When we're chronically stressed, our bodies prefer sweet, fatty foods. Here's how to relax, ditch the comfort food, and lose weight.
By Shaun Chavis
Comfort food is on the "hot list" for 2009. You don't have to guess why—it's not just a winter-induced urge to snuggle around a bowl of something warm. Comfort food not only makes us feel better, but in many cases it's also cheaper to make or buy—a nice fit for thin wallets.
Restaurants are clued in. Chefs know we want to be comforted. They may not be waiting with outstretched arms, but they're revising menus and adding warm, familiar, or creamy dishes: Stews, barbecue ribs, pasta, burgers, classics like Kentucky Hot Brown sandwiches covered in cheesy sauce, thick handmade milkshakes, and slow-cooked anything. Conveniently, comfort food is cheaper for restaurants to serve, too.
Nutrition scientists say that when we're chronically stressed, our bodies push us toward a preference for sweet, fatty foods. And some of us just learn to eat when stressed. (Take our quiz Are you a stress eater?) My grandmother always carried cherry Lifesavers, and if any of us grandchildren got upset, she pulled them out so fast, there was a Lifesaver in your mouth before you could draw in that deep breath to let out a big cry. Stress can raise your blood sugar and weaken your immune system, and it's linked to depression, heart disease, and obesity. You've probably seen recent news about how chaos at home can contribute to obesity in moms.
These days, economically friendly stress relief is going to be a lifesaver—a lower calorie one than my grandmom's. Here are a few things I'm trying to stay calm:
Simplify life. Make paying bills easier, find ways to spend less time on errands, buy less stuff, and save time for commitments that are really meaningful. Physically simplifying your living spaces help. Read specific tips about how Health readers make their lives simpler.
Relax. Personally, I think relaxing and de-stressing are different. You could go into a spa and relax for an hour, then get dressed and go back to your stressed life, y'know? Making rituals of practices like yoga, tai chi, or meditation can work some valuable relaxation into your life. Or try these other workouts that nourish the body and mind.
Have fun. Play is important for us big kids, too. Don't choke the fun out of your life while you're squeezing and stretching dollars. Make time to play with these ideas for leisure activities.
Look for healthier comfort foods. Candy's the cheapest comfort food. But steer clear of the snack aisle and try some yummy dessert teas instead. Ditto for warm drinks and foods—warm doesn't have to mean high in calories. Sample these hot, low-cal beverages or try some vitamin C–loaded produce. The C keeps your stress hormones down.
Got some great substitutes for comfort food or ways to relieve stress? Please share them in the comments.