When Tucsonan Lisa Kent lost her job last summer, she gained something else.
Nearly 20 pounds.
Kent, like hordes of others who have been depressed, dejected or just plain in pain had turned to food for comfort.
“Yes, I realized what I was doing,” said the 47-year-old mother of a teen. “But I was so friggin’ depressed I didn’t even care.”
Emotional eating is never about physical hunger. It’s about “stuffing” emotions and the psychological need to fill that deep, dark void that screams out for more M&M’s.
Stuffing emotions through food is not a new phenomenon – Overeaters Anonymous was founded in 1960 – but it has become more pronounced in certain circumstances.
Like in the four months the Tucson Citizen teetered on extinction. Nary a day would go by that at least one person would not bring in at least two dozen donuts. One day we had five dozen.
I learned what a Dilly Bar is.
The break room table was also constantly littered with lollipops, Peeps and giant cookies bearing smiley faces that some would mangle, crush and crumble before eating. One woman stabbed hers with a letter opener.
“Emotional eating takes two forms,” said Nancy Mather, a nutrition specialist at the University of Arizona Extension.
“People can overeat and eat everything in sight. Their equilibrium is off. In the same way, people can not eat anything at all. There’s an anorexic kind or obese kind of emotional eating.”
While I’d much rather generally lose weight than gain it, neither option is particularly healthy.
What’s also unhealthy is some of the food choices that come along with emotional eating.
“People are turning to comfort food,” Mather said. “Things we ate as little children, in good times as families.”
That explains the Peeps.
Mashed potatoes, ice cream, piles of pierogies, anything with “deep fried,” “buttery” or “Aflredo” in the name.
“These tend to be high in carbohydrates,” Mather added.
Fancy dining, or dining out at all, is not really where emotional eaters flock, especially when money is tight.
In a bitter twist, the cheapest foodstuff also tends to be the least healthy. Generic cookies that masquerade as Oreos. Ninety-nine cent potpies.
“I was eating mostly Ramen noodles,” Kent confessed.
Restaurants are dropping like flies in soup, retail sales are down in everything from cars to couches, but one industry is actually thriving.
“I ate chocolate a lot,” Kent said. “I just started getting those things for a quarter or 50 cents. M&M’s made me feel a little better. Believe it or not, the blue ones did.”
While candy sales dipped a bit in 2008 from the previous year during the Christmas, Halloween and even Valentine holidays, the National Confectioners Association reports overall sales were higher throughout the 12-month period.
Kent scored a new job in March. Her weight and compulsive eating both dropped.
“My weight went down a little bit,” she said. “It’s not like I’ve really been trying to lose weight. But I cut out the sweets and stuff. I’m not craving them anymore.”
Support groups have also helped others who battle with food.
“I would recommend Overeaters Anonymous,” said Sally H., whose last name could not be used because, well, it’s anonymous.
“Come check it out if you have a problem with food, if you feel hopeless and have nowhere to turn.”
She said eating issues are a constant struggle but the group makes it easier.
“They understand what I mean when I say a banana can steal my serenity,” she said.
Ryn Gargulinski is a poet, artist and performer who will continue to write her weekly column every Friday for TucsonCitizen.com. Listen to a preview of her column at 8:10 a.m. Thursdays on KLPX 96.1 FM. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org