Belts are tightening across the country as the recession lags on. As wallets get flatter, Americans are getting fatter according to a June 2009 Gallup-Healthways poll. The poll found the number of obese Americans increased by 5.5 million people in the last year.
This represents the first real increase in obesity occurrence since 2003, swelling the percent of Americans suffering from obesity to 26.8 (up 1.7 percent from the first quarter of 2008.) Unless this epidemic is brought under control, earlier appearance of diabetes and heart disease is expected to get worse.
The recession is a probable reason behind the recent spike. Washington University has reported strong evidence that economic uncertainty can cause significant weight gain. In another recent survey of 1,000 Americans, 25 percent responded that they were more likely to turn to high-calorie comfort foods because of the economic situation.
“People who feel stressed, as many do in the midst of a financial recession, may turn to food for comfort and start to overindulge,” says Dr. Leonard Mastbaum, fellow of the American College of Endocrinology (FACE), senior medical advisor with OPTIFAST®, a medically monitored weight loss program that focuses on changing patients’ lifestyles and how they interact with food.
Emotionally based overeating, or using food to satisfy negative feelings not related to hunger, is a frequent threat to maintaining good, healthy eating habits. According to the Cleveland Clinic, it accounts for 75 percent of overeating.
“The problem is that this behavior does not resolve the underlying problem and is often followed by feelings of shame or guilt, and a decrease in feelings of self-worth,” added Dr. Jamy Ard, assistant professor of nutrition sciences and medicine at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and medical director with OPTIFAST. “This process may lead to repetitive overeating and the onset of a downward spiral-resulting in significant weight gain.”
The good news is that emotional (non-hunger) eating can be controlled with some effort. Doctors Mastbaum and Ard suggest the following steps:
Take note of when you’re eating, but aren’t actually hungry.
Clues include eating a short time after a meal, or while doing activities such as reading or watching TV, sudden cravings for a particular food and feelings of guilt or self-deprecation after eating.
Learn what triggers emotional eating for you.
Keep a diary and record when and what you eat and what you are experiencing or feeling at the time (boredom, anger, frustration, etc.), take note of how hungry you are at the time by rating your hunger on a scale of 1 to 10. Study the diary to try to determine your triggers and what foods you turn to at these times. Some studies suggest that chewy and crunchy foods are more commonly consumed during periods of stress, frustration or anger, while creamy foods are often used to combat feelings of loneliness or depression. Make eating a solitary activity rather than eating while taking part in another activity.
Make a list of non-eating activities that you enjoy, to help alleviate your emotional eating triggers.
Physical activity can boost your mood. Keep a list of activities you enjoy with you at all times. This activity or exercise could make you feel better and will provide you with alternatives when you feel the urge to eat inappropriately.
Recognize when you’re lapsing and eating on a non-hunger basis. Try to learn what triggers your own inappropriate eating.
Some clues: emotional “hunger” comes on suddenly, is associated with a craving for a specific food and is followed by feelings of guilt or shame.
Get to the root of your feelings and take action to change them.
Much of the financial stress that stems from the recession may feel like it’s out of your control. Try to find actionable steps you can take to feel more in charge-it will help you feel like you’re making progress and, ultimately, less overwhelmed.
Overcoming emotional overeating is crucial to the success of any diet or weight loss plan. It’s also an important part of maintaining a healthy weight, but even the most dedicated dieters struggle with it.
The longer emotional eating is a challenge, the more weight gain and negative health effects are likely to occur. For those who battle significant weight problems and need to lose more than 50 pounds, Dr. Mastbaum recommends calling on a support team of professionals like those with the OPTIFAST Program to help you take control of your eating behaviors and achieve your weight loss goals.