Stress and Eating with Brenda Crawford-Clark, MPH, MS

WebMD Live Events Transcript
Event Date: Thursday, October 20, 2005

By Brenda Crawford-Clark, MPH, MS
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Live Events Transcript

We all know that a frazzled mind can conjure cravings for comfort food in some and kill the appetite in others. And now we hear that stress can affect the amount of fat we produce and the shape we are in. On Oct. 20, 2005 we discussed all of this, plus how to get off the food/stress carousel, with Brenda Crawford-Clark, MPH, MS, author of Body Sense Balancing Your Weight and Emotions.

If you have questions about your health, you should consult your personal physician. This event is meant for informational purposes only.

This WebMD University course is brought to you by Medical Mutual.

MODERATOR: Welcome to WebMD University: "Letting Go." Your instructor today is Brenda Crawford-Clark, MPH, MS.

Thank you for joining us, Brenda. Before we get started with our questions, why don't you tell us what led you to focus on the connection between weight and emotions in your career, and then writing Body Sense: Balancing Your Weight and Emotions.

CRAWFORD-CLARK: Well, I've been listening to people about problems they have, and many times their emotional issues are tied directly to their weight. I found that you can't treat the emotional issues without figuring out what caused the weight issues, or why someone can't lose weight who's tried so many awful no-carb, no-sugar no-just-about-everything diets.

And so I thought everyone would benefit from my sharing what I've learned over the years. That weight issues are often not about dieting at all -- almost never about willpower -- because people who've been on a diet know they've had more willpower than most people.

So Body Sense, my book, just takes people through the same path they would take if they were in a one-on-one session with me. We connect the emotions, help them through that, find out what use food has had in their life, and finally, give them the tools for a steady long-term change to keep the weight off.

MODERATOR: How does our emotional state affect the way we eat?

CRAWFORD-CLARK: Wow! I was eating a snack right before I started to talk with you today. Do you ever notice reaching for food when you're under stress or forgetting to eat when you're under stress?

Food is used to alter our emotions and almost everyone uses it at some time in their life. Cookies can really make you feel better. Other foods help people push down anger and can actually give someone a sense of control or power.

Once you do eat the food it triggers neurotransmitter actions that actually can send a calming message or an empowering message or satisfied signal to your body. That's why the whole weight issue is so much more complex than counting calories or carbs.

I figure something must be very wrong if 167 million adults are on a diet right now and most are repeaters who've tried almost everything. It just points out, again, that getting to a healthy weight is not just about willpower, but also understanding more about yourself and getting your needs met in healthy ways.

MODERATOR: Many of us eat when we're happy, when we're angry, when we're frustrated or overworked. Eating seems to be a "one size fits all" coping tool for Americans. How has this affected the health of our country?

CRAWFORD-CLARK: Well, you probably can't go to the bookstore or grocery store without seeing a magazine that is promoting a new weight loss promise. Almost every day you see a new story or advertisement on television.

And people are getting very frustrated because obviously being overweight not only affects your emotions, but it contributes to major health risks, such as heart problems, hypertension, diabetes, and increases your risk for health problems should you need a surgery of any kind.

We also have a generation of children who are beginning to obsess about their weight as early as 5 years old. I saw a little girl in my office recently who was crying herself to sleep every night because her grandmother continuously focused on her weight.

But many parents have a right to be concerned because the number of children with childhood obesity is directly increasing the number of children with diabetes. Undoubtedly weight contributes to many aspects of our physical health.

MODERATOR: We see more information every day on childhood obesity. What can parents do to help their children avoid falling into the trap of overeating?

CRAWFORD-CLARK: I'd recommend two things:

  • First and probably most important, don't become the food cop.
  • Second, be aware of what you're modeling for your child. If you're constantly on a diet or concerned about your weight, your child will gain that obsession and that obsession doesn't necessarily mean they're going to stay a healthy weight, it can actually drive someone to eat more.

One of the best things parents can do is to set up regular meals where the family eats together. Make it a family event to help plan the menu and get children and teens involved in things like grocery shopping and cooking.

For instance when you take them to the grocery store, you can begin to introduce children to such things as too much sugar in a cereal, calcium, fat -- all in little doses. You're not telling them this is bad for you, or this is forbidden, because the first time someone tells any of us that we can't have a certain food our mind is automatically going to want that certain food.

In other words, in small packages begin to educate your child about nutrition and healthy amounts of food to eat. Don't restrict certain foods.

For example, one of the parents I saw with her child told me that she hid the sweets in her house so the children didn't have access to them, but in speaking to her little boy privately, he told me he often found her stash and would begin to sneak food.

In doing that, he would also get a little power surge that he was able to get one over on his mom. But also the more troubling aspect was he began to associate a wealth of emotions with eating that don't need to be attached to food.

Another good idea for parents is to make sure your children are moving. Get them outside to play and after that family dinner, let the dishes sit while the family goes on a walk. Not a power walk, just a relaxing walk, and if you want to, add skipping or a little bit of jogging. Even putting on a CD on a rainy day and dancing with the kids is something fun without pressure that will help them maintain a healthy weight.

MODERATOR: Many parents do not have a firm foundation of education about nutrition themselves. How do you advise parents who need to learn about preparing and eating healthy meals?

CRAWFORD-CLARK: There are numerous places, including WebMD, on the internet, where people can get an idea of what a healthy meal is. The Food Pyramid also provides ideas.

It doesn't mean that you need to strictly adhere to that every day; your family is going to have special needs, special events, that may interfere from time to time. But just getting a general idea of the amount of fruits and vegetables that make for a healthy meal would be your best bet.

Then you can develop a strategy of eating which includes healthy portions, and healthy portions is something many people have difficulty with. So occasionally it's helpful to measure out, for instance, a cup of vegetables or a cup of pasta, so your child and you can see if you're eating a healthy portion.

"The most important thing you can do is to throw away your shame and guilt."

CRAWFORD-CLARK: I think diets are like an abusive relationship. They make a lot of promises, and they often make you feel like you're a failure, because most diet companies imply that if the diet doesn't work it's your fault and not theirs.

Probably more importantly is that a diet by itself is not a magic wand. Many times people have started overeating for a purpose and they may not even realize when that process began.

I suggest everyone think back in their lives to consider what trauma and loss has occurred, because often that's where food issues begin. Things that most people don't even consider can be the anchor that keeps someone from keeping weight off or getting past a stuck point once they've started to lose.

Those things can include:

  • Miscarriage
  • Illnesses or accidents
  • A death
  • Divorce
  • Infertility
  • Financial strain
  • Feeling like you have to be perfect
  • Childhood bullying
  • Being labeled as different (such as a kid who has ADHD or learning disability)
  • Adoption

There's also what I call living in a fish bowl, and that applies to children and adults who are exposed more to judgments of others. And that would include people who have to have public personas, such as personalities, preachers' kids or spouses, and politicians. Even such a thing as having a handicap can make one feel like you're living in a fish bowl.

All of those things can contribute to a vast array of feelings including feeling powerless, alone in the world, betrayed, angry, not fitting in, rejected, abandoned, and the list goes on.

What happens is what I call a trauma bond. Something can occur today that triggers you to react with some of those same feelings -- core feelings -- that you had when the original loss or trauma took place. That can cause you to overreact emotionally; it can cause you to numb out or use food to get away from that flooding of feelings.

In that way, it's very important to understand when and where your weight problem began, so you can begin to untangle the residual effects of that over the years.

I can give you an example. One of my clients shared that after she got to work one day a friend called and cancelled movie plans with her that night. She immediately felt betrayed and rejected and wondered if something was wrong with her. What she did was head to the candy machine. She told me that as soon as she had that candy bar in her drawer at her desk that she felt safe.

Any time you find yourself using those words safe, in control, empowered, and you're talking about food, you know you're battling with an emotional issue too.

That same morning this woman's boss came by and asked her to correct a minor mistake. She immediately got flooded with feelings again, feeling not good enough and telling herself, I can't do anything right. It was at that time she began to think about what food she would stop to get on her way home from work.

By the end of the day, this woman stopped at a fast-food place, hid all those wrappers in the outside trash, made dinner and sat down with her family to eat.

That's an example of that trauma bond, where something in the past was causing her to overreact and overeat. In her case, she had been the victim of sexual abuse from her father and had had many of those feelings as a child. The relatively inconsequential things that happened to her that day sparked an overreaction that led her directly to food.

That's why it's so important that you tune into yourself as part of your journey to a healthy weight.

MODERATOR: Can we really become carb "addicts" or are we just fooling ourselves to justify the fact that carbs taste good?

CRAWFORD-CLARK: I think that some people react differently than others to carbs. My daughter calls herself a "pastaholic." She loves to eat pasta. My husband loves to eat bread. I have to keep an eye on him during communion at church to make sure he doesn't get a bigger piece than he's supposed to.

I believe -- though I haven't seen any research on it -- that part of that is due to genetic wiring. However, there has been some research that shows that certain foods can increase the serotonin in your body, and that can make you feel calm and can also make you feel a sense of power.

I don't look at weight issues as an addiction, although there are components that are very similar. That's why part of your problem, if you have a weight issue, is you get so much advice from people who have no idea what you're going through.

The original name that I wanted for my book was The Tears No One Sees. If you have a long-term weight problem, I'm sure you can understand what that means.

Back to your point about carbs and addiction. There may be foods initially that you find it more difficult to eat a normal amount of or a healthy amount of. Initially you may want to monitor how much of that particular food that you eat so you're not eating more than you're aware of.


Diet-Wrecking Foods: Smoothies, Lattes, Popcorn, and More in Pictures See Slideshow

MODERATOR: What are some examples of the way people abuse food?

CRAWFORD-CLARK: I think it's probably more beneficial to think of it in terms of using food instead of abusing food. If you can spend some time thinking about the purpose that's served from eating or not eating, then you're more likely to take care of your needs in other ways.

For example, if someone is using food because they feel like life is out of their control or feel powerless, we know that a bowl of ice cream or a pie or a pizza or whatever they choose, is only a temporary fix. However, if you identify "I'm eating this because I feel like I have no control" then you can develop a plan where you can gain more control in your life. That might be learning how to be assertive.

Many people with weight issues have trouble setting boundaries with other people. They're often caretakers for others, will do more than they get, and are often afraid of saying "no" for fear they'll hurt someone's feelings.

Yet if this sounds like you and you don't learn how to say "no" in a healthy way, not an aggressive way, you're going to continue to use food to meet that purpose, at least temporarily, of feeling in control.

In other words, I can control what goes in my mouth, and no one can stop that. Unfortunately, more and more people are developing eating disorders, which is a disease. And overeating or eating for emotional reasons can start out within their control, but gets to a point where it's not.

Another client, a man who was in construction, shared with me the purposes of why he was overeating, and it was very understandable from an emotional standpoint as to how he became overweight.

He had spent his life in very physical work and been in very good shape until he was in an accident at his job. As a result, he could no longer work. He felt very overwhelmed and weak and like a failure because he couldn't support his family. He was on the verge of losing his job, and angry all the time, which came out sideways at his family.

Instead of taking care of himself emotionally, he ate. When he finally understood the connections he began looking at his life differently, thinking about retraining in a different career and gaining control. That's another example of needing to know why you're using food in order to stop that cycle.

MODERATOR: If we determine that we really are using food as an unhealthy way of avoiding dealing with emotional turmoil, what steps can we take to stop doing so?

CRAWFORD-CLARK: There are many things you can do. I outline the process that I use in my book Body Sense and I have other ideas on my web site,

You can also begin to work with a therapist in your home town to look for some of these hidden connections that drive people to use food, but you need to be a good consumer, making sure the therapist has some experience in working with people successfully with a similar goal.

I think the most important thing you can do right now is to throw away your shame and guilt because I hope you have a better understanding of why the problem has developed.

Often I tell my clients that guilt is their middle name. They feel guilty for everything, and guilt is one thing that can pull them back to food. If there are emotional issues underlying weight problems, then another diet isn't the answer. You really need to focus on making the connection and get the past off your plate.

MODERATOR: Ms. Crawford-Clark, do you have any final comments for us today?

CRAWFORD-CLARK: Stay encouraged. When you have the right connections and tools you can win your battle.

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