This is surprising news: Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, have discovered that eating foods you like when you’re stressed calms you down.
What’s surprising about it is that these researchers felt the need to design an experiment in a lab, with controls, probably using complicated mathematics to come to this conclusion.
Meantime I have conducted many experiments on this very subject myself over the past 25 years and could have easily shared my own data which demonstrate, empirically, that a couple of packages of coconut snoballs and a bag of nacho corn chips can soothe a distraught person through tough exams, bad dates, missed deadlines.
But nobody asked me.
So, now the University of California, San Francisco people get all the credit for helping us understand that feeding can help calm you down when you’re nuts. Okay, but what if you’re nuts a lot? What if you’re perpetually crazy? What if, like me, you wind up as a fat maniac?
If stress eating is a problem for you, or you suspect it might be, please read Pamela Peeke’s Fight Fat after 40 for help understanding how stress, especially chronic stress, forces your body to produce too much of the stress hormone, cortisol. When you learn about cortisol’s effect on your general health, you’re sure to start taking stress very seriously.
I was a fat maniac. A stress monkey since birth, I have a way of attracting anxiety. I drowned worry and panic in food, food brought me fat, fat added to the stress, stress to food. You see how that works.
Breaking into this cycle can require some rather dramatic changes. I changed jobs, changed my email habits, reigned in social responsibilities. I cut way back on after-work commitments and schmooze. I retired from a number of activities, all of this buying me the time I needed to chill out, gain perspective, blow off steam with sweat instead of snacks, and even just sit and stare when I need to.
But even after working very hard at eliminating stressors and adding stress managing exercise and rest to my life, I don’t always succeed at keeping anxieties at bay. None of us can. Life is too complicated.
So then it’s nice to know that eating something you enjoy can actually halt the production of cortisol. It can trick your body into thinking things are going to be okay. It puts the brakes on the fight-or-flight response for just a bit.
The real trick is knowing how to allow food to calm you down without overdoing it. And that’s a trick I haven’t mastered yet.
But it’s good for us to try. Decide now, before the stress comes, what comfort foods work to calm you. Is it a family recipe? Cheesecake? Macaroni and cheese? It doesn’t have to be a non-nutritious food, remember. Choose comfort foods that are less likely to trigger binge eating or cause a sharp rise and drop in blood sugar.
Plan to use these foods the next time you have a large stressor in your life, and I’m talking about palm sweating, lump in the throat, sleepless nights stress here. Not every time they preempt your favorite television show or every time you’re cut off in traffic.
When these tough times happen, comfort yourself. But keep your portions under control, eat very slowly, and stop eating just as soon as you feel yourself calm down. Keep track of the extra calories, and make up for them over the next few days.
Is this crazy?
Well, no it isn’t. It actually prevents crazy. If you withhold foods when you need them most, you may just be building up to a big binge later. Too much control is not always the best behavior.
Who knew? We all knew, really. Didn’t we?
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