Leslie Fuller tried to stick to her shopping list on a recent grocery run. Instead, she found herself venturing down the candy aisle, throwing bags of Hershey’s Miniatures and M&M’s into her cart.
“I should just put them down on the seat and sit on them,” said Fuller, a paralegal in Las Vegas. “That’s where they’re going to go — on my behind. I eat them because it makes me feel better.”
Tough times means tighter belts — and for many people tighter pants — as they turn to fatty, sugary comfort food to deal with recession-related stress.
Fuller, 51, recently lost her house to foreclosure through no fault of her own. She lost some of her husband’s income because of a pay cut. She lost her savings, which the couple used for moving expenses. She also recently put one of her dogs to sleep and is having foot surgery next month.
“To say that my life is stressful is an understatement,” said Fuller, who wants to lose 13 kg (30 pounds).
“I see a light at the end of the tunnel. I just don’t know how far it is.”
Denise Lamothe, an emotional eating expert and clinical psychologist in Exeter, N.H., said research indicates that more than half the population eats more when feeling stressed. She’s seeing patients who were losing weight before financial trouble hit but are now eating more.
“As the economy has faltered, people have become more and more anxious, more and more fearful,” said Lamothe, author of The Taming of the Chew.
The more intense feelings become, the more people will turn to sugar, fat and salt because that’s where they can get some relief.“”
Such food is also cheaper per calorie than fruits and vegetables, said Linda Hlivka, co-author of Stress Eater Diet. McDonald’s, with its value menu, has benefited from the economic slump while sit-down competitors report steep declines.
With so many people out of work, it becomes easy to snack all day to fill the time, said Leslie Seppinni, a psychotherapist in Beverly Hills, Calif., adding that women are more likely than men to binge due to stress.
Suzanne Brumfield, 38, of Groton, Conn., found that out when she was unemployed for about six months last year. She reached for Little Debbie Oatmeal Creme Pies and Drake’s Funny Bones cakes because of boredom and mounting frustration from applying for countless jobs.
She gained about 13 kg and ended up 45 kg (100 pounds) overweight.
Brumfield, who is married and has three stepchildren, has since found a job as an office manager, but she’s making less.
“I never really got anything positive out of it,” said Brumfield, who is now on Nutrisystem and has lost the weight she gained. “I never got the ’That satisfied a craving. I’m good now.’ It was, ‘I cannot believe I ate another one of those.”’
Stress eating generally follows a lifelong pattern, and most people will stress eat from time to time, depending on how bad the stress is and how long it lasts.
While there are lots of stressors that people will face throughout their lives, whether it’s the death of a loved one or divorce, financial worries are a huge trigger for overeating, said Hlivka. Not being able to pay bills, find work or support a family, watching retirement savings shrink. All hit home on a daily basis, she said.
“It doesn’t seem to go away, and for those people that are looking for jobs and can’t find jobs, their survival is at risk,” Hlivka said.
Jan Anderegg, 48, a mom of five in Guttenberg, Iowa, said at one time she was eating five or six boxes of candy a day to cope with money worries. She and her husband’s farm suffered a hit last year because of the rising costs of corn and hay, and they continue to field calls from bill collectors.
But Anderegg has lost 27 kg (60 pounds) since December. Instead of eating, she now writes short stories and logs on to the free health and weight loss website SparkPeople.com for support.
She keeps one box of candy in the house so she doesn’t go overboard. And she also eats more fruits and vegetables, drinks more water and watches portions.
Experts recommend stress eaters acknowledge the stress, and substitute eating from boredom, depression or anxiety with exercise or a hobby. But it’s important to get a handle on it. For most people, the extra calories will add up to extra pounds.
Registered dietician Lynne Greiger on the web site Your Total Health, offers these tips on both dealing with stress, and resisting those cravings that seem to creep up on you when your life gets stressful
• Learn to relax. Try deep-breathing exercises during which you close your eyes, consciously relax your body and focus on your breathing for five to 20 minutes each day. Try to breath deeply and remove all other thoughts from your mind.
• Try an audio-tape progressive relaxation exercise. Look in your local bookstore for ideas. These tapes usually have pleasant background music or sounds from nature and they lead you through relaxation exercises.
• Banish bad thoughts from your mind. Memorize a prayer or poem to repeat to yourself every time you have a negative thought or feel yourself under increasing stress. Look through favorite books of poetry for ideas, or ask your pastor for help.
• Exercise. Daily exercise not only helps control blood sugar and also works to reduce stress. Try a daily 15- to 20-minute walk to clear your head. Focus on positive thoughts during your exercise time. If you can’t get out to take a walk, try stretching in your shower or walking stairs. Do what you can, but try to commit to 15 to 20 minutes of some movement per day. You deserve it.
• As for comfort food, make yourself goodie bags. Regarding the snacking on “comfort foods,” accept that you can’t go back on what you have already consumed, but know that you can take it one step at a time, one day at a time. Try to make a commitment to yourself that you will prepare the next day’s snacks the night before. That way, you’ll have healthy food already prepared which you can carry with you throughout the day.
Your goodie bags can include:
• A hard-boiled egg, red-pepper strips and four to six whole-grain crackers
• one cup soy milk or skim milk and one English muffin topped with a smear of peanut butter or all-fruit spread
• three graham crackers and an orange
• half a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich on whole-wheat bread
• apple slices and one small sugar-free yogurt.
• Most importantly, don’t give up! If you try one of these ideas and it doesn’t seem to work, don’t put the blame on yourself. Try another approach, find a different support group or talk with a different health-care consultant.
You’re too important to not give yourself every possible chance.