On a cold winter’s night, feeling a tad over-stuffed from dinner, Ritu gets out of bed to make herself a cup of green tea in the hopes of reducing the uneasiness. She goes into the kitchen, and puts on some water to boil. She opens a cupboard in the kitchen to pull out a tea bag. Just as she closes the cupboard door, her eyes catch a glimpse of the packet of potato chips kept on one of the shelves. Almost immediately, she has a craving to open that packet and grab some chips, a craving she tries very hard to ignore as she pours the water into her cup, dunks the tea bag in, heads back to her bedroom to slip back under the covers.
She idly switches channels while sipping on her tea Soon enough, she finds her mind wandering back to a packet of chips she saw in the kitchen cupboard. She shakes off the thought by telling herself just how full she is already feeling. An hour goes by, she’s still watching TV and now is unable to sleep. Voices in her head remind her of the aroma and the crunch of the chips, voices that keep goading her to eat those chips. Ritu yields just a little bit, tells herself she’ll grab just a couple of wafers, but before she knows it, the packet of chips is empty. Filled with regret, she returns to bed feeling full and uneasy again!
Is food your answer for dealing with your desires, feelings, emotions and insomnia? Like Ritu, do you find yourself resorting to eating even when you’re not hungry? Are you constantly struggling with your weight and feel depressed about it, but are still not able to do anything about it? Do you constantly diet and workout, but don’t see yourself shedding those pounds? The problem doesn’t lie in the excess weight itself, but is rooted in the very common habit of over-eating. Some people are able to eat food with a high calorie content or even copious quantities of food without gaining any weight. For others, genetic inheritance contributes substantially to the weight gaining tendency. The intake of excessive food can be grouped into three different categories: biological/physiological, cultural context and learned behaviour.
The intake of food causes certain biological/physiological changes in the body. So, when we consume food, it turns into useable energy. In the human brain, the intake of food causes a bio-chemical change, which then signals satiation. Gradually, over-eating delays the signal of satiation, causing one to believe that they need to eat more. Eventually, the brain becomes less receptive to this signal and one tends to stop eating only when one feels physically sick. Next, the cultural context plays a big role in over-eating. Let’s be honest, in our Indian culture, food has become an integral part of our lives, no matter what the occasion. In good times, we celebrate with food, while in bad times we use food as a coping mechanism. Conversations about a particular menu or dish revolve in our head for days, weeks or even months.
Yet, the most detrimental of them all is the final category – over-eating as a learned behaviour. In many cases the key determinants of excessive eating and obesity appear to be family-driven behaviour patterns. Some studies suggest that over feeding in childhood may predispose children to weight problems in adulthood. This makes over-eating a learned behaviour that goes back all the way to childhood. In some families, obesity occurs due to a high-calorie diet or an overemphasis on food. In such families, a plump baby is seen as a healthy baby. So, even if obesity is not inherently hereditary, we blame ‘being fat’ on genetics, owing to generations of over-eating as a learned behaviour. In many other families, eating is a habitual source of alleviating distress or celebration of an event. In such cases, one is not able to distinguish between internal signals of hunger and any other signal because all signals are responded to by consumption of food. Eating becomes synonymous with dealing with boredom, stress, anxiety, worry, depressed states, traumatic events, anger and with celebration. We also find ourselves habituated to consuming food while shopping, watching movies, at parties or while even idly sitting at home. Eventually, even if the brain signals to the body that it is full, the body does not understand this and continues to coax one to eat until the point of sickness. Some of you may relate to the feeling of ‘needing’ a cup of green tea after a meal, because you are physically unwell.
Let’s look at the chain of events, eating → over-eating → weight gain → depression, this becomes a vicious cycle soon enough. In some cases, depression about over-eating leads to Bulimia (induced vomiting) as well. Let’s accept the fact that over-eating is an illness. The correct therapy can help you break this pattern. It can help you identify and develop coping skills to curb and change your impulses associated with eating. And eventually, drive you to lead a healthy life.