Ice cream, chocolate and cookies: They may seem like unlikely topics of scientific study. But it turns out, they can tell us about people’s behavior under stressful conditions.
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This trio of sweets topped the list of comfort foods for women, in particular, in times of stress, according to a survey of food choices conducted by researchers at the University of Illinois.
A bad day at work, a restless night of sleep, a fight with a friend or spouse – these can all trigger food cravings. Trouble is, for women in later years and during menopause, the negative health consequences of these choices, when made in excess, are intensified.
Hot flashes, sleep disturbances and mood swings – all a part of “the change” – can have women reaching for something sweet to curb their discomfort.
The double-punch is that menopause occurs at a time in a woman’s life when her metabolism is slowing significantly, as part of the normal aging process. Turning to high-calorie comfort foods may make a woman feel better in the short term, but these foods can also cause weight gain that’s harder to burn off.
Despite this, there are ways to fight back and offset the tendency toward weight gain:
1. Be heart-healthy.
Focus your diet on the “big four”: veggies, fruits, whole grains, lean meats. Also, look at your diet as a whole and be sure you’re eating healthy fats.
2. Mind your minerals: calcium and iron.
Calcium is especially important for healthy bones in mid-life, so be sure to eat two to four servings of dairy – or use calcium supplements – each day. I also advise my patients to eat three servings of iron-rich foods daily: fish, eggs, poultry, lean meat and leafy greens.
3. Avoid “grab-and-go” choices.
Quick, pre-packaged foods are often high in calories that can add up quickly. When it comes to nuts and trail mix, the calories easily add up – have it in limited portions. Also, foods marked “low-fat” or “fat-free” often have a lot of calories without providing many nutritional benefits.
4. Pair up carbohydrates with protein.
Pairing a carbohydrate with a protein helps keep you from getting hungry again too soon. Try pairing apples and peanut butter, crackers and cheese, or cheese and whole-grain toast.
5. Be cautious with soy.
There’s been a lot of media coverage suggesting that eating soy can help with night sweats and hot flashes. Soy contains plant estrogens called isoflavones that can act as a weak form of estrogen in the body. However, menopausal women should use caution; there’s still conflicting research about whether a soy-rich diet might increase the risk of estrogen-sensitive cancers like breast cancer.
6. Make changes in baby steps.
If you haven’t already been eating healthy, it can be frustrating to think about making all of these changes all at once. I tell my patients to take baby steps. Make one change at a time. Each time you experience success, it will motivate you to take the next step.