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It's still a jungle out there, but now, at least, we have chocolate

Posted: Sunday, January 27, 2002

There was a discussion recently in the news about what modern humans do with stress. The theory was that we are fat because we no longer fight or flee in reaction to daily stressful situations. The need to run a few miles out of our way to avoid Godzilla or wrestle saber toothed tigers just doesn't come up in our modern routine. But we are still reacting all the time to things that need to be fought or fled. We just do it more subtly and burn different calories.

Nita Nettleton can be reached at nitan@alaska.com.

I love watching people get agitated in their natural environment. Someone on the phone in a verbal battle may be all over a room, using their whole body to punctuate their delivery. As soon as they hang up, fight won, lost or called on a technicality, they relax as steam rolls off their head. Other people like to pace while they fret, sort of like fleeing on a treadmill. It would be interesting to observe and add up just how many calories a day's worth of stress activity burns.

Some of my favorite little stress reactions are eye rolling, head shaking and face twitching. These are bargain basement calorie burners, but with enough repetitions, can add up. Pencil twiddling, leg jiggling and chair rocking turn up the heat a little. Working on up the anxiety scale, you'll see arm flapping (my personal favorite) then forehead whapping. Big difference here between whapping your own forehead and someone else's. It may take about the same calories, unless the other person has to be chased down first, but is usually a more complicated situation and much farther up the stress scale.

When the situation gets to the nail biter stage, some people break down and actually bite their nails. That isn't really facing up to the problem or running away from it, it's a stalling technique while deciding whether to fight or flee. The flight might be as simple as letting your head thump against a wall and leaving it there - a little mental bubble bath. One interesting fight manifestation I've seen at this level is aggressive and relentless housecleaning or filing. Take that, you old tiger or monster!

Just how many calories do we burn in these modern stress reactions? I found an interactive chart on the Internet where you can type in the activity and how long you spend at it to find how many calories a person of your weight would burn. If an average person spends 20 minutes in energetic arm flapping, they burn 244 calories. Not bad. Five minutes of pacing is 25 calories. Whapping someone else's head was a little complicated until I realized the other person's weight doesn't matter and you don't have to stop to ask them, so carry the three, add the chasing down, about 139 calories burned.

This defense is looking good. We are burning different calories than our ancestors, but calories nonetheless! Then why are we still fat? Unfortunately, we have developed something millions of people turn to at the first sign of conflict. It has probably had a larger (and I do mean larger) effect on us than aspirin or penicillin. As soon as our primitive little hackles start to rise with stress, we take the antidote - chocolate. Before the pacing, before any productive arm flapping, there is chocolate. It's kind of a universal first string against stress. Thin Mints, M&Ms, whatever is at hand. Back to the Internet, I found a chart of common modern foods and their calorie payloads. Yow! Sure, you'll burn a few calories chewing the chocolate or rolling in it, whichever, but as soon as you swallow, you're a goner. Chocolate can help you decide whether to fight or flee, but most often the euphoria shows you a better way and you simply rise above the stress.

So much for the defense of my portly contemporaries. If we simply flapped, whapped, paced and twitched, we might burn off some of the calories our ancestors did fighting and fleeing scary beasts, but, unfortunately, we found a delicious detour.

Nita Nettleton can be reached at nitan@alaska.com.



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