Stress can put on pounds

Bob Dembicki, 57, of New York City, has always loved to eat, but he never knew how much comfort he got from food until after Sept. 11.

Dembicki managed the nursing staff at the surgical trauma unit and burn center at New York Presbyterian Hospital, which treated 22 badly burned victims from the World Trade Center towers.

For several weeks after the tragedy, he raced around the hospital working 16-hour days, and when he had a few minutes, he’d wolf down some of the high-fat fare brought in for the staff. At night when he was home alone in his apartment, he’d watch the TV news, cry in disbelief and console himself with big feasts of takeout food from local diners and delis: macaroni and cheese, chicken and mashed potatoes, burgers and fries, ice cream with chocolate syrup and whipped cream.

One evening, he remembers thinking: “Why am I eating this large container of macaroni and cheese?” And his answer was simply: “Because it feels good, and nothing feels good right now.”

By Thanksgiving, he had packed an extra 16 pounds on his 6-foot-2 frame, and he knew it was time to get back in shape and in control of his eating.

Just like every New Year, millions of Americans will resolve to lose weight. But this year, many more than the usual may be struggling with stress weight — those extra pounds they’ve picked up since the terrorist attacks.

Some people ate to soothe themselves. Others were less vigilant about watching their weight because it didn’t seem as important this fall. Avoiding that piece of cheesecake just didn’t seem worth the effort, and going to the gym felt a lot less important than being home with the kids or spending time with friends and family.

Even before Sept. 11, millions of Americans were tipping the scales in the wrong direction. A startling 61% of Americans weigh too much, and about 27% of them are obese — 30 pounds or more over a healthy weight, according to government statistics. The surgeon general recently issued a call to action to prevent and decrease obesity in this country.

Americans admit they’ve turned to food in recent months. In a poll sponsored by the American Institute for Cancer Research, about 41% said they made some changes in the way they ate after the attacks — eating more “comfort foods” such as mashed potatoes and gravy, fried chicken, and macaroni and cheese, more hearty foods such as steak, stews, and lasagna or more sugary foods such as desserts and ice cream.

People eat for a variety of emotional reasons, says John Foreyt, an obesity researcher at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.

“We are under so much stress, and we have very few outlets for that stress. We use food as a stress reliever,” he says. “We eat when we’re anxious, tense, stressed out, bored, lonely.

“What else can you do? Everything else is forbidden, and smoking is socially unacceptable. The legal thing you can do is eat.”

Food is comforting to some people for a whole cascade of psychological and biological reasons, says obesity expert Kelly Brownell, a psychology professor at Yale University in New Haven, Conn.

After Sept. 11, there was an immediate high level of stress for several days that caused some people to eat less, he says. And then for the next few months, people began suffering from chronically elevated levels of moderate stress, and while some continued to eat less, many people responded by eating more.

Some use food to self-medicate, he says, just as others use alcohol and tobacco. A drink at home after a hard day at work makes some people instantly calm down.

“Food does that for others,” he says. These people “may have a doughnut or a bag of chips and feel calm and relaxed as a consequence.”

There’s probably a biological basis for why food soothes and comforts some people more than others, Brownell says.

Stress and hormones

Pamela Peeke, associate clinical professor of medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore, believes stress hormones vary between individuals, which explains why some are stress undereaters and others are stress overeaters, she says.

Those who overeat during stressful times tend to seek out the comfort foods of their youth, Foreyt says. They fall back to foods they associate with times of lowest stress — that is, with childhood. Which is why many turn to mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese, and desserts.

That’s true for Rochelle Reid Myers, 37, a writer and editor at a trade association in Washington, D.C. She has been calming her fears since Sept. 11 by indulging her sweet tooth occasionally with cookies and candy.

“When I was a kid, I was a picky eater, but one of the few things I always wanted to eat was sweets, and eating them now kind of takes me back,” she says.

Myers lost 70 pounds in the last year and wants to lose 20 more, but dieting takes a lot of energy and emotion, and it has seemed less relevant since Sept. 11, she says. So she worked at just maintaining her weight during the holidays (she exercised almost daily) and is now back to trying to lose.

Sandra Bjork, 60, a nurse and an attorney who lives in Bethesda, Md., says she has tried to be a “little kinder” to herself since the terrorist attacks, anthrax scares and war effort, which have created a lot of general anxiety. Her downfall has been desserts and mashed potatoes. She has gained five pounds, which she is now trying to lose.

Compounding the problem is the tendency to ignore meal planning during high-stress times.

“Less planning means more restaurants, more takeout, fewer fruits and vegetables,” says Katherine Tallmadge, a registered dietitian in private practice in Washington, D.C., and author of a new book, Diet Simple. “When there is less planning, there are less healthy foods and more grab-and-go ones.”

And it’s so easy to get tasty food in this country, which is tempting for people who eat for emotional reasons, experts say.

“The more food is available virtually everywhere, the more likely the urge or thought of eating will result in actual eating,” says Michael Lowe, a professor of psychology at MCP Hahnemann University in Philadelphia.

If you are trying to lose weight or avoid gaining weight, there are some things you can do to make it easier on yourself, even when you’re under duress, Lowe says.

He recommends:

Cut down on dining out. If you eat out more than a couple of times a week, reduce that number. When people go to restaurants or cafeterias or buy from lunch carts, they have difficulty keeping their intake appropriately limited.

Clean out the cupboards. Clear your house out of the most tempting foods and buy treats in single portions. Don’t surround yourself with stored junk food. Sooner or later, you or another family member will eat more than is good for you, Lowe says.

Stay active. Do 30 minutes to an hour of vigorous physical activity, like a brisk walk, daily. It doesn’t matter as much what the activity is or whether you do it in one long bout or several shorter ones, but Americans need to set aside time to move their bodies virtually every day, he says. Exercise also will help relieve stress.

Linda Webb Carilli, a spokeswoman for Weight Watchers, says it’s important that those who have gained weight recently look back and learn something about themselves and their relationship with food. “The important thing is to get back on track,” she says.

That’s what Dembicki is doing. He knows how hard it is to take weight off. Three years ago when he joined Weight Watchers, he weighed 250 pounds and had high cholesterol and high blood pressure. He lost about 60 pounds over the course of 1 years.

He was down to 194 pounds before the terrorist attacks, but his weight climbed up to 210 in the weeks afterward. Then he decided to put the brakes on his eating and began going back to the group meetings.

Keeping a food journal

Dembicki is keeping a journal of what he eats. “I’m a firm believer that you’ve got to write it down. It’s like a checkbook, and you have to balance it.” He also is exercising again — walking quickly around the city to go to church and other places — and occasionally working out at a gym.

Throughout the holiday season, he was vigilant about what he ate. Now he has lost 14 pounds of the 16 he gained. Dembicki knows it’s hard to lose weight and keep it off in a world so “conducive to good eating.”

He’s reflective about his indulgences after the tragedy.

“Until this disaster, I never thought of food in a comfort way, but now I realize that the food satisfies emotional needs. It makes you feel good.

“Comfort foods are great at the moment and that’s it. That moment of gratification turns into pounds gained,” he says. “I’m just not yielding to temptation anymore.