Stress Eating and Stress Non-Eating
You just lost a loved one to cancer, your job was ‘downsized,’ finances are a mess, your teenager is in trouble, you are taking care of an elderly parent and the aforementioned teenager? …Anything else you can think of that is causing significant stress?
You find yourself with a spoon and an open jar of peanut butter or simply go right for the Ben and Jerry’s. Actually, you are not picky at all as long as you can keep stuffing food of any kind in your mouth; generally, however, the richer, the better. You are a stress-eater, or equally dangerous, stress-drinkers, drinking alcohol to numb your frazzled nerves, often followed by high-caffeine drinks to rev you back up. Some of us are stress-non-eaters, equally dangerous. We simply stop eating and our body feeds on itself wasting our muscles and affecting our brain chemistry, adding to our already depressed state.
Sometimes understanding the body’s physiological response can help us to make better choices. For our Neanderthal ancestors, when in danger, you either had two choices; you stand and fight or you take flight. Either way, the body has a system that kicks in immediately. Your brain signals your body to release a hormone called cortisol that begins a cascade of responses. You become highly alert, your heart races, breathing becomes faster; blood vessels constrict and divert blood from functions such as digestion, (making some prone to upset stomach or diarrhea,) to muscle mass, so as to make that fast getaway. These fight or flight stress responses keep us alive in a highly stressful situation.
Chronic stress is another story. The initial stress reaction does not turn off and the production of cortisol continues. Chronic stress depletes your energy reserves; therefore your body craves calorie-laden foods to rebuild energy stores. In our body’s innate wisdom, the fat reserves are stored right in our abdomens where they are easily called upon. Nutritionists often refer to this as one’s ‘stress-meter,’ or ‘cortisol-meter.’ An unfortunate side note is that abdominal fat, also known as visceral fat or intra-abdominal fat, is a marker for fat around vital organs, increasing our risk to high cholesterol, insulin resistance, diabetes, heart disease, stroke and some types of cancer. Prolonged stress also increases your risk of obesity, infection, because of decreased immune function, anxiety, depression, sexual dysfunction and memory problems.
Now that you understand the dangers, what to do?
- Mental health. This is the biggie. Sometimes we simply can’t do this alone; the situation is bigger than ourselves. If you can, take advantage of a trained mental health professional. Try to get in touch with your spiritual side whether that be church or temple or meditation; whatever you do to feel a power greater than yourself or simply to realize that you have the power within you to get through this situation. Talk to someone, share your emotions and know you will feel better. You will, I know.
- If you are a stress eater, first you need to recognize the fact that you are opening the freezer door. If ice cream is your weakness, why not put a sign on the freezer saying, “Go for a walk instead.” Or have an apple with a little peanut butter on it. Basically, we’re talking about redirecting our focus to healthier choices that won’t make you feel guilty and hard on yourself afterwards, which, as we know, increases our stress. If you are a stress non-eater, perhaps you need to place cards about the house saying, ‘Please feed me, I need fuel.’ Again, make healthy choices.
- Graze. Have healthy snacks at your home, office and with you at all times. Yes, snacking is healthy! Keep raw (never roasted, you don’t know what kind of unhealthy fat they have been roasted in) nuts and seeds with you. Now here is the key. Don’t eat a cup of walnuts or almonds, (which are excellent choices) or you will be overeating yet again. A portion for most people is 15-20 almonds and ¼ cup of raw pumpkin seeds. If you like a roasted flavor, you can simply place them in a skillet on the stove (no oil needed) and stir them for a few moments until they are golden brown. Vegetables and fruit are excellent choices for snacks. Raw cauliflower, broccoli, carrots, celery, jicama with a bit of salsa, or a piece of fruit are great choices.
- Prepare. Even if you are terribly depressed, please take just a few moments to pull yourself up and be healthfully selfish. If you are a caregiver, remember that you can’t take care of anyone else if you are not strong and healthy yourself. Remember, that this too shall pass and that you will feel better. Believe it! I know it’s true. Plan some easy menus. Throw a chicken breast and veggies in the oven and go take a bath. Or steam some veggies and sauté a piece of fish. Brown rice takes 1 minute to place in a pan and while it’s simmering, go for a walk; with your kids if you have them. This is a healthful diet for you and your family. If you are a vegetarian, please do not turn into a ‘junk-food vegetarian’ consuming only cheese burritos and kidding yourself that it’s healthy. Steam some tempeh and marinate it in your favorite marinade before placing it in a pan with lots of veggies and baking, just like the chicken dish. Plan to be healthy. Remember, we all need healthy fats, adequate protein and healthy carbohydrates (not white bread, but veggies, whole grains, beans and the like) all three macronutrients (macro means large) are needed for health. Balance your diet.
- Drink plenty of water. Unless you have kidney problems, drink 8 glasses of pure water a day. Herbal teas are another good choice, or if you like ‘fizz,’ try mineral water with a bit of fruit juice. Remember, that alcohol is a depressive, and that is the last thing you need. Sodas are a huge health problem, laden with either sugar or fake-sugar (chemicals, almost worse) and should be avoided. Watch your caffeine intake.
- Exercise! This is vital! You will feel so much better. We all know we need to exercise, but think we’re too busy to do it, but remember that there is always time to do the things you really want to do. Make exercise one of those things. Find something that you like to do, and then you will be more likely to stick with it. Join a gym, walk, chase your kids, dance around the house. Do some strength bearing exercises such as light weights or pushups. Strength bearing exercises are wonderful for bone health. I understand that when you are depressed, you simply want to crawl in bed and make the world go away, but please make yourself get up and walk in nature if you can or move in some fashion.
Be cognizant of your food choices or sometimes lack of food choices. Trust that you will be healthier each day that goes by and this will help your mental well-being. Soon you will be making healthy choices without having to remind yourself to do so. You don’t need good luck, just education and well wishes, which you now have!