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Feel-good foods

Flickr user snehroy under CCL

I never thought of myself as an emotional eater. That is, until last spring, when for one afternoon it seemed like the various pressures of being a grownup just might throw me over the edge of sanity and into the land of nervous breakdowns. Looking back, I can’t even remember the events the nearly pushed me to the brink, but I do remember the intense feeling of wanting to eat a brownie. Never before being the type of person who’d been driven to indulge in those feel-good foods from stress or anxiety, I marveled at this new type of craving. And that night after dinner, I ate the brownie, and it was intensely pleasurable. For a brief while, I forgot about all of the day’s problems and concentrated instead on the rich chocolate flavors and dense, chewy textures. Even after finishing, I was able simply to sit back and pat my belly contentedly.

But even though I’d really enjoyed the brownie, all the while as I ate it there was a tiny voice in my head saying, It’s fine to do this once, but you can’t make it a habit. In other words, I could not start eating brownies every time life felt a little overwhelming—for the sake of my health and my waistline. I knew this because stress eating is something we hear about all the time. My harried-woman-craving-chocolate scenario was pretty classic, but it’s certainly not the only one: What about the woman who downs a pint of Ben & Jerry’s in an attempt to console herself over a bad breakup? The guy who just wants to unwind after a grueling day at work by vegging out in front of the TV beer and a pizza? Even kids turn to unhealthy foods when they want to take their minds off something unpleasant—why else would doctors offices hand out post-shot lollipops?

And now, Belgian research confirms what most of us already know to be true, at least anecdotally: Rich, fatty foods cheer us up. More specifically, the chemicals found in the foods actually alter our bodies’ hormone and nerve cell responses in the gut and brain, making us feel happier. To some, high fat foods can actually act as a sort of drug to help us—albeit temporarily—forget our troubles.

Which really just leads to more trouble, since as I came to realize, reaching for a brownie whenever times got tough is a great way to gain weight. While I think enjoying treats in moderation during special times—say, ice cream cones to celebrate your child’s winning jump shot—is probably healthiest, it’s also important to acknowledge reality: Even during the most mundane, un-special days, adults and kids sometimes need a little boost. A few minutes of yoga or meditative breathing might be ideal, but eating a mood-enhancing, portion-controlled snack is far less offensive than some of the other ways people might choose to relieve tension.

Still, even a portion-controlled brownie is still a brownie, so it might be a good idea to acknowledge your cravings with slightly healthier higher fat foods when life gets crazy (at least, most of the time). Some better-for-you swaps:

If you’re craving this Try this instead
Nutty fudge brownies Two tablespoons dark chocolate chips mixed with two tablespoons walnuts
Ice cream One or two sliced frozen bananas plus a tablespoon of peanut butter, whipped in a food processer until thick and creamy
Potato chips Toasted nori (seaweed) or flavored seaweed snacks (like Annie Chun’s Roasted Seaweed Snacks)
Pizza Half a sliced tomato topped with shredded mozzarella and breadcrumbs and baked until soft and bubbly
Cookies A graham cracker spread with almond butter and drizzled with maple syrup

Reprinted from KIWI Magazine

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