Stressed backwards spells desserts so I'm stress eating my worries away
An expert is here to help spot the triggers and replace our bingeing with better habits
I have a weakness for potato chips. Lay’s Magic Masala, salted wafers, buttery crisps that melt away the day’s tensions with every crunch. They turned from a treat to a staple as we all started stress eating our worries away during the pandemic.
Stressed backwards spells desserts for a reason. It seems that only sweet and salty, besan-coated and fried foods get the job done when you’re running on high alert, worrying about your children, office projects, a possibly cheating partner while also trying to figure out how to file your taxes.
According to nutritionist Nomita Roy, our body can handle processed and junk food every now and then. But when those become your only meals, you’re not only harming your physical self but your mental health as well.
Why we reach out for a packet of chips and not rajma-chawal
“When you look at it at a biochemical level, there are two kinds of stress. One is momentary which pauses your appetite so your entire body and mind can focus on tackling the problem at hand. If this stress persists, then your body makes more insulin and releases high levels of cortisol into your system, which then increases your appetite,” explains Roy.
This influences the metabolism of sweets, fats and carbohydrates, which is exactly the food you’re likely to reach out for. A juicy jalebi or a serving of McDonald’s piri piri fries can suppress the effects that the cortisol and insulin have, reducing the stress response in your body.
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“Your body enters fight or flight mode. The cortisol causes the release of glucose which is our emergency energy reserve,” says Roy. It’s an evolutionary reaction that our body still has.
She uses the example of a caveman out searching for food. He’s already stressed out about not finding enough when he spots a bush of berries he can forage. As he approaches, he’s attacked by a tiger who starts chasing him. In that stressful moment, the body needs the glucose so his muscles can move swiftly letting him run as fast as he can and dodge the tiger’s every swipe.
Replace that tiger with an approaching deadline for office work and your brain enters the same fight or flight mode pumping through the glucose (whether you physically need it or not). Your body then enters the stage where you need to replace these energy reserves and has you rummaging through your kitchen cabinets for motichoor laddoos.
Feeding your pizza craving can reduce stress but also increase it
Roy says that we need to look at stress eating not as a process that’s feeding our physical hunger and giving our bodies the nutrients it needs to remain healthy, but as more of a soothing coping mechanism.
We manage to dampen the stressful feelings in our body with junk food. But it’s all temporary.
A slice of chocolate cake with sugary sweet icing isn’t just calming your nerves but even possibly getting you high. Some studies have shown that class-A drugs like cocaine, and sugar, can have a similar effect by releasing dopamine, the feel-good hormone.
It doesn’t sound too bad right? You feel bad, you eat something, then you feel good. You should be eating what makes you happy. But stress eating junk food could become a daily crutch to deal with your problems.
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Another problem caused by such foods is inflammation. This is usually part of the body’s defence mechanism to fight off infections and deal with injuries. But when there’s nothing to heal, they can end up attacking your healthy organs and cells, leading to illness like arthritis, heart disease and diabetes. Which will only cause you more stress, to say the least.
“Junk foods decrease the stress reaction, but the more food you take in, the more tolerant you become to the effect, so you have to keep eating more. It’s similar to a drug addiction where you need to increase the dose to feel the effects,” says Roy.
The stress is compounded because many people experience feelings of guilt and shame once the binge is over.
Breaking the vicious cycle of stress eating for better habits
Nobody in human history has relaxed after being told to ‘just relax’. But there’s some truth behind these motivational quotes that feature heavily in your family Whatsapp group.
Roy says that once you recognise signs of stress eating, the first thing you need to do is track your eating habits to figure out how you can moderate and replace them.
If stress eating is continuously hampering your daily life, it’s best to reach out to a mental health expert.
Journaling to identify your triggers: This is not meant for you to count calories. Instead, write down what you’re eating and when to give you a moment to think about whether it is a stressful situation that’s driving your craving or physical hunger.
When you look back at your journal at the end of the day, go through each meal and think about what happened right before that. This process can help you identify stressful triggers in your life.
Avoiding or/and managing your triggers: You’ve managed to map out your triggering activities, now it’s the hard part. Trying to figure out what is and isn’t avoidable. Going for a root canal made me want to bury my face in a plate of samosas but I know that by maintaining good dental hygiene and flossing *ugh*, I can delay my next visit.
But things like office work, doing presentations or dealing with disrespectful family members is not something you can just cut out of your life like a loose dhaaga from a kurta sleeve.
Sometimes you just have to manage your stress. Find a healthy coping technique that works best for you. It’s not always easy to say ‘no’ so we end up taking on more than we can handle.
Making a list sounds like too simple a method to help but it works. Physically seeing what you need to do in a structured format can help you prioritise what needs to be done first. Checking them off one by one also triggers the reward system in your brain, leaving you with an added feeling of accomplishment.
Take a deep breath and sweat it away: You’ve read it all before and scoffed. Meditation and deep breathing are not going to solve the pile of paperwork staring at me from my desk. But it can calm you enough to get through it without a packet of aloo bhujia.
Kundalini yoga teacher Arezu Kaywanfar suggests trying the 4-7-8 breathing method to help alleviate symptoms of stress and anxiety.
Exercise has a remarkable effect on our body. It doesn’t just help drop inches on your waist but also boosts your mental health and wellbeing. Studies show that this change can come from any kind of workout — Katrina Kaif’s butt-kicking regimen or a power walk around your building’s compound.
If you’re a couch potato like me, then you’ll think of exercise itself as a strenuous and stressful activity. But the post-workout rush is real.
For beginners, it can be a challenge at first, but as your body gets used to exercising, you’re going to feel amazing. “At the least, do a brisk walk for 20 minutes. It’ll keep your heart and mind healthy by sweating it out, releasing good hormones and even by physically removing you from that stressful situation,” adds Roy.
Assess your kitchen: If your pantry looks like the inside of a Haldiram’s factory then you have a problem. Now that you’ve decided to change your habits, a major step you can take is by removing the items you most likely stress eat from your line of sight.
“Complete deprivation can lead to more stress and cause you to eventually break and fully binge on this food. It’s better to indulge yourself a little in controlled portions,” says Roy. Give yourself the allowance to snack on junk food every now and then but within limits.
Fill your fridge and cabinets with healthier snack options. “If you like savoury foods, instead of a packet of chips, try baked vegetable chips. A nice treat for people with a sweet tooth can be slices of apple with some peanut or almond butter. Even carrot and cucumber slices with a sprinkling of chaat masala,” Roy advises.
If you’re looking for more healthy snack recipes, try these favourites from nutritionists Anupama Menon and Nmami Agarwal.
A note of caution: Before making any major lifestyle and dietary changes please consult your healthcare provider to find the right choices and options that will work best for you.