In a recent interview, I was asked, “What is your favorite healthy food?”
I laughed and responded, “Wedding cake!”
Silence on the other end of the call.
It’s not expected that a registered dietitian will list cake among the healthiest foods, but that is because of how our society views nutrition. We are taught that nutrition is the cumulative collection of micro- and macronutrients that affect our body in specific and predictable ways. How are your macros today? Did you consume adequate choline? How is your A1c responding to fill-in-the-blank diet change?
But you, dear reader, you know better. You know the feeling that washes over you as you take a bite of that noodle kugel. You know, the recipe that has been sleeping in that semi-rusted tin box, handed down from great-grandmother to grandmother to mother and eventually to you. You know that when you taste that buttery deliciousness, you are connecting with generations of women before you, who were connecting with generations of women before them. And you know that your daughters, or daughters-in-law, or nieces will join you in that same experience, even after you’re gone.
Nutrition is more than a set of calculations and predictable biological responses. Nutrition is connection. Shared experiences.
So why wedding cake?
Wedding cake is served – well, at a wedding! The joining together of two people, two families. It’s a fresh start. The community gathers and celebrates the eternal optimism that a wedding represents.
So am I feeding you a line of… cake?
Yes and no.
There is science to back this all up, and it’s less about the macros and more about hormones.
Pressure at the table as we try to get our children to eat, the unending pursuit of the perfect diet, and confusing headline after confusing headline – these all contribute to stress. And stress means increased cortisol, adrenaline, and norepinephrine. These hormones have an important function when you’re trying to escape a hungry bear, but when they are released more frequently than they are actually needed, they start to interrupt important bodily functions. They lead to erratic sleep patterns, uncomfortable digestion, decreased immunity, elevated blood pressure, elevated blood sugar, and they also contribute to weight gain.
Let me repeat that: pursuit of the perfect nutrition for oneself and her family is related to increased stress and social isolation. This puts her family at an increased risk of the very health concerns from which she is trying to protect them.
When we relax, knowing that enjoying our family time and community celebrations are just as valuable as that side salad that wasn’t actually desired, we can fully participate in the joy.
So what happens in the body when you’re dancing the hora? Or toasting the new couple? When you’re savoring that bite of delicious wedding cake? You get a hormone cascade there too. Only this one is made of relaxation endorphins: serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin. These help to boost and regulate mood, appetite, and digestion. Serotonin also helps maintain bone health, a common concern among women. These hormones help to balance the stress hormones, and by that action, help to regulate blood pressure, blood sugar, and immunity.
Have I sold you on this idea? Do you now find yourself looking through your calendar eagerly anticipating the next simcha? The good news is that you don’t have to wait. You can also boost your happy hormones by:
- Experiencing joyful movement: any physical activity that gets your heart rate up while bringing a smile to your face. Mine are YouTube Zumba videos and getting in the bounce house with my kids.
- Enjoying family meals: that’s a whole book unto itself. If you need help in this area, contact me. This is important for many reasons.
- Prayer and meditation, including mindfulness activities.
- Practicing regular self-care.
- Making time for quality and enjoyable time with friends and family.
- Listening to soothing music.
- Eating something delicious in a mindful way. Enjoy it. And then move on, without the guilt.
And as far as nutrition, your best health can be achieved by recognizing that physical health is only part of the picture. By including considerations for your mental and social health, and recognizing that they truly work together, you can see improvement in your blood panel while enjoying the foods you love, and cherishing time with friends and family.
This piece was originally published in Nashim Magazine.