The Role of Emotional and Stress Related Eating in Weight Gain

Hurricane Irma in 2017 Caused Widespread Weight Gain. HOW DID IT HAPPEN?
Weight conscious South Floridians woke up to find they had gained 4 pounds in a few days. After a week of Stacey’s pita chips, Chips-Ahoy, Nutella, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and stress related eating and binging in darkened houses and condos devoid of TV and the Internet, South Floridians finally had power. Suddenly they were able to see themselves in the mirror. What they saw was half dressed, sweat-soaked zombies with jeans that did not button and buttons popping on their blouses and shirts. Most awoke from the semi-stupor of boredom and stress to the sudden glare of TV and laptop screens announcing the old world was still there.

Slowly most realized how food had filled both emotional and physical roles. Daily routines were shattered and many of us began to believe that all of the old rules no longer applied. South Floridians ate and drank what they wanted knowing that leftovers would not keep. They finished whole bags of chips and cookies thinking there would be no replacements for a while. One patient said that “once the power went out the only thing to do was eat and eat. After all, it was like in the movies–if you eat in the dark it doesn’t count.”

Stress Related Eating and Natural Disasters

Emotional and Stress Related Eating During Stressful Events

If you are familiar with the “Freshman 15” then you can relate to the effect of expected and unexpected stress on people’s ability to make healthy food decisions. In that scenario, college freshman in the first semester often pack on 12 or more pounds as they adjust to stresses of university life.

A tightening of one’s waistband during the first semester of college or during and after natural disasters such as floods, hurricanes, tornados, and earthquakes obviously does not count as a crisis when so much damage and devastation are present. However, understanding the changes in eating behaviors caused by sudden and often unexpected emotional and physical crises may help our understanding of overeating even “normal” times.

Stress Related Eating During Hurricane Irma

Hurricane Irma ravaged the Caribbean and Florida in September 2017. Winds over 100 mph and flood surges of 10-12 feet extended for the first time over the whole state of Florida. Initially, more than 10 million people were without power. More than half of the state was without power for a week. The storm not only caused an estimated $20 billion in damage, but it also expanded South Florida’s waistlines.

Although some South Floridians were careful with what they ate, many others because of boredom and anxiety passed the time eating all kinds of comfort foods. Others consumed everything in their refrigerator in less than a day fearing spoilage and waste. Those that had stocked up before the storm, often stress shopping, saw the food–healthy or not-disappear rapidly. But even those whose electricity stayed on throughout the hurricane gave in to unhealthy, stress related eating.

Geneen Roth, author of Women Food and God was quoted by the Huffington Post after Hurricane Sandy saying that, “storm victims turned to food for stability when their typical schedules are disrupted.” Roth went on to say that “food is there — it doesn’t talk back, you can rely on it, it’s not going away it provides order in time of chaos.”