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The question

When the weather gets cold, I start to crave carbs and always find myself a few pounds heavier by spring. Why? What can I do to stop this?

The answer

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I often hear this from my clients – as soon as the temperature dips they crave carbohydrate-rich comfort foods like spaghetti, mashed potatoes, or anything warm, saucy and delicious (like mac n' cheese). And you're right. Eating these foods often, and in big portions, can lead to winter weight gain.

Comfort foods typically bring back positive memories linked to childhood meals, important people or other feel-good events. They're often foods that "stick to your ribs," making you feel full and satisfied.

It's unclear why people turn to their favourite comfort foods in the fall and winter. It may have to do with the fact there's less sunlight and people tend to feel more down and lethargic.

Cold weather food cravings may also be tied to levels of serotonin, a brain chemical that improves mood, reduces appetite and promotes sleep. Our brain's production of serotonin is lowest in the winter months. Eating a carbohydrate-rich food will increase the brain's production of serotonin and make you feel better, at least temporarily.

Some research suggests comfort foods may blunt the body's response to ongoing stress by causing the release of dopamine, another feel-good brain chemical. Other factors that can increase your appetite for these dishes include lack of sleep, low calorie diets and the hormonal fluctuations of premenstrual syndrome.

If you do seek out high calorie – and high fat – foods this time of year, there are a few strategies that might help reign in those urges so you don't gain unwanted weight. For starters, it's important to learn what's motivating you to want them. If you're stressed out at the end of the day, take 15 minutes to unwind before automatically opening the fridge.

If you're dieting to lose weight, include your favourite food once a week to prevent feeling deprived. If your craving is persistent, give in sometimes to prevent your desire becoming more intense. It also helps if you make your comfort food part of your meal, rather than a snack eaten on impulse.

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Try lowering the calories in you favourite comfort food by substituting high fat ingredients with lower fat ones. For example, make chili with lean ground turkey instead of ground beef or top Shepherd's pie with pureed cauliflower instead of mashed potatoes. If it's ice cream you crave, try low fat sherbet or non-fat sorbet.

Finally, and very importantly, eat at regular intervals during the day. Eat three balanced meals plus one of or two snacks to keep your blood sugar and brain chemical levels stable, and ultimately, your appetite in check.

Leslie Beck, a registered dietitian, is the national director of nutrition at BodyScience Medical. She can be seen every Thursday at noon on CTV News Channel's Direct (www.bodysciencemedical.com).

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