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By Dr. Janet Taylor

The number of Americans who are obese or overweight continues to rise. The CDC reports that obesity rates in the U.S. have risen over the past twenty years. Blacks and Hispanics have an increased prevalence of 51% and 21% respectively.

Obese individuals are at an increased risk for chronic health conditions like cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes and some cancers. A healthcare system that is already strained by increasing costs, unprecedented demand and depleted resources requires a look at what is going on.

Obesity is preventable.

Certainly there are genetic influences on body size and eating patterns, age, gender, cultural and social attitudes about food, educational level and socioeconomic status are also critical aspects linked to being overweight or obese. Psychological factors, events, stressors and triggers of everyday life play a critical role in how we eat.

Being psychologically stressed i.e. work, relationship, family can lead to overeating, poor eating choices, getting more calories from fat and sugar, drinking more alcohol and exercising less. Women react to perceived stress by snacking on sweets like chocolate and reaching for higher carbohydrate foods like sausages, hamburgers and pizza at higher rates than men in some studies. Perceived stress is also a risk factor for binge eating.

Some people lose their appetite when stressed. That’s because the effect of stress on the body can increase blood sugar and decrease stomach motility. Other folks, known as emotional eaters will be driven to reach for foods that taste good (comfort foods), and may crave sweet and salty foods in response and lessen a negative mood. This response may be in either good or bad emotional situations. It is the anticipation of the reward that food brings that may drive the emotional eating not the actual taste of food itself.

The Nation’s War on Fat led by Surgeon General Regina Benjamin is both timely and necessary. At the same time, she is leading the charge on raising awareness about mental health problems in the African-American community. Only one third of Americans with a mental health problem will get care, and for African-Americans that percentage is estimated to be even lower, at 7 percent.

Being healthy is more than just fitting into a specific dress or pants size. The successful management of weight and health must include self and stress management.

Here are five tips to avoid emotional eating:

1) Monitor your stress levels. Deal with your stressors and practice effective coping.

2) Plan meals and healthy snacks. It is important to plan meals especially at times of chronic stress.

3) Exercise Regularly. It is all about energy balance. Exercise helps with stress and coping as well as burning calories.

4) Know your eating triggers. Be aware of what you are craving and why by keeping a food diary that combines eating patterns and emotional feelings.

5) Understand the sensation of being hungry. Eat when you are hungry and avoid eating to alleviate boredom or just because food is within reach.

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