How Good Food Can Help You Manage Bad Effects of Stress?

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Stress and eatingLike most of us, you perhaps obsess about your food and exercise, – the behavioral choices you make – to mange your weight and health. However, stress has been proven and associated with weight gain, increased incidence and risk of cardio-metabolic diseases,  inflammatory diseases like cancer, memory loss and  pre-mature aging.

Bad effects of Stress

An extensive Study (the INTERHEART study) of of 25,000  people across 52 countries has associated stress with serious increased risk of heart attack.

img_55c7e8007cde4In recent study of 235 police officers, their perceived stress appreciably increased their risk (10-25%) of  Metabolic Syndrome – a cluster of disease conditions associated with hypertension, high blood sugar, excess body fat around the waist, and abnormal cholesterol or triglyceride ( blood fat) levels

The impact of stress seems to be magnified for overweight people when compared to people with normal weight.  A study tracked 722 working women over 9 years to understand relationship between stress and obesity. The increase in  Body Mass Index (BMI), a reliable  measure of obesity and associated chronic disease risk, was correlated to job stress and the increase in risk was higher for women with higher BMI.

The way I look at it..even if you have the best car and you are great driver, but you are driving on a  narrow, windy road, late at night thru snow and sleet you have higher risk of an accident. Your environment i.e Stress,  is the overlooked environment factor  that can quickly negate the best behavioral efforts thru food and exercise.

Why stress causes these disease risks?

Rhino chasing manHumans are well designed to deal with acute stress i.e stress that is intense and lasts for a very short period e.g being attacked by a bee, chased by a rhino or avoid being hit by a car. Our primal programming injects hormones, like cortisol and adrenaline, into our blood stream that spurs the required physical response to energize all parts of our body to fight or flee the short lived mortal danger/stress. 

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Today we are not hunters/gatherers… chances of being eaten by a tiger are remote. However, we sit in our cubicles or traffic and face a range of non-life threatening mental and emotional stress that lingers for a prolonged period. Most of the stress is caused by life style choices, busy professional life, family and  financial matters. This is chronic stress. Unfortunately our body’s primal response continues to be the same as if it was an acute stress. The same hormones floating around in our body over long periods of time start creating havoc.

Stress_Food-300x200E.g. Stress generates hormones which cause our blood vessels to contract. Well it was originally designed to minimize blood loss in anticipation of a physical injury/attack by an animal. Today, those constricted vessels over an extended period of time show up as hypertension/increased blood pressure.

Stress and Obesity

In primeval times, food /next meal was uncertain. Our bodies are designed to, thru a complex process of enzymes and hormones, convert all kinds of food and store as much of it as possible as fat for that uncertain food tomorrow or a long famine.  (Fat is the most efficient way for the body to store energy ).  Chronic stress causes these same hormones to be triggered, while eating, resulting in excessive fat storage vs fat burning. Excess fat starts creating inflammation in our body initiating its own chronic disease sequence.

Eating to minimize stress.

Slow Mindful eatingWhile it may be impossible to eliminate stress in our life, I have created a buffer zone, thru simple rituals,  between the daily crush of my life and when I eat. You can call it mindful eating. Many principles of mindful eating have been promoted in Ayurveda.

  1. Meditate or just close your eyes for 5 mins in quite setting prior to eating.
  2. Eating without distraction.– No TV. I put my phone on Do Not Disturb mode.
  3. Avoid discussing stressful topics while eating with family. We want to make family dining a joyous experience. It is easy to fall for the trap and feel the need to discuss a supposedly important  topic, because for most families dinner may be the only time when everyone is together. Unfortunately, you are not only hurting your health, but that of your kids.
  4. Eating slowly. Appreciating your food. Engaging your  senses by noticing colors, smells, textures and tastes. This forces you not to rush thru your food.
  5. Stop eating when you’re full. Better in the trash, than trash in your stomach.

Foods that help you manage disease risks caused by stress:

  1. Spices. Seek foods that are high in Anti-oxidants. Prefer meals, wraps, salads  that are rich in spices/herbs like cloves, ginger, turmeric, cumin, cinnamon. They make your meals taste better and are proven to be super protective from diseases caused by inflammation. Spices are effectively the anti-rust for your body. 1 tea-spoon of cinnamon has the same amount of anti-oxidant as a 100 gm basket of blue berries. Plus, a meal with the right blend of spices can help you manage satiety and prevent snacking and over-eating.  
  2. Next generation food and nutrition companies, like the Bay area based, Heart N Spice, now track and disclose anti-oxidant value of their meals and food products, along with macronutrient information.
  3. Avoid foods / salad dressings made with commercial vegetable oils – Corn, Canola, Palm. Look for  meals rich in Coconut oil, Virgin Olive Oil or non homogenized dairy fats.
  4. Incorporate dark chocolate in your meals. Dark chocolate is rich in anti oxidants, and triggers two hormones that help you relax – endorphins and serotonin. The recommended dose is one ounce per day. Caution! avoid chocolate products with sugar and milk as they interfere with the absorption of the antioxidants.
  5. Flavor your Food with Saffron.  Saffron, commonly used in many Indian, Mediterranean and Spanish  dishes, is found to help the brain use the feel good neurotransmitter, serotonin, that boosts your mood.
  6. Avoid refined carbohydrates and limit carbohydrates.
  7. Eat NATURAL Food. AVOID any synthetic  food ingredients – emulsifiers, preservatives, food coloring, Sugar additives in ANY form. Our body will try to process anything that looks and feels like food. Remember it is programmed to store food for that uncertain food tomorrow. These food additives, although FDA approved (which just means they will not kill you immediately) are being processed by your body as food and stored in your fat cells causing serious inflammation, making you fatter and unhealthier.

Stay Informed. Stay Healthy !

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