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New Science on Prolonged Stress and Eating Disorders
University of Minnesota Medical School researchers recently published a study in the International Journal of Eating Disorders that evaluated how pandemic stress is linked to a growing number of stress-related eating habits. The study identifies six major unhealthy eating habits, with one of the most concerning findings related to an increase in eating disorders, which, in non-pandemic times, already kill about one person every 52 minutes.
The other unhealthy eating habits were related to mindless eating and snacking, overeating, and a decrease in appetite and food intake.
In the new study, 53% of those evaluated reported unhealthy weight control behaviors and another 8% had extreme issues with weight control. Binge eating was reported in 14% of the study group. Each of these outcomes was related to poor stress management, sadness and melancholy, and varying levels of financial stress.
The pandemic has caused a significant increase in stress, mood instability, and the disruption of normal activities that can lead people to stress-eating and amplify disordered eating. Eating disorders are serious illnesses that require specialized care, but in this article, I’ll address some of the more mild, but still unbalanced, eating behaviors that have been correlated to pandemic stress and offer behavioral and lifestyle suggestions that can help bring you back into balance.1
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The Ayurvedic Approach to Mindless Eating and Snacking
Mindless eating is typically remedied by eating meals that are in sync with your biological clocks, rather than snacking. Every cell in the body is tied to circadian rhythms that turn on and off throughout the day. Studies support the Ayurvedic concept that your body best digests its food at breakfast and lunch, and that supper should be smaller. Skipping these meals alters your digestive clock and soon hunger hormones including ghrelin begins to surge at the wrong times or just way too often. The solution here is to sit down and relax during a healthy breakfast that is big enough to get you to lunch and then to eat a big enough lunch that comfortably gets you to supper. A light supper can help you make it to bed without feeling hungry. This technique has not only been shown to reset your biological clock, but studies show that it supports healthy weight loss as well.3-6
The Ayurvedic Approach to Stress-Eating
Increased food consumption is typically a side effect of mindless eating and snacking, along with eating foods that encourage overeating. Foods that make us feel good are not always good for us, including sweets, breads, treats, chips, pastries, chocolates and the like. These will give you a powerful but short-lived surge in energy. What drives the blood sugar up feels great until the blood sugar crashes. High glycemic index foods do not provide long-lasting and stable energy, so not only will you crave comfort foods and overeat each time your blood sugar high wears off, the high to low adrenal stress can lead to further stress, eating imbalances and mood instability.7
Eating to copewith stress is an all-too-common habit. The best way to handle this, from an Ayurvedic perspective, is to make sure your get quality time every meal. This is done by relaxing while eating, including taking the time and relaxing during meal preparation. There is a saying in Ayurveda that goes “eat standing up and death looks over your shoulder.”
Ayurveda views cooking and eating as rituals that calm your vata (nervous system). The smells of cooking prepare your digestive system.8 On the other hand, eating quickly or on the run is the quickest way to run out of gas and find yourself mindlessly eating to cope with the stress. As soon as your blood sugar crashes after a hasty meal, your brain will pull down the comfort food menu and you’ll seek out and overeat whatever comfort food your brain determines will pick you up the fastest.
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The Ayurvedic Approach to a Decrease in Appetite
According to Ayurveda, each of us responds to stress in a unique physiological way based on our body types. Vata types who are lighter and more sensitive are governed by air and more likely to stop eating and lose weight when stressed. Pitta types that are governed by fire and kapha types that are governed by earth and water are more likely to overeat when under stress.
Don’t know your dosha or body type? Take the dosha quiz here.
To balance a stress response that causes you to eat less, vata dosha and the nervous system must be balanced. Remember, vata is cold and dry like winter and anything that warms the body will be vata-balancing and soothing for the nervous system. Ayurveda suggests eating heavier, warmer, and more oily foods, such as warm cooked soups and stews, along with sweet potatoes, cooked veggies, and whole grains. Spices can also help kindle and spark your digestive fire and reboot your appetite. My favorites are, ginger, cumin, coriander, cardamom, and fennel. You can cook with these or take them as a capsule to get more potent dosing with LifeSpa’s Gentle Digest.
A warm oil self-massage, gentle yoga, long slow nasal breathing, and medication are also helpful in bringing vata back into balance.
Pandemic-related reductions in dietary intake are sadly due to the financial burden many are enduring this pandemic. While only time will heal this problem, choosing the right foods while on a budget can be very helpful. The tendency to choose comfort foods when under financial stress is understandable, but as mentioned, this only causes a temporary sensation of satiety and then you’re hungry once again. Comfort foods are nutritionally less dense and more expensive than more nutrient-dense and inexpensive foods like rice, beans, potatoes, soups, and stews. The people who live the longest on the planet eat inexpensive nutrient-dense foods.
The Ayurvedic Approach to Disordered Eating
From the Ayurvedic perspective, eating disorders are once again due to an imbalance of vata, which is caused by excessive and chronic stress. When the body is under stress, the adrenals are asked to secrete more stress-fighting hormones, which, over time, can become depleted, leaving the body tired, unmotivated, and depressed.
Such stress initially shuts down digestive strength and over time manifests into a variety of digestive symptoms and food intolerances. Soon, food that was once the only thing that helped mitigate stress now feels terrible because the body’s digestive strength has been compromised, allowing the food to linger in the stomach causing bloat, discomfort, gas, and distress. From here, the mind starts turning on the food, resulting in a variety for eating imbalances. To help prevent the progression of such a vata imbalance, I would suggest practicing all the healthy eating tools mentioned in this article.