Salt ‘n’ Sugar. Two devils at the heart of most comfort food’s core ingredients. They are also the root cause of some of the most common health issues plaguing the west today – you know them: heart disease, diabetes etc…In fact, I’d even go further and say that sugar is a bigger issue today than most health practitioners care to admit, bigger than the myth of high fat/cholesterol diets being a leading cause of heart disease. Quite the opposite!

What has this got to with the wild west of yoga and investment banking?  Well…the yoga perhaps not (yet), but otherwise the two devils are commonly seen in the hallways and on trading floors, i.e. the pressure-cooker world of investment banking; especially when it reaches its boiling point.

My first glimpse of the realisation that there is a connection between sweet and salty foods and stress began last year at a particular committee meeting. As the meeting progressed,  I noticed that a very senior member of the committee, (whose actual attendance meant that we were feeling blessed for his presence) was consuming a bag of salted potato crisps. Whilst I did not pay much attention to this unremarkable event, I could sense that there was something going on that was consuming his mind. He was hunched over a little, with a glazed look in his eyes, mindfully eating the crisps.  Late night conversations with senior management perhaps, targets to meet…The normal high intensity stuff of the 24/7 world of investment banking.

It wasn’t until I bumped into one of the senior guys in our division the other day, who happened to be in town, that I put two and two together: Stress. I first saw him earlier outside, wandering around looking for something to eat or drink. In my stressed state of mind, I settled on a banana and peppermint tea, whereas my global boss went for the pure salt and no substance option: popcorn. Not that there is anything wrong with that, but the act of mindlessly eating a bag of salted, lifeless corn kernels really is a sign that the body is screaming out for some form of stress relief.

Sugar is also a well-known vice that folks in the office turn to in times of stress. In my last office, where I sat close to the local vending machine, I regularly turned to my favourite chocolate combination, coconut and milk chocolate (aka the ‘bounty bar’).  When I’m at my weakest, I may also indulge in a salty, trans-fat soaked bag of McCoys or Smiths.  Luckily, my body ‘rewards’ me with a spot or two for my indulgence, so that serves as a warning. My resilience has grown over the years as I realise what I’m putting in my body.

So what’s going on here? Salt, it has been suggested, reduces the level of stress hormones in the body and perhaps even raises the level of oxytocin, you know, the feel-good, “wanna hug everyone” hormone. According to the aptly named ‘Salt Institute‘, salt even fights depression – our bodies are geared for the stuff and it makes us feel good, so the theory says.  It has also been suggested that the effect of stress on the body raises the level of stress hormones called ‘glucocorticoids’ being secreted by the endocrine system, affecting the body’s perception of salty (and sweet) foods, resulting in cravings for such foods. I guess it’s all part of the body’s coping mechanism under duress, at the end of the day.

So, the lesson out of all this is that when we see our fellow colleagues reaching out for the vending machine or other outlet for some crisps, chocolate or anything salty or sweet, we could feel compassion for these poor folks. More often than not, they are not just hungry, but stressed. As managers, we can be mindful of this and make sure our colleagues are coping ok during difficult times.

Perhaps also ask yourself whether your favourite comfort fix is really doing you any good and whether you can change some of those bad habits: Try some ‘healthy’ sugar in the form of a piece of fruit or balance that with some protein in a bag of nuts.

Moreover though, it’s a realisation of how our society, that has evolved for quick and easy fixes, is now contributing to endemic health issues. Time for more yoga and pilates everybody?



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