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Comfort food, "hormonal soup" and deep belly fat
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Two Wednesdays in a row, we've talked about different contributors to our obesity epidemic.  Last week, it was author Mary Collins, whose book "American Idle" is all about our increasingly sedentary lifestyle.  Today, we talked to a researcher who is making the connection between stress and weight gain.

 
Stress and worry - brought on by a bad economy - causes a kind of "double whammy" for humans, according to Elissa Epel.  She's a professor of Psychiatry at The University of California San Fransisco's Center for Obesity Assessment, Study and Treatment.  She was in New Haven to speak at the University's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity.  
 
First, there's the evolutionary part.  The kind of fat that's really dangerous for humans - deep belly fat - accumulates because of what she calls the "hormonal soup" produced by a stressful situation.  Our bodies make the fat as a kind of primordial fuel.   "So, if you have a little pot-belly, it's a visible indicator of a kind of body that's really well-equipped to deal with acute stresses, although we don't face many of those kind of survival stresses anymore," Epel says.  
 
Yeah, we're not really running from lions much anymore, but our bodies are still hard wired for that possibility.  Our current stresses, she says, are more psychological.  This same "survival stress" response causes problem #2:  It prompts our bodies to take on more calories than our rather placid lives require - and sends signals about what foods to choose:
 
"So, when we're under stress, we may not eat more, but we may tend to crave and choose more unhealthy food choices, the highly palatable food that may soothe our stress responses," Epel says. 
 
That means more comfort food.  She touts so -called "mindful eating" as a way to combat stress-related eating problems.  
 
We also talked about the public policy implications of research like this, including taxes on sugary, fattening food - something our guests saw as a positive step toward cutting back on the calories consumed.  
 
And, we talked about an important project undertaken by UConn's Center for Public Health and Health Policy, to improve the quality of offerings at neighborhood food markets in Hartford.  The city only has one true supermarket, so much of the food the city's low-income residents get comes from corner stores with fatty foods on the shelves.  
 
Interesting that as Hartford struggles with bringing a fully-stocked supermarket into the city, New Haven seems to be moving ahead.  The New Haven Independent is reporting that the new building at 360 State Street will have a grocery...supplied by a mystery company.