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ROBIN ABCARIAN

Quake Leaves Shaken Survivors With a Quirk to Chew On

January 30, 1994|ROBIN ABCARIAN

Oh. Hello there. How embarrassing. I know I'm supposed to be writing this column, but actually, I'm trying to cram a very large banana-nut muffin into my mouth right now. In fact, I'm having a little trouble squeezing my work schedule in around my eating schedule.

It's been that way for two weeks.

Ever since the quake hit, I haven't stopped eating, or thinking about eating.

Fat grams, shmat grams.

And I am not alone.

My friend Bob, father of three, brought home a jumbo box of Twinkies after the earthquake. For himself.

Joan, renowned among friends as a cook of low-fat, low-cholesterol gourmet fare, purchased a pound of bacon the day after the quake. "We rarely eat bacon," said her husband, Marvin, a few days later. "And we do still have some of it left," he added contritely.

Yeah, sure, Marv.

And Kathi, who claims she is always on a "very strict low-fat diet," drove through McDonald's, inhaled a deep-fried chicken sandwich with extra mayo and swore she'd never tasted anything so good.

You may think this is inconsequential, just a little quirk of the quake, but there are serious public health implications here.

Let's say the population of Los Angeles is about 3.5 million.

I'm guessing, conservatively, that we have gained two pounds per person since the earthquake, plus an additional half-pound per person in the Valley, minus the five pounds per person lost by the 100 or so people who forget to eat when they are stressed. That comes to a total of 7,749,500 pounds gained since Jan. 17.

Forget about clogged human arteries. Think about clogged traffic arteries.

Do you have any idea what just some of that additional weight could mean on a freeway overpass when the next one hits?

God, I could really use a Snickers.

*

Why do we react to stress by eating foods we normally try to avoid? Why not just kick the dog? Or bite the kids' heads off? (Some people, of course, do all of those things, but we don't have enough space here for all of my problems.)

According to June Payne-Palacio, a professor of nutritional science at Malibu's Pepperdine University, there are two theories on why we fall prey to Post-Traumatic Stress Eating Syndrome: regression and body chemistry.

In the first, mind doctors theorize that bad experiences send our habits reeling back to childhood, when Mom may have comforted us or rewarded us with ice cream, cookies or cake. Scrape a knee? Have a treat. Lose your entire set of Waterford crystal? Have a gallon of Cherry Garcia.

I know two women, besides me, who whipped up batches of tapioca pudding for themselves in the days following the quake. Because I am in denial, as well as eating too much, I pretended the pudding was for my husband. Mysteriously, it had disappeared before he came home from work.

The second theory is based on a biological response to certain foods. Payne-Palacio says preliminary research shows that sugar in our mouths or fat in our small intestines may release stress-reducing endorphins. "Endorphins tend to calm us," she said. "They make us feel good."

Some nutritionists suggest that instead of gorging on fatty foods, we should reach for low-fat foods that give chewing satisfaction--foods such as celery or carrots. This is why, with all due respect to Payne-Palacio, no one listens to nutritionists.

In any case, I have a third theory, based on my 2-week-old research about what happens to a dieter who thinks death is imminent. I call it Carpe Twinkies: If one is feeling especially mortal, one sure as hell does not want to go to one's reward on an empty stomach. And because one does not plan to be buried in one's bathing suit, one may as well snarf down that Fat Burger and die happy.

And pass the tapioca pudding, please.

*

There's something else. Ever notice how well you sleep after a big meal?

Last Sunday, after months of skinless chicken breasts and plain broccoli, I suddenly got the urge to cook, really cook.

I did not reach for my low-fat Jane Brody bible. I grabbed "Mastering the Art of French Cooking," Julia Child's sauce-heavy cookbook. Leafing through the old volume, I settled on boeuf bourguignon--something I thought I would never in my cholesterol-conscious life make again: six pounds of beef, nearly a pound of bacon, onions and mushrooms stewed in butter.

It was lovely. The stew simmered and bubbled and chuckled on the stove.

I scrubbed new potatoes, cut fresh bread, made a vinaigrette, tossed a salad.

For dessert, homemade cheesecake and fresh strawberries.

Afterward, I fell into a deep, dreamless slumber.

And woke up hungry.

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