Food For Health

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 food.

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 Communications

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 B.

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)