Food & Nutrition

Why We Eat Junk Food When We're Stressed and How to Stop

 By Julie Upton, RD

I was having a particularly stressful day last week while cramming for a major certification exam, and my husband brought home a card and small bag of one of my favorite sweets—Swedish Fish. The inside of the card said what I knew all too well:  “Stressed” is “desserts” spelled backward.


Yes, stress and desserts are inexorably linked for many women who, like me, feel that a sugar fix is sweet salvation from deadlines, 401(k)s, traffic, bills, your husband (boyfriend, girlfriend), a demanding boss or sick child … and the list goes on.

As a dietitian, I know all about the problems that go along with emotional eating. And I have the tools in my arsenal to recognize the source of my cravings—stress—and find healthier ways to cope that don’t involve sugar, chocolate, or saturated fat.

I know I’m not alone in my noshing. Everyone I talk to lately is concerned (and stressed) about the economy. In fact, so many people have been gaining weight from the prospects of their portfolios that new terms have been coined—“layoff lard,” “the “reorg 15.”

Although I devoured my Swedish fish in a record-setting 20 minutes last week, I normally try to take steps to tame my sweet tooth when I feel the pressure rise. Here are my favorite edible anxiety antidotes that hit the spot without sabotaging my waistline.

Sugar-free gum
Keep it at your desk, or in your purse, gym bag, or car.  I find mint flavors are best because their flavor lasts longest and makes just about everything sweet taste funky, so sugary snacks are less appealing.

Crystal Light lemonade
I mix up a bottle of water with a Crystal Light On the Go packet, and it hits the spot for at least 20 minutes.

Silk Light hot chocolate
A deliciously smooth treat that brings me back to the comfort food of my youth is hot chocolate. These days I whip up a healthier version with 80-calorie Silk Light soy milk and dark cocoa powder, so I get all the antioxidants of cocoa flavonoids in less than 100 calories.

Sunsweet Ones
These sweet prune gems are great because they are packed with fiber but only have 25 calories per prune. And because they are individually wrapped I have to take a break after eating each one to get to the next. That little process helps the brain make a decision to either continue eating or stop.

Chocolate-covered biscotti
When chocolate is the only thing that will satisfy, I will get a chocolate-covered biscotti at the local Starbucks. Biscotti are lower in calories and fat than other cookies and have just the right amount of chocolate to tame my sweet tooth.

Skinny Cinnamon Dolce Latte
Oh, and while I’m getting my biscotti, I opt for the Tall Skinny Cinnamon Dolce Latte.  It’s supersweet, but because it’s made with skim milk it contains all the nutrients of milk (like calcium) in a mere 90 calories.

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