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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, October 30, 2002

Hard times encourage us to eat unhealthily

By Charles Stuart Platkin

The economy is in a tailspin. The 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, doughnuts, 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 food, 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 care-giving," says New York City nutritionist Carey Clifford. 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 nutrition and health is critical," says Foreyt.

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

Consider a few healthier options

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

INSTEAD OF: hot chocolate w/whole milk & whipped cream, 1 cup (280 cal./15 g. fat)
TRY: hot chocolate w/skim milk, 1 cup (150 cal./1 g. fat)
SAVINGS: 130 cal./14 g. fat

INSTEAD OF: apple pie, 1/6 of 8" pie (350 cal./14 g. fat)
TRY: baked Apple, 1 apple (100 cal./0 g. fat)
SAVINGS: 250 cal./14 g. fat

INSTEAD OF: doughnut, 1.5 oz (310 cal./19 g. fat)
TRY: low-fat muffin, 1.5 oz (160 cal./2 g. fat)
SAVINGS: 150 cal./17 g. fat

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

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

INSTEAD OF: premium ice cream, 1 cup (600 cal./22 g. fat)
TRY: low-fat ice cream , 1 cup (240 cal./4 g. fat)
SAVINGS: 360 cal./18 g. fat

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