

A new study also suggests comfort foods could be a myth — that we may feel better after eating comfort foods because we expect they will, well, comfort us. Your mood may have improved no matter what you ate. It's a good reminder to ask yourself if you are hungry before diving into a dish.

Tips for healthy holiday eating

Seeking healthy substitutes for favorite dishes and sticking to reasonable serving sizes will allow you to enjoy yourself without feeling deprived. Craving soup? Try a broth-based soup instead of cream and fill it out with winter veggies. Potatoes are a popular side item, but consider choosing sweet potatoes for your baked or mashed dish. And do you really need pie crust? How about baked apples and cinnamon, with a small scoop of ice cream?

For serving sizes, bake breakfasts, desserts or sides, such as stuffing, in muffin tins for a "just enough" helping with no guesswork. When cooking, be aware of how much tasting and sampling you do while in the kitchen, and resist the urge to clean your child's plate when the meal is over. Parties are easy places to lose track of your eating, but you can save a toothpick from each appetizer for a visual reminder and force yourself to slow down by resting between bites. A simple step away from the food table also discourages mindless eating.

But there's nothing wrong with making merry on occasion, either. If you can't find healthier alternatives to enjoy, permit yourself the indulgence, Morris says. You'll feel less guilty, and your digestive system will work just a little more effectively. With awareness of what you're eating and a few small changes, you'll have room in your diet for your favorite treats.

What are your thoughts about splurging on special foods this time of year?

Other posts you may be interested in reading:

Keeping It Simple

Snack Your Way to More Brain Power

A Few of Our Favorite Things

Keeping Life in Balance