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Stress leads to snack attacks

Date published: 10/19/2008

Lots of people are prone to eating for comfort during stressful times.

For some folks, these snack attacks cause weight gain. Such people may be extra-sensitive to cortisol, a natural stress hormone that makes them crave sugary, fatty comfort foods. Over time, succumbing to these cravings can lead to extra pounds.

You probably don't know whether you're extra-sensitive to cortisol, but you may know that in times of stress, you reach for snacks.

Luckily, you can counteract stress hunger.

One way is by creating healthy versions of your favorite comfort foods. For example, one of my favorites is a grilled cheese sandwich. If you grill the sandwich in butter, you can easily get 700 calories from the sandwich alone. Paired with a large soda, you could get more than half your day's calories in one meal, a recipe for weight gain.

Instead of grilling sandwiches in butter, I toast cheese sandwiches in my toaster oven, which cuts 300 calories. And sometimes I use lower-calorie cheeses, such as mozzarella. That way I get the crunchy, toasted bread and gooey melted cheese I crave, without all the calories.

I like to dip the sandwich into a cup of tomato soup--it's tangy and relatively low in calories, and is an effortless way to eat a vegetable.

Stress can make you feel tired, and many people reach for either soda or coffee to perk themselves up. But instead of doing that, try drinking milk, herbal tea or water. Caffeinated coffee, tea and soda can raise cortisol levels, according to scientists at the University of Oklahoma. And we know that cortisol makes you even hungrier, and even more prone to comfort eating.

If stress is really tiring you out, try forgoing caffeine and instead aim to get seven to eight hours of sleep each night. Also, try walking for 30 minutes a day.

Sleep and exercise have been shown to reduce stress and snack attacks and to increase your en- ergy level. And this is especially important in these difficult economic times.

Jennifer Motl welcomes reader questions via her Web site, brighteat ing.com, or mailed to Nutrition, The Free Lance-Star, 616 Amelia St., Fredericksburg, Va. 22401.