Watch Out: When your 401(k) Gets Smaller, This Gets Bigger

If tough economic times have turned zipping up your jeans into Mission Impossible, you're not alone. New data is more revealing than most celebs' Oscar-night outfits: Financial worries prompt 1 in 10 to snack more and have made 48% of women and 39% of men gain weight. Worse, that weight is in the wrong place: the waist. We're not talking 1 or 2 ounces: One-quarter of us packed on more than 10 pounds, and 1 in 16 gained more than 20 pounds. It gives the pain of tightening your belt a whole new meaning.  

Sound familiar? If your waistline is enlarging faster than the latest unemployment statistics, do this before you grab the celery sticks: Head for a hot bubble bath . . . or a brisk walk . . . or a cup of coffee with a friend. Truth is, you need a crash course in cortisol reduction more urgently than you need a "diet" right now. The reason? Stressful events cause you to release cortisol, the "high anxiety hormone," and that triggers industrial-strength cravings for high-calorie munchies. The only way to fight it is to block the stress. See, way back in prehistoric times, this "whew, let's eat" reaction was a brilliant refueling strategy. Today, in a world awash in stress and easy-to-grab, high-calorie saturated-fat-, sugar- and salt-laden food, it's a recipe for trouble of all types. Not only will your waistline suffer, but uncontrolled stress and its consequences put you at risk for high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, infections, and cancer, not to mention divorce and depression.
But by using these strategies, you can keep a down economy from padding your torso -- and damaging your health:
  • Unwind every day. Don't let high anxiety become the norm in your life. Even if you think you're handling the doom-and-gloom with aplomb, your mind and body need a break. And we mean a daily break. Our favorite stress-busters? Laughter and meditation. Record your favorite late-night hosts; rent funny movies; get a joke book; or log on to your favorite funny Web site instead of reading the financial pages. To meditate, sit in a quiet room (not the kitchen!), focus on your breathing, and repeat a simple word or sound over and over again. Try to relax your muscles every time you exhale, too. This practice clears and calms your mind and can short-circuit emotional snacking.
  • Got a minute? Take a walk. Don't have a minute? Take a walk anyway. Exercise is one of the first things most of us skip when we're under stress, but it's the thing we need most. It reduces tension, energizes body and mind, stretches muscles, and gives you a little burst of feel-good endorphins. Dedicate 10 minutes of your lunchtime and half of any other scheduled breaks in your day to the art of the power stroll. If that's not possible, walk before or after work. For best results, pump your arms and move at a brisk pace.
  • Tote your own lunch and snacks. Back in the thrifty 1950s and 1960s, most of us brown-bagged it to school and to the office -- a tradition that can save you hundreds of calories a day and hundreds of dollars per year. Whether it's veggie-lasagna leftovers; some turkey-and-tomato on whole wheat; fresh fruit; crunchy vegetables (or even canned; they're healthy and inexpensive); or a handful of nuts -- it all tastes better when it comes from your own kitchen. Too busy to pack? Honestly, you're not; it really takes only a minute! But if you insist, here's what we recommend: Stock a corner of the office fridge with oranges or cut apples laced with lemon juice (or get a cheap apple corer for the office so you can have mess-free slices any time), or fill it with healthy frozen meals. And stash low-sodium bean soups in your desk; heat and eat. You're saving your wallet and your waistline.

  • Stop before you snack. We munch a handful of nuts on the drive home, either in little 100-calorie packs, or we eat 12 walnut halves, 12 almonds, or 20 peanuts. Even better, if you're not feeling physical hunger -- the kind that makes your tummy grumble and your blood sugar fall -- ask yourself, "Why do I want to eat?" and see what floats to the surface of your mind. You may need to talk with a friend, work out a new household budget, or simply walk off another wave of stress. Get rid of what's really messing with you and your waist will end up smaller than it started. Your body wants to be healthy and the right size; give it a chance (and some respect) and it will give it right back to you. 

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