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When tougher times mean tighter clothes

Leslie Fuller tried to stick to her shopping list on a recent grocery run. Instead, she found herself venturing down the candy aisle, throwing bags of Hershey's Miniatures and M&M's into her cart.

"I should just put them down on the seat and sit on them," said Fuller, a paralegal in Las Vegas. "That's where they're going to go — on my behind. I eat them because it makes me feel better."

Tough times means tighter belts, and for many people tighter pants as they turn to fatty, sugary comfort food to deal with recession-related stress.

Fuller, 51, recently lost her house to foreclosure through no fault of her own. She lost some of her husband's income because of a pay cut. She lost her savings, which the couple used for moving expenses. And she recently put one of her dogs to sleep and is having foot surgery next month.

"To say that my life is stressful is an understatement," said Fuller, who wants to lose 30 pounds. "I see a light at the end of the tunnel. I just don't know how far it is."

Denise Lamothe, an emotional-eating expert and clinical psychologist in Exeter, N.H., said research indicates that more than half the population eats more when feeling stressed. She's seeing patients who were losing weight before financial trouble hit but now are eating more.

"As the economy has faltered, people have become more and more anxious, more and more fearful," said Lamothe, author of "The Taming of the Chew." "The more intense feelings become, the more people will turn to sugar, fat and salt, because that's where they can get some relief."

Such food also is cheaper per calorie than fruits and vegetables, said Linda Hlivka, co-author of "Stress Eater Diet." McDonald's, with its value menu, has benefited from the economic slump while sit-down competitors report steep declines.

With so many people out of work, it becomes easy to snack all day to fill the time, said Leslie Seppinni, a psychotherapist in Beverly Hills, Calif., adding that women are more likely than men to binge due to stress.

Suzanne Brumfield, 38, of Groton, Conn., found that out when she was unemployed for about six months last year. She reached for Little Debbie Oatmeal Creme Pies and Drake's Funny Bones cakes because of boredom and mounting frustration from applying for countless jobs. She gained 30 pounds and ended up 100 pounds overweight.

Experts recommend stress eaters acknowledge the stress, and substitute eating from boredom, depression or anxiety with exercise or a hobby. But it's important to get a handle on it. For most people, the extra calories will add up to extra pounds.

"It's a mindless satisfaction that seems harmless in the moment," said Seppinni. "But obviously has larger repercussions later, no pun intended."

Leslie Fuller, 51, of Las Vegas, says she has gained back weight she lost due to stress eating. “To say that my life is stressful is an understatement,” she said. “I see a light at the end of the tunnel. I just don’t know how far it is.” - AP