Are you just hungry for attention?

Are you eating to fuel your body or just feel better? Michele Sponagle helps solve your dieting dilemma

Hungry for attention
Are you eating to fuel your body or just feel better? Michele Sponagle helps solve your dieting dilemma

There it sits on the kitchen counter: a loaf of fresh bread, soft and doughy, still warm from the bakery. How nice a slice would be, slathered with butter that would melt into the depths of its chewy deliciousness. The desire to go ahead and carve off a slice, even though you’re not hungry, is powerful. As a result, you become engulfed in a clash between intense craving—possibly emotional hunger—and physical need. Which will dominate when it comes to the question to eat or not to eat?

The conflict for many ends with emotional hunger winning out. According to one estimate, emotional hunger may be responsible for 75 percent of overeating. If it’s the psychological drive that rules the roost consistently, the chances of consuming excess calories and packing on the pounds increases. When emotional hunger overshadows physical hunger, our ability to hear what the body is saying erodes. And that’s when we can find ourselves in the middle of a complicated love/hate relationship with food.

For people who have never had an issue with food, eating is a very simple process. They eat as a result of hunger—hunger that’s triggered from environmental cues, such as seeing food or seeing other people eat, and from being conditioned to eat at regular times—and eat regular amounts that the body demands. For others, those types of cues have become irrelevant. The urge to eat is constant. Even after chowing down, the push to head to the fridge in search of something more satisfying remains. Truth is, no amount of Ben & Jerry’s will be enough. What is sought can’t be put on a plate or found in a cupboard. It goes much deeper—to the very heart of who we are and what we feel.

Knowing the difference between physical and nonphysical hunger can be tougher than finding high-heels that don’t pinch your toes, but if you can learn to recognize what you’re really hungry for, you and food can embark on a healthy, normal relationship and spend a lifetime in harmony, just like Goldie and Kurt, where everybody gets what they really need.

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When the body’s boss

Mother Nature’s no fool. She equipped our bodies with sensors that tell us when we need to eat. Sometimes, that gurgling sound in your tummy is your brain’s way of tapping you on your shoulder: “Excuse me, but we’d really like some fuel.” The digestive system secretes hormone-like substances when you haven’t eaten for a while. This causes the hypothalamus gland in the brain to switch on your urge to eat. Your brain then sends a message to your stomach and intestines. And as a way of prepping for the arrival of food, acids are released, other digestive

fluids get sloshed around and muscle contractions occur. Once you’ve eaten and your small intestine digests the food, your body thanks your brain for a lovely meal by excreting a chemical called cholecystokinin (CCK), which sends your brain fullness signals and shuts down your appetite.

Seems clear cut, but the mystery of the chemical processes behind appetite and satiety is slowly being unraveled by scientists. They’ve discovered there’s a complex system of chemicals at work. There’s neuropeptide Y (NPY), ghrelin, galanin, leptin and obestatin—a new one discovered last November. This complex system controls the signals that start and stop the urge to eat and how food is processed in the body. The system works just fine most of the time, but some conditions (bulimia, anorexia nervosa and obesity) cause it to behave abnormally. Ironically, habitual dieting can throw a wrench into our well-oiled eating machinery.

University of Toronto researchers Peter Herman and Janet Polivy broke new ground with their recent review of several years of previous studies. They found that long-term dieters have less ability to recognize subtle physical hunger cues and tend to respond to hunger only when it has reached ravenous proportions. Additionally, when diet devotees did eat, they couldn’t tell when they were experiencing subtle feelings of fullness. Herman and Polivy also refer to a zone of “biological indifference,” when eating—or not eating—becomes controlled by outside factors such as time of day, thoughts and feelings, rather than the body.

New studies also reveal that genes may play a part in hunger. Research published in the New England Journal of Medicine has added further credibility to the belief that obesity is a medical condition that can’t be solved by willpower alone. A study that looked at severely obese adults found that five percent of them had a mutated gene called melanocortin 4. Of that group, 100 percent were binge eaters. The hope is that this discovery could lead to the development of a pill that could curb appetite and correct malfunctioning genes.

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Head over hunger

There are an infinite number of causes for eating when not truly hungry. Food can be used to comfort, to celebrate, to show love, to compensate for tiredness or pain, to calm and to provide pleasure. “For emotional eaters, eating can temporarily distance them from what’s really bothering them,” explains Dr. Wendy Oliver-Pyatt, author of Fed Up!: The Breakthrough, Ten-Step, No-Diet Fitness Plan and director of the Center for Hope of the Sierras, an eating disorder treatment centre, in Reno, Nev. “It can be a negative mood caused by loneliness, boredom, sadness, anxiety, anger or just generally feeling lost. Food can be a quick fix for everything.” This is something children learn as soon as they’re born. To soothe kids, we use food, and that becomes a problem when other types of comfort aren’t available—food can turn into a means of self-medication.

Aside from temporarily silencing negative feelings, there’s mounting evidence that some foods might have addictive qualities as well—not exactly a news flash to chocoholics who wallow in the afterglow of their favourite sweet. The chemistry behind it? Essentially, the brain releases small amounts of opioids—feel-good chemicals that reinforce a preference for foods such as chocolate. Another concept under investigation: whether sweet and high-fat foods might actually alleviate feelings of anxiety. So, with these positive psychological reinforcements, breaking free from nonphysical hunger is no piece of cake.

Add to this the fact we live in a society where there’s an abundance of food. “It offers the path of least resistance,” says Dr. Oliver-Pyatt. “It’s always around.” Making normal eating tougher still is the typical North American lifestyle. “We live in a state of stress and chaos,” she explains. “We don’t sit down to dinner and focus on the experience. We eat at our desks, eat on the run, eat while we multitask, eat at irregular times and eat while we watch TV. This kind of disordered eating disconnects us from our physical cues to start and stop eating. We no longer know how to feed ourselves.” While we eat with autopilot switched on, it’s very difficult to know how the body is feeling. A key strategy is to reconnect with what’s going on by concentrating solely on eating, without outside distractions. No more dinners with Cheryl Hickey and ET Canada.

Dr. Oliver-Pyatt also blames dieting itself for pushing us to eat when we’re not physically hungry. “Restricting food choices while dieting leads to compulsivity, due to deprivation. Telling yourself you can’t have something sets you up for failure and creates a stronger psychological pull to those so-called bad foods. If you want to lose weight, you have to stop dieting. My patients look at me in horror when I say this, but it’s true.”

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Eating 101

“Normalizing relationships with food involves mindfulness,” explains Vicki Rosner Stein, a Toronto psychotherapist who has developed a six-week program to help address issues behind emotional eating habits. “We have to tune in to the eating experience, ask ourselves what we’re feeling and whether we’re actually hungry.” That process centres on understanding what you are trying to do with food (are you looking for something such as comfort or company?). “Keep a diary that includes when and what you ate, plus how you felt at the time,” says Stein. “You will be able to identify what some of your emotional triggers are. Maybe you’re driven to eat after you speak to your mother on the phone or when you’re alone. You need to pinpoint underlying problems and work through them one by one, either on your own or with a therapist.”

If you discover food has become your security blanket and a source of comfort, you need to find alternative means of soothing yourself. Stein recommends talking to a friend, going for a walk, journaling or having a nap. For any behavioural change to take root, she warns there will be failures before achieving success. “Eating a tub of ice cream at one sitting doesn’t make you a screwup,” she says. “Don’t turn a slip into a personality trait. Positive change can’t happen in a negative environment where you’re self-criticizing. Above all else, you’ve got to be compassionate with yourself.”

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