A few days after the outbreak of the war, I had an article published in these pages giving people some general tips and suggestions on how to deal with weight gain attained over the holiday period, and how to get back on track to shed weight and promote better health.  Like all of my Jerusalem Post articles, it later appeared on social media.  One person commented and was very upset that this article was posted while we were in the grips of a national tragedy and a war.  First of all, this article had been prepared for publication before the Succot holiday even started. Second, 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.  Those stressful times are exactly when we turn to food, especially poor quality food.  So what is it about being under stress or great emotional burden that causes many people to turn to food for relief?

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, and it is also a mechanism for social integration, But, physiologically, food serves two basic purposes.  First, it is the main mechanism to put needed nutrients in our bodies, and second, 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 and it certainly can cause many.  Research has taught us that the three main ingredients for both comfort and addiction are salt, sugar and fat.  Further, combining fat with either sugar or salt, enhances the addictive power. 

Let’s look at a particularly stressful time from the recent past.  During the Covid-19 pandemic, there were many  people who  gained weight. A Harvard study of 15 million people looked at weight changes the year prior to the start of the pandemic, and then after one year over the course of the pandemic. As it turns out, 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 and about 10% gained more than 12.5 pounds, with 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,” said. “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 any food which for any individual 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 many it can be the potato chip.  For some, 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."

Even though we get the increase in serotonin and dopamine, and that makes us feel happy and good for a short time, there is a lot of baggage that come with most of the hyper palatable foods  Namely, these are usually the foods high in sugar, fat and cholesterol.  So just like reaching for a cigarette, drinking alcohol or snorting cocaine can bring good feelings while ingesting them, food can do the same, and like the others, the long-term ramifications of over consumption can be devastating.

There are plenty of ways to deal with stressful situations as I enumerated in my last article. Food should not be one of them.  But 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 my 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.  But 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 through appropriate means, 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 that it needs to be. Making health a full-time job will “add hours to your day, days to your year and years to your life.” 

Alan Freishtat is a HEALTH and WELLNESS COACH and PERSONAL TRAINER with more than 25 years of professional experience. He is a graduate of the eCornell University Certificate course on Plant Based Nutrition and has recently been appointed to the Council of the True Health Initiative.  Alan is director of The Wellness Clinic. He can be reached at 02-651-8502 or 050-555-7175, or by email at alan@alanfitness.com www.alanfitness.com US Line: 516-568-502