Some of the toll taken on Americans by the Sept. 11 attacks can be measured in pounds, says Brie Turner-McGrievy. As staff dietitian for the Washington, D.C.-based Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, she runs a long-term weight-loss study in which 34 people hop on the scales twice monthly. “In the weeks after Sept. 11 there was a big weight gain,” says Turner-McGrievy, 26. “We asked everyone, ‘What’s going on? What’s happening with you guys?’ ” The answer, she says, was “comfort food”—and lots of it. “One woman whipped out a chocolate bar and said, ‘I have to carry this around with me now.’ ”
While it’s natural for people under stress to crave high-fat, high-sugar foods, experts point to overindulgence as a leading cause of heart disease, diabetes and other ills. Fortunately, though, human beings can modify their instincts, says Turner-McGrievy, offering herself as living proof: To quell her own anxieties, she eats bean burritos and peanut-butter-and-chocolate-flavored soy ice cream. Turner-McGrievy—who earned a master’s degree in nutrition from the University of Alabama in her hometown of Tuscaloosa in 2000—switched to a vegan diet (no meat or dairy) at age 20, spurred by a diagnosis of irritable bowel syndrome and lactose intolerance. But her studies suggest that anyone can learn to find comfort in healthy foods, she says: “Time and again, people say they like this stuff as much as what they were eating before.”
She and her vegetarian husband, Matthew, 27, a systems administrator for Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, share their Capitol Hill home with their cat Tricky, a confirmed meat eater. Turner-McGrievy—whose nickname is short for Gabrielle and not a reference to cheese—spoke with PEOPLE contributor Robin Reid about smart snacking.
What makes comfort foods comforting?
They can be foods we were fed in childhood—beef stew, macaroni and cheese, meat loaf—and yearn to go back to. But there’s a physiological factor as well. Fat actually makes our blood thicker, so we’re not sending oxygen to our organs as quickly. That produces a feeling of lethargy. Carbohydrates, like the starch in a slice of pizza or the sugar in a candy bar, spur our bodies to release the hormone serotonin, which makes us more relaxed.
Chocolate in particular has a fat-sugar combination that’s hard to resist, and it actually melts at 98.6°—our body temperature, so it melts in our mouths, and that is a very good sensation. It’s not surprising that the chocolate industry has reported a spike in sales since Sept. 11 that is not attributed to Halloween.
Comfort-food consumption increases in fall and winter, though. It feels good when you’re cold to sit down and eat something. We tend to gain all the weight that we’ll gain in any given year between Halloween and New Year’s Day.
What comfort foods do people in your study turn to?
Cheese and sweets. Cheese is really high in fat—50 to 60 percent. And that fat is mainly the saturated kind, which is harmful to the heart. Besides being bad for us in the long run, high-fat and high-sugar foods actually make it harder to deal with stress in the short run. Fatty foods make us sleepy. Sugars, also known as simple carbohydrates, enter the bloodstream quickly and leave quickly, producing an instant rush followed by a crash that makes us feel even more exhausted.
So how can we get ourselves to crave something healthier?
First, when you’re under stress, remember that eating isn’t really the best way to deal with it. Try taking a walk, calling a friend, raking leaves. Abstention works too. We’ve found that if you can stay away from chocolate for three weeks, you won’t crave it as much afterward. Keep it out of your house. It’s tedious to have to get in your car and drive somewhere to buy some.
What if the craving is stronger than the will to abstain?
Then you can satisfy it with fruits, whole grains and other foods that are low in fat and high in fiber and antioxidants. The fiber will keep you full longer so you’re not tempted to raid the refrigerator at night for more unhealthy foods. The antioxidants help boost your immune system. And the more complex carbohydrates in those foods stay in your system longer, so you won’t have that crash.
If you want an intense sweet, berries or dried figs are really good. I like to take pureed pumpkin and mix it with a little cinnamon sugar, a little brown sugar, and bake it. If you’ve just got to have chocolate, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine has a recipe on our Web site [pcrm.org] for good low-fat chocolate pudding. We also recommend chocolate sorbet. And if you’re craving the saltiness and savoriness of cheese, we suggest making or ordering a pizza without cheese but topping it with beans and vegetables. Red beans and rice with corn bread is another great comfort food.
None of these foods is particularly exotic. And you can find other substitutes for unhealthy snacks—from veggie hot dogs to soy cheese—in most grocery stores.
Some people fight stress with a juicy burger. Are fast-food restaurants off-limits?
Not at all. At Taco Bell, order a bean burrito without the cheese. Burger King has a veggie Whopper. Wendy’s has veggie pitas and baked potatoes.
How about alcohol?
If you’re going to drink in moderation, I suggest red wine or a dark beer, both rich in antioxidants. But I’m not advocating alcohol as a healthy stress reducer. In fact, it can act as a stimulant and keep you up at night.