Stressed about the economy? Don't reach for those fries

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Grabbing dinner at the local fast-food drive-through isn't much of an option for Wendy and Alan Willingham.

At around $30 a meal, fast food has become an unhealthy and expensive alternative to cooking at home for their five children, four of whom are quadruplets, even if it would be easier on nights that include homework, ball practice and dance lessons.

"When we do go out to eat, we always share meals, and the kids usually drink water," Wendy Willingham said. "It's healthier than sodas, and that alone saves $1.50 or more per person. I want to get them in the habit of making healthier choices."

Even if the economy were booming, the Willinghams wouldn't have the luxury of restaurant meals on a nightly basis. But an alarming trend has emerged that indicates more and more people are choosing unhealthier, processed and fast foods as a form of comfort in these tough financial times.

Psychologically, there's a reason food becomes a comfort in an economic downtown, said Larry Bates, an associate professor of psychology at the University of North Alabama.

"For a lot of people, when they get stressed, and whatever that stress is - gas prices or a poor economy - they turn to food," he said.

What's unclear, however, is why this comfort food is often snack foods - potato chips and sugary sodas, starchy macaroni and cheese and fried chicken.

"There's no question that food is a powerful motivator," Bates said. "It's often the emotional crowd that gets stressed and overeats."

In addition to rising gas prices, the cost of stocking the family pantry has risen substantially in the past 12 months. A gallon of milk can cost as much as $4.59, a dozen eggs are $1.50 and meat prices have more than doubled. It's tempting to the consumer, then, to buy the frozen lasagna for $6.50, instead of buying the ingredients to prepare the meal fresh when moms like Willingham say they are already pressed for time.

Making these choices in the short term might not be so bad for a person's overall health, but, when the behavior continues, doctors say those choices can be the catalyst for deadly diseases.

Dr. Sam Benjamin, a family practitioner in Scottsdale, Ariz., said a bad economy often means people perceive themselves to be getting a better value because the starchy, processed or fast foods are typically cheaper than the items it would take to prepare a meal.

"From a health point of view, this is a disaster," he said. "Some people are going to get fat. We're going to see more diabetes; we're going to see more heart disease; we're going to see more hypertension; we're going to see more kidney disease; we're going to see more ocular, or eye, disease."

Other researchers who have studied the trend of eating unhealthy foods as a comfort in uneasy economic times go so far as to say that there could be as many as 47,000 deaths that would not otherwise have occurred. They estimated that 12,000 of this number will be the result of an increased number of heart attacks associated with stress and poor dietary habits.

Angie DaTuin, a registered dietitian with the Colbert County school system, said she's consumed her share of comfort foods in recent months as worries about the economy have plagued her.

"I feel the strain of the economy in my pocketbook, so, instead of picking up a salad, I might grab something that costs less and is not as healthy to save a couple of dollars here and there," she said.

Her solution is alarmingly simple. She said she keeps healthy snacks on hand and controls portion sizes so she and her kids aren't tempted to binge on fatty snack foods.
Even healthy snacks, however, come with a caveat.

"Just having grapes can be a good thing, but, if you take it a step further, even those can be unhealthy if you eat too many of them because they have a lot of sugar," she said. "You still want to keep things like that on hand instead of Cheetos, especially where kids are concerned because they see the way their parents eat and will mimic that."

Bev Gray, founder of the Grandma's Healthy Kids Club, a Web-based business in Indianapolis, Ind., has made portion control a priority as a way to combat the health problems associated with kids' consumption of comfort and fast foods.

"What we're seeing now is a generation of people who never learned to cook because their parents didn't cook," she said. "We've come to depend on eating out. You might think you're saving money by buying a $1 burger, but you can buy a pound of beef, cook it and still spend less. Plus, it's leaner."

Getting organized about menu planning and preparation will go a long way toward a healthier lifestyle, Gray said.

Willingham agrees.

She said she won't set foot in the grocery store without first having gotten organized at home, clipping coupons and comparing sales ads for the best deals.

"It might sound nerdy, but if I don't, I'll spend too much, and we'll probably end up with things we don't need," Willingham said.

Already, the family spends $1,000 a month on grocery store visits, leaving little extra for restaurant meals and junk food.

"In the afternoon, if the kids want a snack, they get it, but they don't get the whole bag," she said. "They've had color-coded bowls since they were babies, and they know to ask me to pour chips in there."