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The Discomfort of 'Comfort Foods'

Stress of Sept. 11th dashed many pre-holiday slim-down plans

FRIDAY, Dec. 28, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- The parade of paunchy people resolving to lose weight this New Year should be larger than usual because many folks turned to so-called "comfort foods" following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Officials at Weight Watchers International say the focus of many meetings in recent months has shifted from discussing typical weight loss strategies to dealing with increased food desires because of the heightened stress of world events.

"Following September 11th, the terrorist attacks became a universal topic at many of our meetings. And much of the discussion has been on strategies for coping with cravings for food as a source of comfort," says Weight Watchers spokeswoman Linda Webb Carilli.

"For instance, one thing we discuss a lot now is, if you do turn to food for comfort, how to choose a food that will give you the same satisfaction without causing you to put on extra pounds," she says.

Carilli says the organization's busiest months are typically January, February and March. But the atmosphere of meetings for weight loss groups in general may be even more appealing this year, offering a combination of weight loss support and a sort of group therapy.

"We've seen that many who were traumatized by September 11th have found the Weight Watchers' meetings to be a place of community to discuss the impact of the events on their lives and their eating habits," she says.

Nutritionist Connie Diekman, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, says the instincts that steer people to comfort foods are both chemically and emotionally based.

"Some foods indeed work on seratonin levels in the brain to produce a calming effect," she says. "And simply adjusting your blood sugar levels by not being hungry can relax you."

"But quite often, we turn to certain foods when under stress simply because we have come to associate them with a sense of security," she adds. "We see this a lot with college students when they leave home for the first time. They'll look for the familiar foods that remind them of home."

Diekman says finding a way to get fit -- and stay fit -- can be a way of conquering stress.

"After September 11th, many of us felt like our lives were spinning out of control," she says. "But you can bring things back into control by planning things out and saying, 'Here's what I'll do. Every three to four hours a day, I will have some sort of small, healthy meal. And I will try to get more exercise regularly.' "

Diekman adds, "That control itself can make you feel more at ease."

Some of the biggest mistakes people make when trying to lose weight, according to Carilli, include:

  • Setting unrealistic goals: "Most studies suggest that a reasonable goal is to try losing 10 percent of your current body weight," she says. "And it's recommended that you try to maintain that loss before trying to lose more."
  • Crash dieting: "You really have to create a new way of eating for your life because if you go on some austere diet, it's kind of like becoming a different person," Carilli says. "Then, when you finally go off [the diet], it too often is like simply returning to the old person because you haven't adopted a way of eating as a lifestyle."
  • Losing weight too fast: "The general rule is the faster you lose, the faster you'll gain it back," says Carilli.
  • Getting frustrated: "The rule of thumb is that during the first three weeks, you're going to lose a higher rate of weight and then it's going to slow down. That's normal, but some people get frustrated at that point and may give up," she says.
  • Obsessing about the scale: "It's a big mistake to only use the scale," she adds. "It's more important to consider things like how you're feeling and how your clothes are fitting."

Finally, although it's important to try to be as physically fit as possible, don't feel like an oddity if you're not. More than half the adults in the United States are overweight, and only about 22 percent get the recommended 30 minutes of physical activity five times a week.

What To Do

Visit the American Dietetic Association for more information on comfort foods.

Not sure how to start getting fit for the New Year? See the National Institute of Diabetes & Digestive & Kidney Diseases' Web page on Choosing a Safe and Successful Weight Loss Program.

SOURCES: Interviews with Linda Webb Carilli, M.S.R.D., general manager, public affairs, Weight Watchers International, Inc., Woodbury, N.Y.; Connie Diekman, R.D., spokeswoman, American Dietetic Association
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