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This stress article was the feature article in the ninth issue of "Coffee With Jim".

Zebras, Ulcers, and Low Carb Diets

In another article I related a story from my own life. I told my readers about a time I came home from work with a lot of stress. And that night my family was a source of even more stress. And that night I wound up binging on ice cream. It was delicious, and made me feel better, but it was a bit of a set back on my diet.

Stress can lead to carbohydrate cravings. The reason has a lot to do with the hormones seratonin and cortisol, but that's not the focus of this article. This article will focus on how to cope with stress.

There are two main ways to approach stress, and both are important if you hope to maintain a low carb diet.

First, it is best to avoid stress if you can. And that can mean making major changes to your life and lifestyle. It can mean making serious changes to your most stressful relationships. It can mean changing jobs. It can mean moving closer to work to avoid traffic. These are big changes that take courage, but they can pay big dividends to your health.

We will not cover stress avoidance techniques in this article. I will deal with that topic in detail in my book, and may cover it in a future issue of this newsletter.

Second, we can cope with stress when it's already with us--the stress we can't avoid for whatever reason. We will look a little bit at how to cope with stress in this article. Coping with stress is a large issue, so we will deal with only a couple of sub topics and save the rest for later.

I want primarily to share with you some of the insights from Robert Sapolsky's book "Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers".

Robert Sapolsky is perhaps the most renowned stress researcher in the world today. He operates out of Stanford University and has done a lot of fieldwork with baboons in Africa.

By coping effectively with stress you will improve your odds of staying away from carbohydrates and sticking to your low carb diet.

Dealing With Stress -- First, Choose Your Parents Well!

Sapolsky's number one piece of advice for coping with stress is this: Choose your parents carefully.

It turns out that much of the difference among the ways people handle stress has to do with who their parents are or were. This is because much of our ability for coping with stress has to do with our genes and our early upbringing.

Some people are naturally more type-A, and much of this is determined by genes (though fortunately our natural personalities aren't quite etched in stone and can be changed to some degree.) These type-A people will usually suffer more from stress than those born with other personality types.

Also, infants who are handled affectionately more often early in life will have better responses to stress than those who weren't handled as often or as lovingly.

Now this is not terribly useful advice--and Sapolsky points this out. His advice is intended primarily with tongue in cheek. You can't choose your parents, you can't change your genes, and you can't affect your early childhood anymore.

But, in spite of all this, you can actually use this advice to some degree.

First, you can decide that you will treat your own children with ample affection early in their lives. Among other benefits this will give them a greater ability to handle stress well in their lives. You can in effect decide to help your young children and grandchildren to "choose their parents well."

And if your children decide later in life that they want to try to maintain a low carb diet, you can be proud that you have made it easier for them to stick to their diets.

Second, although your natural personality is largely determined by genes, it is not entirely determined by genes. In fact, it can still be determined, to some degree, by conscious effort on your part to change it. If you can identify that you have a type-A coping strategy, you can take note of this and take measures to counteract this aspect of your personality. In other words, you can re-invent yourself to some degree.

Affirmations and visualization exercises -- basically the things taught by Tony Robbins and others -- can help you develop a new outlook on life, and new coping strategies as well. If you are unfamiliar with these methods of self-improvement there is a great new book out that lets you sample the top 101 self-improvement gurus. I will share many of these techniques in my book.

Life Management -- Be In Control

Here is another piece of advice from Robert Sapolsky: Get Control of Your Life!

When you feel out of control, you will feel more stressed, and will be more likely to eat sweets and starches.

Here's an illustration from Sapolsky.

It used to be that most hospitals required painkillers, such as morphine, to be administered by nurses. This approach created a lot of stress for patients. After it had been a while since the last dose, the patient would start to become agitated. It was partly that they felt pain, but partly that they felt an intense general anxiety.

Patients would start pestering the nurses. "Is it time yet? Is it time yet?"

Then a discovery was made. When control was put into the hands of the patients, so that they could administer the drug as often as they liked, something surprising happened. Patients actually used less of the painkiller when they self-administered than when they relied on the nurse.

Why was that?

Sapolsky proposes that the issue was control. When there is control there is less worry about not getting the drug when you need it. There is less worry about having to go through intense pain without any remedy. The worry actually made the pain worse. When there was a sense of control the patients dealt with the pain more easily.

The general lesson is this: Increasing control can reduce stress.

So that leads to another question. How can you increase your sense of control over your life? I can't go into too much detail here, but here are some suggestions:

  • Simplify your life
  • Get Organized
  • Live Within Your Means (cut expenses)

Other Methods of Dealing With Stress

These are just the first two of Sapolsky's suggestions. I didn't go into as much detail as you might have liked, but it should point you in the right direction.

Let me just list the rest of Sapolsky's stress management suggestions, with a promise to spend more time discussing them in the future -- either in my book, or in the newsletter.

1. Outlook management -- To manage stress effectively you have to maintain self-esteem. To do this you should look at events differently depending on whether they are positive or negative. Basically, if they are positive events, it is good to feel like you are responsible for the event. If it is negative, it is best to attribute the event to factors outside of your control.

You've also heard the saying "hope for the best and prepare for the worst"? Well it turns out that this is great advice, but for best stress management you should strive for about 70-80% hope for the best and only 20-30% prepare for the worst.

2. Have outlets for your stress -- For me these include chess, strength training, and hot baths. Aerobic exercise is also important, and has other positive consequences for those trying to lose weight. Special breathing techniques, stretching, and meditation exercises have also proven useful for coping with stress.

3. Get social support-- Now this is actually trickier than it might appear. Getting social support doesn't just mean having close friends and family. People who are close to you can actually cause more stress than they alleviate.

If someone helps you with financial stress, but intentionally or inadvertently attaches emotional strings that create more stress in the process, you might very well be better off without the help.

You need people around you who are not judgmental, and whom you enjoy. You might actually have to try to get some distance between yourself and some of your more judgmental and otherwise stress-producing friends and family members. And a discussion of this point merits at least a full chapter of a book.


If you have had trouble sticking to a low carb diet, my bet is that a major reason for this is that you have had a lot of stress in your life.

One very effective way to make yourself feel better for a while is to eat a bag of cookies. Or a bag of potato chips. Or a few slices of Pizza. Or three cream-filled, chocolate-covered doughnuts. Or some pumpkin pie. Or macaroni and cheese, or...

You get the point, I'm sure.

This is why it is essential to learn how to avoid stress, when possible, and to cope with it when you can't avoid it.

Jim Stone is the author of "Stop Cheating
On Your Low Carb Diet!", found at
Jim also offers a free monthly newsletter at


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