Food Network Staffer Diary: I Tried 7 Foods That (Supposedly) Curb Fear
Every time the trailer for a horror movie pops into my life, I go into flight mode. Headphones out. TV on mute. Ears covered. Eyes closed. Singing “la-la-la-la” until it’s finally over. I do all this to prevent what I know will come if I don’t: me looking out the shower curtain every 15 seconds, going out of my way to avoid mirrors in the dark, and lying awake at night irrationally paralyzed by fear for weeks.
Did I ask for the scary-movie-trailer life? No, I did not. The scary-movie-trailer life asked for me — poor, innocent, fully grown, scaredy-cat me. I get scared of pretty much everything. Even that rated PG-movie Enchanted — yes, the one about fairy tales coming to the real world — at one point made me jump five feet above my theater seat. The old hag was really ugly, OK?
Needless to say, I do not watch horror movies. But if I did, all of them would get a rating of 1,000 out of 10 on the scariness scale from yours truly.
Besides making me a hilariously entertaining horror-movie buddy, this scaredy-cat quality of mine also makes me a prime test subject. For what, you ask?
Well, according to Food & Life, a health-focused cookbook authored by Michelin-starred French chef Joël Robuchon and,neuropharmacologist and acupuncturist Nadia Volf, eating certain foods can help curb fear. Yes, apparently other than just willing yourself to be unafraid of fictional monsters and demons, there is possibly another way to get through a horror flick. So I set out to test whether Robuchon and Volf’s prescribed foods could actually fight fear.
Step One: Eat said foods, and only those foods.
Step Two: Sit through one of those gosh-darned horror movies.
To my surprise, the fear-fighting foods on Robuchon and Volf’s list are not outrageously rare or unheard of. Some, if not all, are foods that you can easily find at almost any grocery store: “Certain vegetables (zucchini, endive), mushrooms, seaweed, certain fruits (chestnuts, melon, watermelon, tropical fruits), legumes (black beans, black-eyed peas), shellfish, mussels, certain fish (catfish, shark, grouper), sesame seeds.”
In order to avoid “tainting” my experiment and bloodstream as much as possible, I chose a few items from the list and bought enough food to create three meals leading up to The Moment of Truth — that is, a screening of the movie Ouija: Origin of Evil.
I picked up foods from the list that are relatively easy to prepare and cook: zucchini, endives, mushrooms, shrimp, catfish, cantaloupe (a melon) and bananas (a tropical fruit).
I sauteed everything except the cantaloupe and the bananas. And in an effort to make the meals as “pure” as possible, I seasoned minimally with nothing more than some olive oil, garlic, salt and pepper.
And voila! Dinner was served — one pretty OK, edible plate of food with no culinary cohesion whatsoever. My kind of meal.
I made an extra portion of exactly the same thing for lunch the next day. And finally, prepared one banana and one Tupperware of cantaloupe to be ready to go for breakfast in the morning.
The Day of Reckoning
As I eat my pretty OK, and incidentally healthy, meals the next day, my coworker asks me, “Are you feeling any different?”
Not really. Or at least not noticeably, from a mental standpoint.
But in hindsight, I realize I was very mellow the whole day. Strangely, I was not nervous about seeing the prequel/second installment of the Ouija franchise, a film that warns against breaking the rules of the Ouija game through a terrifying unraveling of what happens when a little girl becomes possessed by vengeful, bloodthirsty demons.
This is the ultimate stuff of nightmares. The whole demon-possession genre scares the pants off of me because these films are often set inside a home. Where I am. A lot.
Another thing I notice throughout the day is that my stomach feels amazing. I have a sensitive tummy that tends to bloat a lot, but with these meals, I felt 10 times better and flushed out.
Soon enough, it was time.
Pre-Moment of Truth
Just before I enter the theater, I whip out one more trusty banana to eat before the movie.
I suspect that most of the foods on the list work in a similar manner, but let me break down how bananas work to curb fear. Bananas, a superfruit, contain nutrients that give them their “calming effect.”
These include potassium, magnesium and, most importantly, tryptophan, the essential amino acid “precursor” to serotonin. Serotonin is a biochemical that contributes to feelings of well-being and happiness. Think of tryptophan as a building block or ingredient needed to help you and your body feel good.
Another way that foods can help fight fear — or really, calm you — is by improving digestion, which explains why my stomach felt much happier throughout the day. Bloating, the buildup of water between cells, can be caused by poor digestion and an imbalance between sodium and potassium. By eating a potassium-rich melon (in this case, an entire cantaloupe), I combatted bloating by managing that sodium and potassium balance.
Fear and anxiety are often associated with an upset stomach. When faced with less-than-ideal situations, one’s stomach “churns.” So there is logic behind Robuchon and Volf’s prescription. One way to curb fear is to “treat” one aspect of it — that is, the physical uneasiness of the stomach.
With just about the most-chill stomach ever, I go forth to watch Ouija: The Origin of Evil. Dun, dun, dun.
The Moment of Truth
What kind of pseudoscientist would I be if I didn’t bring along a control group? Henry, my dear friend and control group, comes with me. He is a self-proclaimed wuss. Two scaredy-cats watching a horror flick — this will definitely end well.
The opening scene includes one of those jump-out-of-your-seat scares. I jump, of course. My control group does not. But I power through and keep my eyes open, for science. While I do react to some of the initial scares, nothing is too horrible, and I remain relatively calm.
Not really spoiler alert: A cute, innocent little girl is now possessed by a demon and creepy as heck. And a bunch of increasingly disturbing events have occurred.
I do grip Henry’s arm here and there, but I am still watching the movie. I am still following the plotline. This is an accomplishment for me. But it is getting worse. I spend some of my time watching through the spaces of my fingers. Again, an accomplishment for me.
It’s All Downhill From Here
“Is there a God?” I ask myself, as I stare at the floor and not at the screen. Clearly, there isn’t in this movie.
Ouija goes from doable to I-won’t-be-able-to-sleep-for-the-next-year-NO-NOT-DOABLE.
We’ve gone through a slew of jump-scares at this point, and I have resorted to screaming, clenching my eyes shut, hunching half my body over and gripping Henry’s leg like a scared dog. (Can you imagine me in the theater? Full of strangers? In public? I hate myself.)
Henry yell-whispers, “Get it together! This is your job!”
“I DON'T CARE,” I say.
My control group is still watching the movie and is pretty much fine.
Bam, bam, bam. Roar, roar, roar. Shriek.
After a certain point, I give up. I am exhausted. I can’t even react to the movie anymore so I look away and wait for it to end. I barely know what happens during the last third.
At least my stomach doesn’t hurt.
One horror movie later, I am mentally exhausted and Henry has discovered just how ridiculous I am.
“So how many times were you scared, when I was scared?” he asked.
“Hah – like, 1 to 25,” I answered.
So my “super” meals didn’t turn out to be so super after all. They did not magically flip my scaredy-cat switch off and make me braver than a bunch of preteen girls with something to prove chanting “Bloody Mary” into a mirror in the middle of the night. To be fair, my hopes were not realistic. What did I expect? If I could actually find something that could turn my fear off, just like that, we’d be heading into some precarious territory.
While fear can be inhibiting, it is also the body’s way of steering us away from danger. In this case, my fear prevented me from watching something that could have affected my sleep cycle and general sanity for the next couple of days, even if it was irrational and relatively unserious.
Eating the prescribed fear-curbing foods did not necessarily help in the context of a horror film, but it did help me stay calm leading up to the movie. And it did help my stomach feel really good.
And so, what I found for myself was a list of foods that could help prevent bloating and keep me calm in times when I am nervous, for example, leading up to a performance or test — some of the less-in-your-face, actual-real-life sources of fear and anxiety.
At the very least, I found a list of foods that can help settle my stomach. Whether you're facing a murderous demon or taking your driving test for the fourth time, if you can stop your stomach from churning, that’s one fewer thing to worry about.
Photos by Kiana Yancy