Have you ever wondered why you crave “comfort” foods when you’re stressed? The sweeter, the greasier, the saltier, the food the better! Chocolates, cookies, cakes, donuts, ice-cream, and greasy fried foods – nothing, is off limits when you’re stressed. Of course, alcohol and caffeinated beverages also play a big role in the mix of “stress busters” we’re drawn to.
The human body responds to danger by releasing a hormone, cortisol which signals the various body systems to prepare for fight or flight. Your heart races, your breathing quickens, and energy is made available to your muscles to prepare for action. When the danger has passed, your body is able to shut off this cascade of responses.
Your body sees stress as a danger and reacts accordingly. The problem with chronic stress is that this “flight or flight” response doesn’t shut off and the body thinks it needs energy to prepare for this on-going danger. To provide this energy, your brain signals you to eat high sugar and high fat foods.
In the short term, you actually feel better but in the long term these unhealthy “comfort” foods impact your health negatively. You gain weight around your abdomen, you feel tired instead of energized and in the worst-case scenario, you can develop chronic conditions like depression, diabetes, hypertension, stroke or heart disease.
Helpful strategies to combat stress eating include:
- Identify your emotions. Reflect about what triggers, or prompts, may be causing some of your stress eating habits.
- If you’re anxious, burn energy by going for a walk or dancing to your favorite song; if you’re exhausted, have a soothing cup of decaffeinated tea or a bath.
- Eat slowly and only when you are hungry
- Plan your meals and control your portion sizes
- Get rid of unhealthy foods in the home and don’t buy junk food from the supermarket
Psychologist Susan Albers has some additional tips to prevent stress eating:
- Replace your cravings with healthy alternatives.
- If you’re dying for a sugar rush, eat a small orange instead. Peeling the orange and smelling the citrusy scent creates a “meditative moment” to help calm you. In addition, the high vitamin C content of an orange strengthens your immunity in times of stress.
- If you’re craving something fatty, eat low calorie nuts like pistachios, which are rich in fiber, healthy fats and help regulate blood sugar. Make sure you get the nuts with the shell, the process of cracking the shell slows you down.
- Use your non-dominant hand to eat – if you’re right-handed, eat with your left hand, and vice-versa. It slows you down and makes you more mindful of your food — an important aspect of healthy eating. This is one of the easiest and most effective tricks.
Healthy stress-busting eating options:
- Complex Carbohydrate – whole grain cereals, whole grain bread
- Fatty Fish (Salmon, Catfish, Mackerel, sardines)
- Pistachios, other nuts and seeds
- Black Tea
- Raw veggies
- Low-fat Milk
Develop strategies to calm and distract yourself when you’re stressed. Limit your intake of alcoholic and caffeinated beverages, they worsen the effects of stress. Exercise daily – at least 30 minutes of moderate exertion. Exercise not only improves fitness and helps you lose weight, it has the marvelous additional benefit of boosting your mood by raising endorphin levels in the brain.
I find being a pediatrician very rewarding for many reasons. I have the privilege of caring for children of all ages. I get pleasure and amusement from helping first time parents navigate the basics of caring for a newborn, then gently scold those same parents when they allow the baby who is now 2 or 3 years old, to rule the household. During the elementary school years I enjoy a really nice relationship with the kids as we begin to have great conversations – children say the funniest things! The teen years are particularly interesting as I take on dual roles. Cheerleader and hand holder for the parents who are convinced either they or the child won’t survive the teen years without murder being committed. I’m a confidant and advocate for the teen who is convinced that his parents are the worst in the world and don’t understand him at all.
The most rewarding aspect of being a children’s doctor is that parents and their children see you as a role model. I dispense tons of advice to families about so many things including how to adopt a healthy lifestyle. I would be a complete fraud if I were telling them to do things I couldn’t do myself! My advice often has more weight because I use my experiences as examples. I’m in the health business after all and so being healthy has always been important to me.
Life is full of many unexpected twists and turns – I’m sure that we’ve all had our share. As a doctor though, avoidable personal health problems shouldn’t be on that list. I happen to have a family history of hypertension, stroke and cancer, so prevention is key for me. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle including eating heart healthy foods and exercising daily is the most effective way to prevent chronic illnesses such as hypertension, diabetes, heart disease, stroke and certain cancers.
My work is very demanding, and I have a variety of other interests and responsibilities that require that I be at the top of my game. My clinical skills and medical acumen have to be sharp because lives are at stake. I find that being physical fit improves my mental acuity and clarity of thought. It allows me to be physically and emotionally available to my patients, my family and friends.
My personal goal is to make every meal as healthy as possible and exercise everyday. With that lofty aspiration I’m able to exercise an average of 4 – 6 days per week. I eat healthy meals with the exception of when dining out at the occasional party where I have no control over the food that’s prepared. I actually enjoy “healthy” foods – whole grains, fresh vegetables, fruit, fish, and beans. Healthy foods, contrary to the thinking of many, can be quite delicious.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t wake up every morning excited at the thought of exercising but I’m living proof that the benefits are huge and so I push myself. Cakes and cookies are my guilty pleasure but I make sure that I never have them in my house, so I’m not tempted to indulge. The best thing about that is that once in a while, when I go out to a restaurant or a party, I can splurge on dessert without feeling guilty.
In the next post I will make this practical and talk about how you can, live this way for the rest of your life.