Stress, Snacking, and Staying Gluten Free
I'm having a bad day - pass the brownies!!
Whether it's a tough day at work, a fight with a loved one, or a big math test, each of us faces stress in life.
2021: A year to remember. Or not.
For me, 2021 was dominated by the stress of caring for my father during his final illness. Yes, it was fulfilling, loving, and something I fully expected to do. Yes, I am grateful to have had the freedom to devote 9 months of my time and energy to his care.
But I would be lying if I said it wasn't incredibly stressful. From the short term crises of new symptoms and condescending doctors to the long-term pressure of wondering whether I could be doing something better for him, the tension didn't let up until he died. I didn't realize how much adrenaline and how many endogenous corticosteroids were racing through my veins until they drained away.
How did I manage all that stress? I tried to sleep, to do the occasional kindness to myself, and to find fun or a smile in each day. And I ate. Badly. Rare for me, I even cheated on my gluten-free diet. Silly, really, because I then felt physically terrible for days, on top of the strained muscles and emotional exhaustion. But there were days I couldn't seem to stop myself.
Life sucks. I need a donut.
Do you break the diet under stress? We're not alone: According to the American Psychological Association, 27% of adults say they eat to manage stress, with 38% doing so within 30 days of the survey. And it's a global phenomenon; in a study of students in Saudi Arabia, those under stress were significantly more likely to eat junk foods, like fast food and snacks, than students who were not stressed out.
So I guess it wasn't so crazy that I ate an entire box of Katz's glazed chocolate donut holes* in one sitting. Without defrosting them. They're delicious, by the way. Probably would have been even better if I had slowed down enough to actually taste them.
At least they were gluten free. Not so the bagel I ate one afternoon while a friend sat with Dad, or the entire double-cheese-and-garlic pizza I inhaled for dinner on one of the weekends when my sister stayed with Dad to give me a break. Self-destructive, stress-induced behaviour at its finest!
Stress eater? Blame your brain!
Why do we crave food that is bad for us when under stress? Research has found a link to high levels of corticosteroids, which can be induced by stress, and the desire to eat more sweet foods (donut holes, here I come!). In addition, melanocortin and its receptors can have a similar effect, increasing activity in regions of the brain that drive us to eat. So when stress happens, we should not be surprised to find ourselves, as I did, lingering in front of the candy aisle or walking more slowly past a bakery.
No, that's fine. Well, not really, but at least it's understandable. I wonder why, with so many good gluten-free options out there, and the ability to make so many of my own tasty treats, I would feel the need to poison myself.
I think it's about comfort. Comfort food. The kinds of food I ate as a child, during times that I can look back on as being less stressful than the moment in which the craving hits. Whether that time really was less stressful is immaterial; it's all in my head. I remember slices of pizza after school, birthday cakes, Yodels or Ho-Hos at horse shows, and bagels on a Sunday morning. Through the haze of memory, they seem like ideal times, and part of my brain reaches for that same feeling through the only thing I can really reconnect with: the food itself.
Take comfort and move on
Does it help? Of course not. After the momentary rush of a chewy bagel or the indescribable texture of the tip of a perfectly folded piece of New York pizza, the cramps, diarrhea and brain fog soon follow. Moaning on the porcelain throne, I berate myself for my weakness. That doesn't help either, so I try not to blame myself for being human.
And I swear to use better stress management techniques the next time. Like my gluten-free Vintage White Cake with some ice cream on top. Or a big piece (or two) of a rich, frosted, chocolate cake.
Hey, celiac life, is a journey. Sometimes my road leads through food.