Stress-Eating and Recession Obesity

Large ladyYou know a writer is onto something when a piece she wrote almost two years ago is even more true than on the day it was first published. Georgia Lund, a contributor to the Yahoo! Network, made a few observations about the relationship between the murky fiscal environment we have been immersed in and the childhood obesity epidemic. She wrote,

It’s during those times of economic related stress that we reach out for something to comfort us, something that will give us an immediate sense of gratification that we are still able to afford.

Namely, gooey goodies and fried treats. Parents may not be able to afford an outing to the circus, but they can give the kids a bag of chips at home. And a liter of soda pop. A Disney World vacation is not in the cards this year, but hey, we can swing a McDonald’s Happy Meal. Even though we know that a fat kid is not a healthy kid, and although we are aware that overweight kids are more susceptible to high blood pressure, diabetes, and other medical problems, we give in to children’s entreaties for treats. As grownups who should know better, we indulge ourselves too often, too.

Parents are either stressed about their jobs, or stressed about not having any work. Families are evicted, cities sprout encampments of tents and cardboard huts, and young people embark on their productive lives burdened with enormous loans to pay back, if they were lucky enough to go to college at all. Even experienced professionals with multiple degrees wonder where the next mortgage payment will come from.

Young people are experiencing stress as never before. In Dr. Pretlow’s presentation “Why Are Children Overweight?,” he quotes the words of young people in the grip of stressful emotions that find expression in eating disorders and result in obesity. Kids are faced with challenges at school and in difficult family situations. Even though most teens aren’t in charge of supporting themselves, they still have financial problems. Adolescence has never been easy, and now, in the “childhood obesity perfect storm” created by a number of societal factors, being a teenager is more difficult than ever. In Slide 25 (actually a video clip), a boy talks about comfort-eating.

Lund’s article considered two of the many things that are going on. First, junk-food feasts take the place of more expensive entertainment. Second, the generally lousy economic situation leads to plenty of emotional eating, to relieve stress, and for comfort in a time of turmoil. These factors combine to cause what Lund calls “recession obesity.” We will get back to her thoughts, after a short digression into a low-calorie, low-risk, highly effective way of dealing with stress.

This advice is from stress management coach Susan Del Gatto, who recommends this technique next time a stressful event rips the fabric of your life:

Stop and pause for 3 seconds — this will give you time to change your reaction. Think of the 2 powerful words to reverse your stress response, ‘Oh well.’

Del Gatto explains that this seemingly passive attitude is not proof of indifference. It doesn’t mean “So what?” And you certainly don’t need to say it out loud, because others might not understand. But mentally reacting with “Oh well” creates a little speedbump that can keep a negative stimulus from snowballing into a fullgrown stress response. She says,

‘Oh well’ […] will give your mind permission to acknowledge that whatever has caused the stress to come to the surface is not the end of the world.

Self-talk is a very important component of mental health. Actually, it probably doesn’t matter what the words are as long as you have a private catchphrase to use for this purpose. In a novel called Hunga Dunga: Confessions of an Unapologetic Hippie by Phil Polizatto, one character is a youth who travels the world and of course runs into a certain number of adverse situations. He keeps the stress at a minimum by cultivating a simple response. Whatever happens, he tells himself, “This is better. This is much better.”

Returning to Lund: She is concerned, as we all ought to be, about where this is all headed. How much longer can everybody keep growing larger and larger? She says,

Obese children of today will in all likelihood grow up to be tomorrow’s obese adult. Tomorrow’s firefighters, tomorrow’s police officers, tomorrow’s soldiers. Bringing with them the extra weight and health issues that will prevent them from giving 100 per cent to their careers. Careers that could be a matter of life and death for those they serve.

Lund recommends home cooking as a good place to start in fixing this national tendency toward obesity. With so much unemployment, maybe one parent is home a lot of the time. What better family tradition could we establish than figuring out how to make healthy meals on a low budget?

Home cooking can not only be economical, it can help save on medical bills not just in the future, but immediately. Children suffer from a lot of mysterious ailments that can, with patience, be traced to food additives and allergies. That situation can only benefit by the  practice of cooking from scratch.

Home cooking as a family project can be a bonding experience. Any time two or more relatives spend quality time together over a cooking project, that’s a plus. One of the causes of childhood obesity is emotional hunger, expressed as physical hunger. Family togetherness and cooperation should help to alleviate that emotional hunger, and cooking with spices instead of grease is a nicer way to deal with the normal level of food hunger.

There is guidance available for the family that really wants to explore the possibilities of high-nutrition, low-cost meals, ranging from the mundane publications of county extension offices to the zingy publication called ChopChop, the nutritional literacy magazine for kids and parents, not to mention library books and online resources. As the saying goes, everybody’s gotta eat, so why not focus on healthful eating habits as a family? Curing “recession obesity” is a DIY project, and one that can only have good results.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Recession Obesity, a New By-Product of a Bad Economy,” Associated Content, 03/19/09
Source: “Why Are Children Overweight?,”
Source: “The 3-2-1 Effect,”
Source: “Hunga Dunga,”
Image by Tobyotter (Tony Alter), used under its Creative Commons license.

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OVERWEIGHT: What Kids Say explores the obesity problem from the often-overlooked perspective of children struggling with being overweight.

About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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