On Nutrition by Ed Blonz

Advice on Stress Snacking

DEAR DR. BLONZ: I am requesting your input on an ongoing debate at my office. What is the best type of snack food to eat when under stress; would it be carbohydrates, fats or protein? -- F.L., San Francisco

DEAR F.L.: Reaching for snack foods under stress is not a good idea; a brief primer on how stress affects the body will help make this point. The presence of demanding circumstances, whether they be psychological or physical, can initiate the body’s innate “fight or flight” survival routine that’s hardwired into our biochemistry. Once the stress alarm is activated -- even if there is no actual “physical” threat to be confronted -- the body gets prepared to go to battle or take flight to find a safe location, either of which requires immediate physical activity. One key goal is to increase the blood level of fuels essential for muscular work, and a gearing up of our metabolism to handle all aspects of any fight or flight ahead.

The main hormone is adrenaline (also known as epinephrine), released by the adrenal glands that sit atop the kidney. Adrenaline causes glycogen, a form of glucose stored in the liver, to break down and release glucose into the bloodstream. Glucose is ideal because it’s the only fuel that can power muscular work without any need for extra oxygen. It is the fuel that allows a burst of muscular action to catch a falling object. Fat is our main fuel, but it requires oxygen to release its energy. So, in tandem with the release of fats, adrenaline causes the heart to beat with greater intensity to facilitate blood flow, and cues the lungs to breathe deeper and more rapidly to increase the level of oxygen in the bloodstream. It is important to consider that in an emergency there is an immediate need for extra energy. Waiting for deep breaths to raise the oxygen level in the blood could affect our chances for survival.

From all this, we can see the connection with glucose, carbohydrates and physical stress, but reaching for carbohydrates or any other snack when you are stressed is somewhat iffy. The stresses at your office are more likely to be psychological than physical. These are not situations that require the physical action prepared for by the “fight or flight” response. There won’t be any muscular effort to burn up the glucose that will be dumped into the bloodstream; it will simply go back into the liver and be made back into glycogen. If, however, you had reached for a carbohydrate snack to quench this nonphysical stress, you would further increase your blood glucose level, and the excess would then end up being converted back into fat (most of it being deposited as visceral fat around your waistline).

A better strategy for the surge of stress is to get up, have a glass of water and move around, perhaps go up a flight of stairs, or go out and get some fresh air. This will use up some of that extra glucose and help quench that unneeded element of your “fight or flight.” That’s much better than stewing in your own juices and downing a sugary snack. Afterward, if you feel the need to have something, have a piece of fruit or a glass of fresh fruit juice and be sure to eat slowly. Finally, if stress is a frequent companion to your workday, take some time to participate in an exercise program. The better your level of physical fitness, the easier it is to cope with stress.

Send questions to: “On Nutrition,” Ed Blonz, c/o Andrews McMeel Syndication, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO, 64106. Send email inquiries to questions@blonz.com. Due to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.