Stressed about eating?

Stressed about eating

It’s well-established that eating saturated fat raises our risk of coronary heart disease. The American Heart Association advises us to eat more lean meat and poultry and less saturated and trans fat. Our Health Promotion Board identifies polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats as the good guys, and saturated and trans fats as the bad guys (there are no ugly guys but one could consider sugar a strong contender).

But recent research findings suggest otherwise. The study in the spotlight, which was a meta-analysis of data from 72 studies, found that unsaturated fat consumption was not associated with an increased risk of heart disease. This appears to suggest that we can start working on that saturated fat deficit, by stuffing our faces with beef rendang, massaman curry, laksa, chendol, goreng pisang, and bubur cha cha. But actually, no. Not quite.

The results in fact indicate that the type of fat consumed is likely not as important as previously thought (read this article for details). Apart from one bad guy. Trans fats remain guilty for their contribution to heart disease (here’s a fact sheet about trans fats). Which means that we still need to look out for biscuits and crisps which are made with partially hydrogenated oils, and not going all out on doughnuts or coffee creamer.

That said, the real issue is about what drives us to eat.

One reason is of course stress. When we experience a stressful event and negative emotions, we might get a doughnut (or two, especially if it’s a Krispy Kreme) and we feel much better afterwards. We know this as emotional eating. There is actually a physiological basis to our behaviours.

As explained in this Harvard Mental Health Letter, a situation which we perceive as alarming causes us to produce a fight or flight response, resulting in the release of epinephrine (adrenalin) or norepinephrine (noradrenalin). These hormones allow us to flee the scene or defend ourselves. In response to the same situation, our brain introduces another hormone, cortisol, to the blood stream, particularly if the stressful situation persists.

As explained here by these academic authors, exposure to chronic stress leads to elevated levels of cortisol, which is in turn associated with increased appetite. One study in particular has shown that women who respond to a stressful situation with more cortisol tend to be individuals who say they engage in emotional eating; they also tend to have relatively more abdominal fat (the link between cortisol and abdominal fat is explained here).

This simply means that when we perceive a situation as stressful, we’re more inclined to want foods which provide us with energy quickly — sugary foods. Otherwise known as simple carbohydrates. Doughnuts are a perfect example. Which means that, to combat stress, we can learn to perceive stressful situations as being less threatening than they initially appear to be (except in the face of real danger like a fire or a grizzly bear). Or we can reduce our exposure to stressful situations (like saying no).

But conditioning ourselves not to eat in response to negative emotions and providing ourselves with non-fried complex carbohydrate options at our desks will likely make that journey easier (and less costly to both our physical and mental health).

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