This article was originially published as an op-ed in The Jerusalem Post on Thursday, 23rd Nov. 2023: https://www.jpost.com/opinion/article-774643
Shortly after the outbreak of the war, I had an op-ed published with some general suggestions on how to deal with weight gained over the holiday period. The idea was to encourage readers, to get back on track, shed weight, and achieve better health. A link to the op-ed was on my Facebook and LinkedIn pages. One person commented expressing his/her upset feelings that this article was posted while we were in the grips of a national tragedy and a war.
The article had been prepared for publication before the Succot holiday even started. Additionally, and I think far more important, our health cannot take a back seat even when the worst of the worst has happened. It is especially important in the most stressful and pressured times that we strive to keep our health intact. Stressful times are exactly when we turn to food, especially poor quality food.
What is it about being under stress or great emotional burden that causes many people to turn to food for relief?
Food, Glorious Food
Let’s first establish one basic and very important fact: Food will never take the place of problem solving or working through an issue.
In our current situation, no matter how many donuts, pieces of cake, or chips you eat, it will not have any positive or negative impact on the IDFs current offensive. It is true that food tastes good and brings pleasure from taste and texture. Food is also a mechanism for social integration. Physiologically though, food serves two basic purposes:
- It is the main mechanism to put needed nutrients in our bodies.
- Food can resolve hunger (real hunger, not emotional hunger).
While random eating might make us feel “good” for a few minutes, turning to food, especially highly processed junk food, will not solve other problems. Quite the opposite – it certainly can cause problems. Research has taught us that the three main ingredients for both comfort and addictive foods are salt, sugar, and fat. Combining fat with either sugar or salt, enhances the addictive power.
The last major stressor
During the Covid-19 pandemic, many people gained weight. A Harvard study of 15 million people looked at weight changes the year prior to the start of the pandemic. The study then looked at changes one year over the course of the pandemic. The results:
- 39% of patients gained weight during the pandemic, with weight gain defined as above the normal fluctuation of 2.5 pounds.
- Approximately 27% gained less than 12.5 pounds.
- About 10% gained more than 12.5 pounds.
- 2% gaining over 27.5 pounds.
In her research regarding eating habits during the pandemic, Manhattan Community College Health Education Department Chairperson Lesley Rennis states, “Strong emotional states make us turn to comfort food to feel safe and in control. “Comfort foods not only taste good, they actually lessen the impact of stress hormones.” How? Eating sweet and starchy food helps our bodies make serotonin which makes us feel calmer, and decreases the stress hormone cortisol.
A number of studies show that people feel less stressed and anxious after consuming carbohydrate-rich foods. Rennis says fatty foods, like cheese, have a numbing effect that helps decrease the emotional response to stress.
Different people are attracted to different hyper-palatable foods. This is basically any food which creates a situation for always wanting more of that food. Maybe you remember the old Lays potato chip commercial, “Bet you can’t eat just one!” For some it’s chips, for others it’s chocolate, and believe it or not, even something like chicken can be called hyper-palatable! All substances of abuse cause the brain to release high levels of dopamine. This release can be two to 10 times the amount our brain releases normally, giving the user a sense of a “rush” or “high.”
Although hyper-palatable foods makes us feel good for a short time, there is a lot of baggage that comes with most of these foods. Generally, these foods are high in sugar, fat, and cholesterol – all things where too much causes damage. Smoking a cigarette, drinking alcohol, or snorting cocaine can bring good feelings, yet the long-term ramifications can be devastating. Food can do the same. There are plenty of ways to deal with stressful situations as I enumerated in my last article. Food should not be one of them.
A full time job
This brings us back to the criticism I received. Living a healthy lifestyle, meaning trying our best to incorporate the 6 precepts of lifestyle medicine into daily life, IS A FULL TIME JOB. It applies during finals for students, during stressful periods in the work place, during pandemics, and even during a war. If you are a soldier on the battlefront—you are eating what they give you and there isn’t a choice. (Although I know of many who are going out of their way to send healthy food.) However, for the rest of us, sacrificing our health will only make things worse.
So eating a plant-predominant diet, trying to be active and exercising, sleeping enough (I know it’s hard, I too have a child in Milueem-reserves), controlling our stress, not abusing substances, and maintaining our social relationships are integral! We aren’t going to be perfect—it’s not a perfect time-but every effort we can make will pay dividends.
I can’t emphasize enough the power of exercise for both physical and mental health. Daily brisk walks do wonders. If you can add some muscle building and stretching, the effects are even better. We are all in this together. Let’s help each other during this period of time so when we make it to the other side of this, our health won’t be any more compromised. Making health a full-time job will “add hours to your day, days to your year and years to your life.”