Food: the New Stress Reliever?

by Charles Platkin, PhD

The economy is in a tailspin; our nation is at war; there are constant threats of terrorism; plane travel is nerve-racking; kids aren’t safe in their own neighborhoods — and then there’s global warming. Where can we seek refuge?

How about brownies, donuts, candy, ice cream, pizza, mashed potatoes and fried chicken? They are always quick to the rescue in our time of need. Over the past year we’ve comforted ourselves by gravitating toward this kind of , thinking, “You only live once, so I might as well enjoy myself now.”

“When tension and anxiety are high in one aspect of life, it’s not unusual for other areas to seem trivial or less important,” says Dr. John Foreyt, Director of Behavioral Research at Baylor College of Medicine. “This shift in priorities can lead to a breakdown in behaviors that may normally be under control, such as our diet.”

There are psychological and biological reasons why we turn to food for comfort. “Certain foods are associated with a time in the past that was nurturing or loving — food is a symbol of caregiving,” says New York City Nutritionist Carey Clifford, MS, RD. And when it comes to body chemistry, these “comfort foods” can cause the release of brain chemicals, such as endorphins and serotonin, producing a calming effect. Unfortunately, comfort foods are also typically high in calories and fat, cautions Clifford.

So what’s the big deal about a few extra calories and fat grams? Well, while food can offer comfort during economic and emotional uncertainty, most experts recommend controlling your internal environment, despite the fact that external factors may remain unstable. “During stressful times, it’s important to maintain the feeling of some level of control over your life — especially when your external environment is unbalanced. Being able to look inward and feel good about your and is critical,” says Dr. Foreyt.

That doesn’t mean we have to give up on comfort foods altogether. “Individuals who find themselves engaged in excess in anticipation of stress must become conscious of their behavior, if they hope to moderate it,” says Dr. Barbara Schneeman, nutrition professor at the University of California at Davis.

Here are a few suggestions to keep it “moderate”; Instead of traditional comfort foods, try these low calorie/fat alternatives.

INSTEAD OF: Brownies, 2 oz. (227 cal / 9 fat grams)
TRY: Fat-free chocolate pudding, 1/2 cup (130 cal / 0 fat grams)
SAVINGS: 97 cal / 9 fat grams

INSTEAD OF: Hot Chocolate w/ whole milk & whipped cream, 1 cup (280 cal / 15 fat grams)
TRY: Hot Chocolate w/ skim milk, 1 cup (150 cal / 1 fat gram)
SAVINGS: 130 cal / 14 fat grams

INSTEAD OF: Apple pie, 1/6 of 8″ pie (350 cal / 14 fat grams)
TRY: Baked Apple, 1 apple (100 cal / 0 fat grams)
SAVINGS: 250 cal / 14 fat grams

INSTEAD OF: Donut, 1.5 oz (310 cal / 19 fat grams)
TRY: Low-fat muffin, 1.5 oz (160 cal / 2 fat grams)
SAVINGS: 150 cal / 17 fat grams

INSTEAD OF: Cheese pizza, 1 medium slice (280 cal / 10 fat grams)
TRY: 1 pita bread pizza w/ skim mozzarella (216 cal / 3 fat grams)
SAVINGS: 64 cal / 7 fat grams

INSTEAD OF: Mashed Potatoes w/ butter & whole milk, 1 cup (320 cal / 16 fat grams)
TRY: Mashed Potatoes w/ low-fat margarine & fat-free buttermilk, 1 cup (240 cal / 8 fat grams)
SAVINGS: 80 cal / 8 fat grams

INSTEAD OF: Premium ice cream, 1 cup (600 cal / 22 fat grams)
TRY: Low-fat ice cream / frozen yogurt, 1 cup (240 cal / 4 fat grams)
SAVINGS: 360 cal / 18 fat grams

INSTEAD OF: Spaghetti & meatballs, 3 cups (770 cal / 21 fat grams)
TRY: Spaghetti & turkey meatballs, 3 cups (630 cal / 4 fat grams)
SAVINGS: 140 cal / 17 fat grams

Chicken soup: No revisions necessary — enjoy!

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