The Answer to Stress
By Brian W.
Perhaps you've had a few days like this. It is 8:00 a.m. Monday morning. You are at home. You look at your watch and see that you are running more than a few minutes late for school. You hop into the car and in a mad rush, push your foot too hard on the accelerator and before you know it, there are flashing lights in your rearview mirror. After your encounter with the officer, you finally arrive late to school and find that your favorite parking spot has been taken, so you have to drive around the block and park across the street. You enter the school, walk up to your classroom, and turn on your computer. You open up the file that you need for that day. To your amazement, there is nothing under the file name. It's just not there! You search all folders and finally, you have to accept the fact that your work is lost. How will you hand in your term paper that is due today? You don't even want to imagine what your teacher will say. The day has barely started and it's already a disaster. What could possibly help? There is an answer to life's challenges, difficulties and stressful situations. It's food!
Yes, as a matter of fact, scientists have conducted research that proves comfort food can overcome negative emotions, especially stress. Last year in a study conducted by neurologist Mary Dallman at the University of California at San Francisco, researchers removed the adrenal glands of rats and this exposed the rats to stress. The rats then responded by seeking pleasure and comfort. What do you think they did? Researchers documented that the rats sought sweets and fats to calm themselves.
The same thing applies for humans. According to Dr. Norman Pecoraro, who assisted Dr. Mary Dallman in this research, ''If daily life is full of stressful events such as family problems, work conflicts, or even nerve-racking commutes, this causes chronic elevation of the adrenal hormones.'' The body then responds with an ''adrenaline rush'' in which the adrenal hormones initiate a flood of hormonal signals that quicken the heart rate, constrict the vascular system, and provide energy to the muscles. These glands give us the physical resources to cope with stressful situations. Dr. Pecoraro then goes on to state, ''There has to be a break on the body's system and for some, it's chocolate!''
And other doctors do agree. As Dr. Drunilda Nazzario wrote, ''Reaching for the cookie jar at the first sign of bad news may actually be healthy.'' You see, eating calorie-rich food seems to calm our nerves. The American Institute for Cancer research found that 33% of Americans try to calm stress through foods such as macaroni and cheese, fried chicken and steak. The study found that these foods were a source of comfort because the participants remembered having their moms cook these foods when growing up. In other words, these foods provide comfort and relieve stress because they trigger positive memories from childhood years. Adults may remember the times they would be playing outside with neighborhood children and the ice cream truck would come down their street. After asking their parents for money, they would then buy the ice cream and sit on the sidewalk eating it with their friends. These were the best days of summer.
In a study conducted by Brian Wansink at the University of Illinois, researchers found that the favorite comfort food of both men and women was... guess what? ICE CREAM. In the comfort food contest, women chose chocolate and cookies as their second and third winners. On the other hand, men chose pizza and pasta. Do we find these statistics surprising? I mean, how often do you hear someone say, ''What a frustrating day as work, mmm, I could really go for a carrot.'' Or, ''Some peas, WOW, that hits the spot.'' No, you would never hear this. When you get home from a grueling day at work, what you want to see is a nice dinner already prepared for you on your dining room table: a succulent roast surrounded by mounds of steaming, garden-fresh vegetables swimming in a pool of gravy. Next comes the freshly-baked, light-as-a-feather biscuits and finally, the warm-from-the-oven peach cobbler with a dab of ice cream.
Years ago, this type of meal was the traditional Sunday dinner. After a long, hard week, family and friends would gather to enjoy the rest, fellowship and comfort food that Sunday had to offer. As Russell Cronkite writes in his book Return to Sunday Dinner, ''Sunday dinner was once an American institution [...] a weekly refuge of peace and plenty, comfort and tradition.'' Savory foods create a centerpiece for sharing friendship and fellowship. The same is true for our favorite holidays. We all know how we can't wait to visit our relatives on Thanksgiving and enjoy that crisp, brown turkey. And the anticipation of sharing a meal with friends on Christmas day. It is no accident that these meals help us to relax and bond with the ones we love.
You see, we have an excellent non-narcotic way to overcome these times of stress. According to Oscar Wilde, famous writer of the 19th century, ''When I'm in trouble, eating is the only thing that comforts me.'' Many situations arise that test just how far our bodies can go on the emotional level. These situations may be as minor as getting a bad grade on a test or as significant as the death of a loved one. Too many of these emotional emergencies can lead to the dispossession of cortisone, a hormone released in our bodies to give us an extra boost of energy in a time of trepidation. When we know that we have had a frustrating day at work, maybe we should look to food to help us calm our nerves.
Now, I am not saying we should just binge on comfort food until we meet our heart's desire. For some of us, the Girl Scouts would stop selling cookies before we were satisfied. Comfort food is only one answer to a temporary case of stress. When it comes to chronic stress, we must identify the root of our problem and deal with it by more responsible means. But, as registered dietitian Marsha Hudnall of Green Mountain Fitness Center says, ''The danger lies not in consuming your favorite comfort food as a way of calming yourself. The peril is in numbing out and binging on it. In other words, have your mashed potatoes and rice pudding, or your cookies and hot chocolate, but eat it mindfully.''
We have found enough research that gives us the proof of the short-term cure of comfort food. We can look at it as something the body would react to and say, ''Calm down, you are refueled with this high-energy food.'' We must acknowledge the fact that when no one seems to be there for us and our world seems to be coming to an end, food will always be there as a comfort. Go ahead, eat that piece of chocolate. Eat any food you enjoy eating the next time you confront a stressful situation and see for yourself that this is true. In case you might forget this, just remember: STRESSED SPELLED BACKWARDS IS DESSERTS!
Blakeslee, Sandra. ''Comfort Foods Switch off Stress, Scientists Find.'' The New York
Times 16 September 2003.
Ramsayer, Kate. ''Sweet Relief: Comfort food calms, with weighty effect.'' Science News 13 September 2003: 165.
Virtual Hospital. Bev Klug, M.A. September 2003. 12 December 2004.