Eating is an incredibly popular way to alleviate stress, although of course it inevitably makes things worse in the long run. This post wanders down memory lane to revisit some highlights of emotional consumption lore.
“Self-Inflicted Wounds” is about laboratory rodents dealing with the stress of slight but annoying physical discomfort, who eat extra food as a coping mechanism, although it is actually an act of self-sabotage that makes them fat. We also looked at Dr. Billi Gordon’s ideas about how emotional eating is always symbolic.
It was easy enough for science to prove that experimental mice will eat fancy food, if it’s on offer. But if they are stressed, they will over-consume even their boring mundane kibble. This is reminiscent of the observations Dr. Pretlow has made of children participating in the W8Loss2Go program trials. Most of them seem to do fine, withdrawing from their severely problematic foods, and even giving up snacking between meals. But they find it very difficult to cut down their accustomed amounts of not particularly exciting foods in their everyday meals.
Often, compulsive eating seems to be less about the substance itself than the activity, which can qualify as a body-focused repetitive behavior (BFRB). Many members of the animal kingdom exhibit what appear to be BFRBs, but in the wild they are not really into food as an emotional bandage. Leave it to humans to bring stress alleviation to an art form, or at least a highly profitable disorder that benefits corporations much more than it does the people who engage in it.
Stress eating as a displacement activity, to distract from and counteract the stress of life, is far, far out of control. We recall Horace Fletcher, who was described by a contemporary as a “gentle philosopher.” He preached the chewing of each bite between 32 and 80 times — essentially, a displacement activity to displace the other displacement activities of bringing food to the mouth, biting, and swallowing.
In “Stress and Fat: A Complicated Relationship,” we considered the work of Dr. Elissa Epel, whose catch-phrase is, “It’s not just what you eat but what is eating you.” What is eating a lot of people is the unrelenting stress of caring for an aging family member with physical debilities, dementia, or both.
This particular demographic needs a lot of support. We said this:
Someone who is only stressed, or only fat, might coast, or at least avoid the most serious health consequences. But high stress exposure in combination with overweight is a recipe for accumulating dangerous abdominal fat and metabolism gone haywire, and, ultimately, premature aging. We learn the roles of cortisol, insulin, and opioid receptor antagonists…
But grownups who take care of older relatives are not alone in their constant struggle with stress. Dr. Pretlow conducted a poll among his young constituents, asking if their levels of stress had increased over the previous three years. An astonishing four out of five kids said yes!
This seems like a good place to mention that Dr. Pretlow’s book, Overweight: What Kids Say, contains an entire chapter on stress eating, including many hints on how to outwit the urge.
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