Stress and Eating Habits
e all are well aware of the importance of a
healthy, balanced diet. So why don't we practise healthy eating, instead of
overindulging or going to the other extreme of skipping meals? One of the
reasons for bingeing or starving is tension or stress. All of us know what
tension or stress means. However, the connection between stress and food is
something that most of us don't pay serious attention to. Instead of
determining the root cause of stress, we often try to fix the problem of
being overweight or underweight, or suffering from anaemia, gastritis,
ulcer, etc., with dietary controls. But these don't help much and the
problems tend to recur.
Take the example of Prabhu and Vijay.
They both work hard, and have stressful jobs. Currently, they are both
facing a crisis: an assignment they had completed was flawed due to faulty
information that they had received. Their boss is angry with both of them
and has ticked them off. They are now trying to solve the problem.
It is lunchtime. Prabhu's focus is on getting the job done, so he decides to
skip lunch. He does not eat any of the sandwiches that a caring colleague
brings in for him. He drinks a cup of tea and carries on with his work.
Vijay, on the other hand, eats a full meal and returns to his desk. After
half an hour, he is still hungry, so he helps himself to the sandwiches
which were meant for Prabhu. A little later on, he pops a toffee into his
mouth, and goes out to buy some biscuits to munch on. He has a cup of tea
and puts in several spoons of sugar before drinking it.
Both Prabhu and Vijay are under stress, but they are responding to the
situation in different ways. One almost starves while the other binges on
We each have our own unique way of coping with stress. Some of us don't want
to face up to stress, so we try to deny it. To deny it we need to freeze our
perception to a time before the stressful event occurred. When we try to do
this, our body goes into freeze mode or shutdown mode. We don't feel hungry.
We may even feel nauseous: we want to throw up whatever it is that we don't
like in our life!
When faced with a crisis or stress situation, others of us may feel a sense
of despair and may end up overeating as a way of coping with the situation.
We eat to comfort ourselves.
Whatever our individual pattern may be, our eating habits give us a valuable
clue to our mental status. If you are someone who binges when you are
stressed, stop and ask yourself: "What am I stressed about now? What do I
need to face rather than eat food to resolve the stressful situation? Would
talking things over with someone help me?" Do this before bingeing on food!!
The minute you feel like eating things that you normally wouldn't eat, or
start eating too often, it is a warning sign for you. You have to realise
that your body is signalling that it is stressed and that you need to do
something about it.
Illustration by: Vijayan Acharya, Joshbro
If you are someone who stops eating or feels nauseous when faced with a
stressful situation, ask yourself: "What is it at this particular point of
time that is making me feel so stressed? What is it that I feel so
threatened about that I want to go into a freeze mode?" When you get the
answer, see what else you can do to face the stressful situation and come
out of it. Is reaching out to others an option? Think about it.
It is a well-researched fact that when under stress, the body produces more
insulin to get the flow of energy going. This is why most of us feel hungry.
Eating at a time of stress is okay, provided you are doing it consciously
and judiciously. Eat easy-to-digest foods, which are generally bland. Eating
high fat and spicy food actually gives you heartburn and adds to your
stress. Drinking colas and aerated drinks also add to body stress, which in
turn increases your mental tension. Refrain from these. Coffee and tea, too,
act in a similar fashion. Do not overindulge in them.
It has been observed that junk food such as processed foods, refined
carbohydrates (white flour products such as maida) and too much sugar, rob
the body of essential vitamins (especially Vitamin B), which are the basic
ingredients of a healthy nervous system. Anyone suffering from nervous
exhaustion is deficient in Vitamin B. Most people who eat peeled, boiled and
fried packaged convenience food in a hurry are B complex-deficient. They
should eat wholewheat bread and cereals, which are rich sources of Vitamin
Another excellent way of beating stress is to practise some form of
meditation for at least 20 minutes daily. You don't need to be a theist to
meditate. There are several schools of meditation. Select the style that you
feel most comfortable with. Regular exercise and meditation help you to face
stressful situations with greater comfort and ease. This will in turn help
you with your eating habits. Last but not the least, a regular healthy
balanced diet will help you get equanimity in life.
Dr. (Mrs.) M.G. Bhatia with
Dr. (Miss) A. Saraswathi
Upchargraha (Colony Dispensary)