DAYTON, Ohio -- Food and money.
Money and food.
It's an inexplicably complex relationship.
A 2009 study conducted by Dr. Eva Munster of the University of Mainz in Germany reported that people who were in deep consumer debt were 2.5 times more likely to be overweight than their debt-free counterparts.
And a University of Miami study, which was presented last month at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association in Washington, D.C., found that the wild ride the stock market has taken as of late has also propelled people to seek out high-calorie foods.
Psychologists across the country agree that the need to feel good can manifest in situations involving overeating and overspending, resulting in remorse, with the cycle often repeating.
Dr. David Krueger, a Houston-based psychiatrist and author of The Secret Language of Money, said people use food and money in similar fashion.
When we seek instant gratification, we bypass a section of the brain that knows better, and we seek out what we can't afford, either in terms of money and calories -- or both.
The latest news about binge eating and spending comes as no surprise to Amy Licati, an educator at Greene Memorial Hospital Weight Management in Beavercreek, Ohio, who agreed our bodies are wired to respond with fight or flight when facing stress.
"Definitely, overeating and overspending can and do go hand in hand," she said. As a provider of emotional brain training (EBT), a method for stress relief developed by Laura Mellin at the University of California-San Francisco School of Medicine, Lucati said our brains are in one of five states, ranging from being stressed to feeling balanced and present.
"People in distress look for comfort foods," explained Gail Cunningham, vice president of membership and public relations for the National Foundation for Consumer Counseling in Washington, D.C. "Overeating just exacerbates the problem by adding another stress point."
She said the average unsecured debt for people who have reached out to the foundation was $25,403 -- their average income was $38,260. She added that the average client in 2010 had six credit cards.
"Last year, we assisted more than 3 million people," said Cunningham. "People come to us with their financial concerns. The reality of the situation is they usually wait until they are in pain.... They often don't reach out until the situation becomes untenable to them."
About one-third are able to continue to handle their financial conditions on their own with budget counseling from NFCC, while another third are referred to other agencies that counsel for addictions such as drugs or gambling.
"And another third stay with us through the debt-management program, where we negotiate with creditors and hopefully lower their monthly payments and interest rates," Cunningham said.
Terrie Krumal, education and marketing coordinator for the local Consumer Credit Counseling Services/Graceworks Lutheran Services, says the problems for financially challenged people are compounded when they shop for groceries. Many head toward the dollar stores and buy highly processed and calorie-laden foods that aren't healthy.
Geneen Roth, author of Lost and Found: Unexpected Revelations About Food and Money, encourages stressed-out people to step back and look at the good things they have -- even such simple things as a treasured tea cup -- to help liberate themselves from old patterns.
Roth knows of what she speaks.
After the loss of her entire life savings during the Bernard Madoff scandal, she took a hard look at her own habits.
Roth determined that how we eat and how we spend have their roots in similar age-old compulsions and unconscious beliefs we hold about ourselves. The message? You can never be to rich or too thin.
She is adamant that money is not the path to happiness.
"After we lost all our money, the thing that pulled me back was beginning to focus on what we had not lost," she said. "I didn't know how we would make it month to month, but I knew I needed to quiet myself down and sort of come back to what was real.
"I was still breathing, and I still had a roof over my head that day."
If you are struggling with debt and extra weight, there are ways to address both issues.
Cunningham suggested cutting back rather than cutting out. "If you are used to eating out, then order appetizers instead of entrees or split meals. You can still enjoy the experience, but you're not adding to your waistline or depleting your wallet."
She also recommended that people track their spending for one month.
"It can be very eye-opening," she said. "And then and only then can you make informed decisions on how you spend your money. You can make a conscious decision on how you live."
And don't hesitate to seek help for spending or eating problems.