Let’s face it: eating comfort food when we are stressed is not always comforting.

Too many of the foods we crave when stress levels soar are filled with fat, salt, or sugar. These foods can make inflammatory conditions worse, aggravating both stress and the pain response. In this edition of Eat This, Not That, we focus our attention on stress-busting comfort food that is satisfying, easy, and pain-friendly.

Instead of: French fries

Fried, hot, salty, and slathered in ketchup, French fries may be the ultimate comfort food. Plus, there is no need to even make them yourself when there is a drive-thru nearby. But all that fat and salt can wreak havoc on your body, resulting in a painful crash.

Try: Roasted sweet potatoes

Sweet potatoes satisfy your craving for carbs and sugar but without the crash of empty calories. Sweet potatoes also pack a nutritional wallop with beta-carotene, vitamins A and C, and tons of fiber to keep you satisfied for longer.

To make them yourself, wash sweet potatoes and cut into one-inch chunks. Toss with heart-healthy olive oil, salt, and pepper, and roast in a 400-degree oven until crispy on the outside (about 20 minutes), stirring once halfway. Delicious, easy, and great for stress.

Instead of: Hard candy

Some folks turn to hard candy when they are feeling stress, believing that it is better than eating a pound of chocolate or a bag of potato chips. Hard candy is also often used as a substitute for people who are quitting smoking. This may seem like a good strategy, but sugar is sugar, even when it comes in a tiny wrapper. You may end up eating more than you think, and that extra sugar can contribute to serious inflammation and mood swings as you take the wild ride of a sugar rush and crash.

Try: Super sweet mandarins, clementines, or other citrus

The depths of winter is peak citrus season, with juicy, easy-to-peel mandarins and clementines readily available even at the corner store. Citrus is bursting with immune-boosting vitamin C, perfect when stress lowers your resistance to germs and illness. Vitamin C also helps cortisol levels return to normal after a stressful event. The aroma of citrus provides a mood- and energy-lifting boost. Keep a few citrus fruits in easy reach for a quick burst of energy and stress reduction!

Instead of: Fried chicken

Crispy, crunchy fried chicken goes hand-in-hand with the French fries above as comfort food during times of stress, and it is just as readily available. But once again, fried foods battered with the empty nutrition of white flour and too much salt can actually cause a spike in blood pressure and stress.

Try: Turkey sandwich

Protein is a great way to help deal with stress, but the right protein cooked the right way is crucial. Turkey is a delicious, stress-busting protein that is easy to prepare and not just for Thanksgiving. Turkey contains L-tryptophan, a chemical that cues the brain to release serotonin, the brain’s “feel good” hormone. Roasting a turkey breast is easier than a whole turkey, plus it warms the house and perfumes it with an enticing fragrance. You can use a roasted turkey breast, hot from the oven, or find oven-roasted turkey with no additives or preservatives in your local deli.

Instead of: Gooey, cheesy casserole

Macaroni and cheese, tater tot casserole: these comfort foods can cause major discomfort in the waistline and the rest of the body when we reach for them too often during stressful situations. For those eliminating dairy, the cheese element of most casseroles can cause even more stress in the digestion and the joints.

Try: Hearty, warming soup

Homemade soup is easier than you might think, plus it can be packed full of stress fighters. While fresh-cut veggies are best, using pre-cut vegetables from the store (or frozen veggies, which may keep more of their nutritional value due to flash freezing) is a fine shortcut for those pressed for time. Include carrots for vitamin A and asparagus for folate, a mineral that helps keep stress levels low. Spinach is also a great addition to soup, as it contains magnesium, a crucial mineral that many in the U.S. are deficient in. Magnesium promotes sleep and regulates cortisol, both excellent ways to fight stress.

Start your soup with diced carrots, celery, and onion; add vegetable stock (no salt added) and any vegetables you like. For a more stew-like soup (which is more like a casserole), use less stock and more starchy vegetables, like sweet potatoes and cauliflower. Add some garbanzo beans for protein and fiber. If you are missing the cheese, serve the soup with a grating of fresh Parmesan cheese, or toss the rind end of the Parmesan into the pot as the soup cooks. This adds flavor without the fat and extra salt.

Instead of: Chips or pretzels

You know what happens. Stress sends you into the kitchen for a snack, and suddenly you are elbow-deep in an empty bag of chips with no real recollection of eating them, adding guilt to your stress.

Try: Homemade popcorn

Homemade popcorn, not the stuff you put in the microwave or get out of a bag, is an easy, delicious, and versatile way to beat stress. Crunchy snacks don’t have to be horrible for you. Making your own popcorn is a simple and delicious way to satisfy your desire for something snack-like.

In a large pot (like a stockpot), heat two tablespoons of canola oil. When it is hot, add 1/3 cup of popcorn kernels and cover. Shake the pan continuously as the popcorn pops, and remove from heat when the popping slows to one kernel every three seconds or so.

This popcorn is a blank canvas, so get creative with your seasonings. You can use an oil mister to give the topping something to stick to, then try any of the following:

  • Mexican chocolate: Cinnamon, cayenne pepper, unsweetened chocolate
  • Cinnamon sugar: Drizzle with one tablespoon of melted coconut oil, then sprinkle with just a little bit of sugar and cinnamon
  • Indian: Curry powder with coconut oil and a pinch of salt
  • Cheesy (or not): Finely grate one tablespoon of Parmesan cheese and use that, or sprinkle two tablespoons of nutritional yeast on your popcorn for a great vegan substitute.

The possibilities are endless; you can even divide one batch of popcorn and experiment with flavors.

Fighting stress with comfort foods can be quick, easy, and delicious. What are your go-to stress-fighting foods?


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