Doctors: Don't Find Comfort in Stress Eating
October 12, 2004
New York Times Syndicate
PALM BEACH, Fla. -- It could be an argument over that five-figure purchase from Saks Fifth Avenue.
Or the energy-sapping demands of teen-age children.
And it certainly could be the trauma generated by hurricanes Frances and Jeanne.
Whatever the trigger, stress eating can pack on the pounds quicker than you can say "Godiva Belgian Dark Chocolate ice cream." French fries, potato chips and those oh-so-handy pints of Ben & Jerry's can transform you into a Chunky Monkey if you fail to recognize what is happening.
Two area weight-loss experts say recognizing stress eating and using strategies to avoid it are key to preventing an unwanted weight increase.
Turning to comfort foods When situations cause psychological stress, comfort foods -- foods typically high in sugar and fat -- offer a quick fix, said Dr. Daisy Merey, a family practitioner who specializes in treating obesity.
Food and pleasure are inexorably linked.
"We were under a lot of stress," Merey said, referring to the hurricanes that recently slammed the Palm Beaches.
"When our roof is caving in and we have water coming up to the ankles, we don't care about anything but how to relieve stress," Merey said.
"Food is our number one anti-anxiety product and antidepressant. And it's available. You don't need a prescription." We typically reach for high-carbohydrate, high-fat foods during times of stress because those foods gave comfort in childhood, according to Dr. Lisa Marie DeRosimo, director of the Weight and Wellness Center in West Palm Beach.
"You get instant gratification. You feel good for the moment. At a time when things have been so uncertain and out of control, it brings back memories of foods that made you feel better as a child," DeRosimo said.
"When we were children and fell down and hurt our knee, our mother would give us a cookie and it would make it better," Merey said. "So we learned food is the best consolation. It's been ingrained in our brain."
Craving comfort foods
Chemicals in foods such as chocolate may increase the levels of serotonin, dopamine and other mood-lifting neurotransmitters in the brain. Once people start indulging in foods high in fat and sugar, the brain and body get used to those foods and crave them, said Merey, author of Don't Be a Slave to What You Crave (S.P.I. Books).
"Once you start, like the commercial for potato chips says, 'you can't eat just one,' " Merey said. "Once the brain is primed by that particular food, it just wants more and more. It is an addiction." Health risks Comfort foods such as cookies, ice cream and candy bars raise blood-sugar levels and heavy consumption of them can increase the risk of developing diabetes and heart disease, DeRosimo said.
The spike in blood sugar can boost a person's energy and mood, but the subsequent drop in blood sugar rapidly takes away those benefits.
"You can feel more tired and depressed than you felt before you started," DeRosimo said. "Then you want more and more. It is a vicious cycle." Strategies for change Being aware of the consequences of stress eating is the first step in eliminating it as a problem.
When possible, decide what you will order before you arrive at a restaurant, Merey said.
"If you go out to eat, think ahead of time what particular food you are going to consume so you are not going to be swayed by somebody else," said Merey, who has her clients maintain a diet diary.
"They realize, 'Oh yeah, every time my mother-in-law says something nasty to me, I open the refrigerator and I eat everything that is there,' " Merey said. The bariatrics specialist also advises clients to stay away from the bakery and other areas of the grocery store filled with diet-busting foods.
Rather than eating to ease frustrations, Merey suggests exercise or treating oneself with a small present.
DeRosimo suggests exercise and professional counseling as ways to combat unhealthful eating habits. Reading a behavior modification book might be helpful, DeRosimo said.
"It's been a very difficult time," DeRosimo said. "Remember you are not alone. Everyone is experiencing the same thing to a certain degree."