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5 Ways To Make Comfort Food Healthier

For many of us, there's nothing better to beat the blues than a greasy cheeseburger, Snickers bar, chicken-fried steak, or too many chocolate-chip cookies and Oreos. But people who feel sad eat twice as much unhealthy comfort foods than when they feel happy, a noted food psychologist warns.

However, those same sad people curb their hedonistic consumption when they know nutritional information about their favorite comfort foods, but happier people keep on eating, said Dr. Brian Wansink, the researcher at Cornell University's Food and Brand Lab who tracks the reasons why people eat like they do.

Wansink has even proved that you won't eat as much if your leftover food - like chicken wings at your Super Bowl party Sunday - isn't carted away. He reached his conclusions when he invited college students to a Super Bowl party at a sports bar a few years ago, and found that they didn't eat as much if waiters let the chicken bones pile up on their tables.

"These left-overs served as boney reminders of how much they had eaten. This kept them from mindlessly eating more,"  Wansink said.

Wansink said he suspects happy people want to maintain or extend their moods in the short term, but consider the long term and so turn to comfort food with more nutritional value.

People feeling sad or depressed, however, just want to "jolt themselves out of the dumps" with a quick indulgent snack that tastes good and gives them an immediate bump of euphoria.

To see whether having nutritional information influences comfort-food consumption, Wansink and his team offered popcorn to volunteers, who completed irrelevant mental tasks, wrote about sad and happy things, or read either happy or sad stories.

One group reviewed nutritional information about popcorn, while the other did not.

Wansink found that the sad people with no nutritional information ate twice as much popcorn as those feeling happy. In the groups that reviewed nutritional labels, however, happy folks ate about the same amount, but the sad sacks dramatically curbed their consumption, eating even less popcorn than the happy ones.

"Since nutritional information appears to influence how much people eat when they are in sad moods, those eating in a sad mood would serve themselves well by checking the nutritional information of the comfort foods they choose to indulge themselves with,"  Wansink said.

5 ways to make comfort food healthier 

But one leading nutritionist and registered dietitian said you don't have to forsake your healthy eating plans when you want comfort food.

"Many people think that real comfort foods must be high-fat, high-calorie and bad for your health," said Karen Collins, nutritional advisor to the American Institute for Cancer Research.

Collins suggested the following tips to make comfort food healthier:

•  Add more vegetables to soups, stews, casseroles and chilies;

•  Replace some of the meat in comfort-food dishes with beans;

•  Use evaporated nonfat milk or pured vegetables rather than heavy cream to cut down on fat in sauces and soups but still keep a thick, creamy texture;

•  Throw in a green salad or vegetable side dish with your comfort food so you don't eat as much of it;

•  Eat smaller portions of things like chocolate or cookies by placing them on a plate rather than holding the entire package.

Then again, there are other avenues to beat the blues, Collins noted.

"Exercise, yoga, meditation, and even a relaxing bath, can all bring stress relief to the brain," she said. "It makes more sense to choose one of these healthier alternatives instead of one that can hurt our physical health." 



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