If you have noticed in this tough economic climate that you've been eating more, you have intuitively acknowledged what researchers have begun to explain scientifically - that food and mood are intimately connected in biochemical, as well as emotional ways.

Comfort food may be best thought of as any food consumed by individuals, often during periods of stress, that are associated with feelings of nostalgia, and evoke a sense of physical as well as emotional comfort. Eating comfort foods often take us back to a time where we felt nurtured, safe and happy. With the financial markets in turmoil, it's no wonder many of us are finding ourselves turning to mac n' cheese and mashed potatoes - foods loaded with "simple carbs" that fill our bellies and leave us warm and comforted.

Although the science is still relatively new, research has begun to reveal how certain foods affect our moods. Scientists have identified the nutrients in foods that are precursors to brain chemicals that change the way we feel called neurotransmitters. In simple words, neurotransmitters are chemical messengers released from one nerve cell which finds its way to another nerve cell where it influences a particular chemical reaction to occur. Neurotransmitters control major body functions including movement, emotional response, and our physical ability to experience pleasure and pain.

Food rich in simple carbs that lack protein or fat allow an amino acid called tryptophan to flood your brain, where it stimulates the production of a neurotransmitter called serotonin. The release of serotonin in the brain is associated with a calming, anxiety-reducing effect and even drowsiness in some people, helping you to fall asleep. Simply put, serotonin helps to alleviate stress and improve your mood. Foods such as chocolate, cookies, chips, pasta, and ice cream all contain simple carbohydrate which is why eating them makes you somehow feel better.

The issue with relying on food for comfort is that these foods act only as a temporary solution. Sure, while you're eating a tub of Ben and Jerry's or snarfing down a bag of potato chips, all your problems seem to vanish as your focus becomes how delicious the food is. The problem arises when your spoon scrapes the bottom of the container or your fingers are left picking up the last greasy crumbs at the bottom of the chip bag. The food is gone which forces you to wake up out of your self-imposed food coma. And what now? None of your problems have gone away. They are all still there, same as before.

By relying on comfort foods to soothe your soul, most of which are high in fat, sugar and calories, you are actually creating a new self-esteem problem to add to the already present stress. Overindulging often leads to weight gain and associated feelings of guilt and frustration. And over time, habitual use of comfort foods results in obesity related diseases such as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and stroke.

Below you'll find recipes for healthy versions of the ultimate comfort foods-- everything from mac and cheese to mashed potatoes. Even though times are tough, no one expects you to give up your favorite dishes-the trick is to make them healthier. These lighter options provide all the taste without the excess calories and fat. And the best part is that these economical recipes will boost your mood and not your waistline!

Banana French Toast

3 egg whites 1/4 cup skim milk 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract 1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon 1 teaspoon Splenda 1 ripe banana 8 slices light whole wheat bread Reduced calorie maple syrup (optional)

1. In shallow bowl, using a wire whisk beat the egg whites, milk, vanilla, cinnamon and Splenda. 2. Preheat the oven to 200 degrees. 3. Lightly spray a nonstick skillet with cooking spray; hear over medium heat. Dip 4 of the bread slices into the egg mixture, turning to coat and draining excess back into the dish. 4. Place the bread slices into the skillet. Cook until golden brown, turning once, about 1 to 2 minutes per side. 5. Transfer cooked slices to a plate; keep warm in the oven. Repeat with the remaining bread slices. 6. Divide French toast among serving plates and top with maple syrup, if desired. Serves 4

Actual Nutritional Content: Per Serving: 126 Calories, 28g Carbohydrate, 10g Fiber, 12g Protein, 2g Total Fat, 0g Sat. Fat, 349mg Sodium

Minestrone Soup

Skip the usual pasta and add fiber-rich barley instead. Barley has a chewy texture and nutty taste that adds body and flavor. This dish is incredibly ecomical-less than $2.00 a serving!

2 cloves garlic 1 onion, chopped 1 cup carrot, chopped 1 cup celery, chopped 2 zucchinis, diced 2 cups mushrooms, sliced 1 14.5 oz. can cannellini beans 1 14.5 oz can chopped tomatoes 1/2 cup barley 5 cups chicken broth or vegetable broth 1 tsp. oregano 1 tsp. basil 1 tsp. Kosher salt 4 tsp. black pepper 2 cups fresh spinach, chopped 8 Tbl. Grated Parmesan cheese

1. Spray a large pot with nonstick cooking spray and heat over high heat. Add garlic and onion and saute until the onion is soft. 2. Add the carrot, celery, zucchini, mushroom, beans, chopped tomato, seasonings and broth. 3. Bring to a boil. Cover and reduce heat. Simmer for 1 hour. Right before serving, add the spinach and stir until it wilts. 4. Serve and top with a tablespoon of grated Parmesan cheese. Serves 8 Actual Nutritional Content: Per Serving: 195 Calories, 31g Carbohydrate, 8g Fiber, 13g Protein, 3g Total Fat, 0g Sat. Fat, 1259mg Sodium

Meat Loaf and Mashed Potatoes

Everyone's mom seems to have a recipe for meatloaf which is why eating meatloaf always reminds us of our childhoods. Here is a low fat version which I'm sure you will enjoy! I think moms everywhere would approve!

Meatloaf: 2 lbs. lean ground beef 3/4 cup quick oats 1 egg 2/3 cup tomato juice 1 small onion, chopped 1/2 tsp. pepper 1 tsp. salt

Sauce: 1/3 cup ketchup 1 Tbl. Dijon mustard 1 Tbl. brown sugar

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. 1. Mix all the ingredients together in a large bowl; shape into a loaf. Place into a 9 x 5 x 3 inch pan. 2. Mix sauce ingredients together and set aside. 3. Bake the meatloaf for 45. Remove from oven and pour sauce evenly over the top. Return the meatloaf back to the oven and continue to cook for another 30 minutes. Serves 8

Nutritional Content: Per Serving: 319 Calories, 11g Carbohydrate, 1g Fiber, 23g Protein, 20g Total Fat, 8g Sat. Fat, 581mg Sodium

Mashed Potatoes

The potato skin is a concentrated source of dietary fiber, so to get the most nutritional value from this vegetable, don't peel it and consume both the flesh and the skin.

3 lbs unpeeled red or Yukon gold potatoes (about 8 medium) and cut into chunks 4 large cloves garlic, peeled 3/4 cup low-fat buttermilk Freshly ground black pepper 1/2 tsp. salt 2 Tbl. chopped fresh chives

1. In 3quart saucepan, place potatoes and garlic; add enough water to cover and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat; simmer for 15-20 minutes or until potatoes are tender; drain 2. Place potatoes and garlic in medium bowl. Mash potatoes and garlic with potato masher or beat with electric mixer at medium speed until smooth. 3. Gradually add buttermilk, salt and pepper. Stir with fork until blended. Sprinkle with chives (if desired).

Serves 8 Nutritional Content: Per serving: 101 calories, 1g fat, 22g carbohydrate, 3g protein, 2g fiber, 135mg sodium

Macaroni and Cheese

Good old mac and cheese is perhaps the ultimate comfort food, but it usually comes with the burden of more than 20g of fat per serving. I have eliminated the guilt-- but not the flavor-by substituting low-fat milk, reduced fat cheese, and a fiber-rich pasta instead of the traditional, fattening and low fiber ingredients.

1 cup 1% low-fat milk 1 cup 1% cottage cheese 1 1/2 cups shredded reduced-fat cheddar cheese 1/4 tsp. salt 1/8 tsp. pepper 1 pound Barilla Plus Multigrain Elbow Pasta 3 Tbl. breadcrumbs

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Bring a large pot of water to a boil for the pasta. 2. In a saucepan, bring the milk to a boil. Lower the heat and stir in the cottage cheese, cheddar cheese, salt and pepper. Stir until the cheese is melted and keep warm. 3. Cook pasta until tender but firm. Drain pasta and return to its pot. Add the cheese sauce to the pasta and stir well to combine. Transfer the mixture to a baking dish or casserole and sprinkle the top with breadcrumbs. 4. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes until bubbly and the top is golden. Serve immediately. Serves 4

Actual Nutritional Content: Per Serving: 410 Calories, 40g Carbohydrate, 5g Fiber, 26g Protein, 5g Total Fat, 3g Sat. Fat, 715mg Sodium

Wholesome Sloppy Joes

Who didn't grow up eating Sloppy Joes? Here is a recipe which incorporates the same flavors while boosting the fiber. Adding lentils did the trick -- and you won't even notice they're in there! By substituting lentil for some of the ground meat, you also save money-perfect for this tough economic time. Serving on whole wheat buns adds even more fiber.

3/4 lb. lean ground beef 1/2 cup chopped onion 1/2 cup chopped green bell pepper 1 garlic clove, minced 1 8-oz. can tomato sauce 1/2 cup uncooked lentils 2/3 cup water 1/4 cup ketchup 1 teaspoon red wine vinegar 1/2 tsp. paprika 1/2 tsp. salt 1/4 tsp. pepper 1/2 tsp. dry mustard 4 whole wheat sandwich buns

1. In a large skillet over medium-high heat, brown beef with onion and garlic. Drain well. 2. Stir in remaining ingredients except sandwich buns. 3. Reduce heat; cover and simmer 40 to 45 minutes or until lentils are tender. Spoon 1/4 of mixture onto each bun. Serves 4

Actual Nutritional Content: Per Serving: 338 Calories, 26g Carbohydrate, 9g Fiber, 24g Protein, 16g Total Fat, 6g Sat. Fat, 583mg Sodium

Apple Crisp

Nothing says comfort like a piece of homemade apple pie. But at close to 500 calories a slice, it's sure to burst your calorie budget. This Apple Crisp recipe provides all the same flavors and tastes decadent, but is surprisingly low in calories and fat. A dollop of Fat-Free Cool Whip or a scoop of vanilla frozen yogurt on top makes this a truly special treat.

Fruit 8 cups sliced granny smith or Fiji apples 1 Tbl. lemon juice 1 tsp cinnamon 1/4 tsp salt 1 Tbl. flour 1/4 cup Splenda

Topping 1/4 cup firmly packed brown sugar 1/4 cup quick-cooking rolled oats 2 Tbl. flour 2 Tbl chopped almonds 1/2 tsp. cinnamon Pinch of salt 2 Tbl butter

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. 2. Place peaches and blueberries in a bowl and toss with lemon juice, flour, and Splenda. Place into an 8-inch square-baking dish. 3. In a small bowl, combine the topping ingredients except butter. With a fork, cut in butter until the mixture is crumbly. Sprinkle topping over apples. 4. Bake for 30 minutes until golden brown and bubbly.

Serves 9

Actual Nutritional Content: Per Serving: 146 Calories, 28g Carbohydrate, 4g Fiber, 2g Protein, 4g Total Fat, 2g Sat. Fat, 60mg Sodium

Chocolate-Cherry-Almond Biscotti

Nothing alleviates stress like heavy-duty crunching. These crunchy biscotti are sure to do the trick. The best part is- no one realizes that these are low in fat and calories, and even deliver a gram of fiber.

1 cup white flour 1 cup whole-wheat flour 1 tsp. baking powder 1/4 cup cocoa powder for baking (unsweetened) 1/4 tsp. salt 1 whole egg 2 egg whites 1 cup Splenda 1 Tablespoon Almond Extract 1 cup dried cherries 1 cup slivered almonds

1. Preheat oven to 350 deg F. 2. Sift together flour, cocoa powder, baking powder and salt. 3. In a large bowl, beat egg whites, egg, and sugar with a mixer until thick. Add almonds, cherries and extract. Mix for 10 seconds. 4. Add dry ingredients to wet and combine until mixture is moistened. The dough will be very sticky. 5. Flour a board and turn dough out onto it. Divide dough in half. 6. Roll each half into a 13" x 2" log. Place on a nonstick cookie sheet and bake for 30 minutes or until dough is golden and cracked on top. 7. Remove from oven and let cool 10 minutes. Cut each log on the bias in 1/4 inch slices (use a serrated knife for easier slicing). Bake again at 325 for 4-5 minutes on each side. 8. Let cool completely (they get harder once they are cooled off completely) and serve. Makes 50 cookies

Actual Nutritional Content: Per Serving: 62Calories, 11g Carbohydrate, 1g Fiber, 2g Protein, 2g Total Fat, 0g Sat. Fat, 26mg Sodium

Tanya Zuckerbrot, MS, RD is a nutritionist and the creator of The F-Factor DietaC/, an innovative nutritional program she has used for more than ten years to provide hundreds of her clients with all the tools they need to achieve easy weight loss and maintenance, improved health and well-being. For more information log onto

www.FFactorDiet.com

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Tanya Zuckerbrot MS, RD, is a Registered Dietitian in New York City and the author of two bestselling diet books: The F-Factor Diet and The Miracle Carb Diet: Make Calories and Fat Disappear – with Fiber.

Subscribe to Tanya’s FREE Weekly Newsletter and follow her on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest. To learn more about Tanya’s private nutrition counseling services visit www.ffactor.com.