Mindless Munching Mania! Something to chew on.

He is 40-years-old married with two children. But the family has deserted him. For the last 15 years NingeGowda of village Timmankoppalu, talukaPanavapura, Karnataka, has been eating 1/2 kg of food in every 1/2 hour and has earned the title of ‘Bakasura’ (a demon in the epic Mahabharata known for his voracious appetite)!

_          Believe it or not, the average person in the US spends about six years of his or her life eating! And, the American munch 45 billion sandwiches every year!

Given an opportunity, it seems that people just about everywhere will eat, eat and eat! Most know that there is a price to pay and yet cannot resist that second piece of chicken drumstick or the pumpkin pie.

How many times have you stretched out on your bed like a beached whale, as your stomach is sending you distress signals because you have stuffed it way too much? Perhaps more times than you care to think. Most of us shove food down our throats without giving it nary a thought.

For instance, we finish breakfast and within a couple of hours, start munching on some high-calorie snack, then have lunch, then snack on some fried food, then have a large and rich dinner, and top it off with a killer of a dessert. Not to mention the numerous other little bites we take through the day. We just eat. Without thinking. Whether our body wants it or not, we quaff food down our throats.

“People can’t stop eating any more than they’re able to stop having sex or grabbing money or anything else,” says Dr Stephen Bloom, an obesity researcher at the Hammersmith Hospital’s School of Medicine, Imperial College, London. Dr Gordon Jensen, director, Centre for Human Nutrition, Vanderbilt University, says, “It is likely that we have a biologic drive to eat that served us well historically in terms of survival. Genetically, that made sense when you didn’t know if your next meal would be tomorrow or 5 days later from now, but when your next meal is whenever you walk by the refrigerator, that’s a problem.”

How long should one go without eating? You should never go more than 3-4 hours without eating, going for extended periods without eating puts a strain on your body to balance insulin levels, advise dieticians. But stay away from over-indulgence, they warn!

No wonder Dr Brian Wansink, director, Cornell University Food and Brand Lab, is a worried man today. In this recently published book. Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think, he has decoded the factors that induce us to eat more than our mind wants. According to him, right from the size of an ice-cream scoop to the packaging of a food item to whom we sit next to (our intake goes up by 20 per cent in accordance with the other person’s consumption) – many things influence the amount we eat. his research shows that, on average, people make over 200 food-related decisions a day. The biggest the plate, the larger the spoon, the wider the variety on a buffet, the more we eat. Add to that, other factors like a good ambience the fragrance of a meal, the kind of company one has, TV-viewing habits, et al.

According to a Delhi-based wellness consultant, Dr Shikha Sharma, most people are neither too conscious nor knowledgeable about the required nutrition intake. She says, “Thanks to our lifestyle, we often rush through our food as our priorities lie somewhere else. We are constantly multi-tasking, so we never think about what we are eating.” We are more preoccupied with meeting deadlines or attending social dos than paying attention to our dietary needs.

Most of us do overeat but eating a lot of food doesn’t necessarily mean that you have a binge-eating disorder. Experts generally agree that most people with serious binge-eating problems often eat an unusually large amount of food and feel their eating is out of control. Binge eating disorder (bed) is a little more common in women than in men; three women forever two men have it. People with Bed also may:

_          Eat much more quickly than usual.

_          Eat until they’re uncomfortably full.

_          Eat large amounts of food even when they’re not really hungry.

_          Eat alone because they’re embarrassed about the amount of food they eat.

_          Feel disgusted, depressed or guilty after overeating.

Addiction to what

Women tend to eat more calories and fat when dining out, regardless of what their usual eating habits are. Both bingers and dieters were found to down between 200 and 300 extra calories in the process. Women who are into binge-eating, over-indulged more when eating out, say American researchers from Texas University.

No one knows what causes Bed. As many as half of all people with Bed have been depressed in the past. Whether depression causes Bed or Bed causes depression is not known. Many people who are binge eaters say that being angry, sad, bored, or worried can cause them to binge eat.

 

Alcohol, nicotine and cocaine are a few of the substances known to be addictive. Now, Some scientists wonder whether food should be added to the list. “Are there certain things in food that act on the brain and set up a classic addictive process, like tolerance, withdrawal and craving?” Asks American psychologist Dr Kelly Brownell who organised a recent scientific meeting on food addiction at Yale University. While the research is still scanty, the evidence that exists is extremely interesting and provocative, and “Suggests to me that something is in there,” says Dr Brownell.

“Is it an addiction to food or addiction to eating?” asks Dr. Susan Yanovski, director, Obesity and Eating Disorders Program, National Institute of Diabetes, Digestive and Kidney Diseases, Yale University, Connecticut, US. “Or is it another manifestation of compulsive behaviors like gambling or shopping?” Brain imaging may soon provide answers. Scientists are mapping receptors on brain cells for dopamine. This powerful neurotransmitter plays a key role in addiction.

“Abstinence, the standard treatment for drug and alcohol addiction, won’t work for food addiction,” notes Dr Yanovski. That’s why people who feel they’ve been snared by food addictions sometimes try to eliminate the specific foods that seem to trigger their overeating.

Worldwide, a billion people are now overweight or obese, including 22 billion children under the age of five. For every four adults in the world who are malnourished, five more are overweight, 30 per cent of them clinically obese, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). Obesity and ills linked to it, including heart disease and high blood pressure, have joined the WHO’s list of the ‘Top 10’ global health risks. Obesity rates are going up in developing countries as well as industrialised ones, with the greatest increases taking place in the last 10 years.

 

The actual problem

In the US alone, 65 per cent of adults and 15 per cent of children between six and nine are overweight. Dieting is rampant, but most who lose weight gain it back. Some experts blame ever-increasing portion sizes and the proliferation of tasty, high-calorie fast-foods that make it all easy to eat a day’s worth of calories in one super-size meal. Why don’t these people just stop eating so much? (See Box-I)

Why does eating feel so good in the first place? “Well, the secret may lie in the head, not in the stomach,” says Dr Tamas Horvath of the Yale University. Tests on animals show that the appetite hormone ‘ghrelin’ acts on pleasure receptors in the brain. Ghrelin is produced in the gut and triggers the brain to promote eating. Scientists hope to decipher the signals that travel between the digestive system, the body’s fat stores and the brain centres that control eating and metabolism, in a region called the hypothalamus.

_          Anger, anxiety, stress, fatigue, boredom, loneliness, depression.

_          Excessive eating.

_          Eating because there’s an opportunity at a restaurant, seeing discount food ads, the aroma of cakes and desserts, someone else is paying the bill.

_          Making excuses for eating: lack of will-power.

_          Physiological eating due to headache, skipping meals, fasting increased hunger.

Several recent studies, papers and a popular American weight-loss book argue that eating is an automatic behaviour triggered by environmental cues that most people are unaware of – or simply can’t ignore. The buttery smell of movie theatre popcorn, careful of wayside peanuts, ubiquitous chaat, chole, samosa, kachori, and aloo-Tikki vendors and the proliferating fast-food outlets everywhere.

To make people eat less and eat more healthy, researchers contend that the environment itself needs to be changed – with laws regulating portion size, labelling or the places where food can be sold or eaten. That would be much easier, the researchers add, than overcoming human nature. But is it possible in India, where every other day is a day of festivals and feasts replete with delicious dishes? And the big fat Indian weddings where the only visible thing besides the pomp and show is the food?

Eating is an automatic behaviour that has little to do with choice, will-power or even hunger. Automatic behaviours can be controlled, but only for a short time – the reason most diets ultimately fail. A more effective approach would be to decrease the accessibility, visibility and quantities of food people are exposed to and the environmental cues that promote eating, argue dietitians.

Several recent studies depict the folly of human consumption. A 2006 study in the International Journal of Obesity found that when candy was placed in a clear dish, people are 71 per cent more than when it was in an opaque dish. The same study found that the closer the food, the more likely it would be eaten. Another study in the obesity research found that people don’t necessarily stop eating when full!

“Eating behaviour is like a lot of other lifestyle behaviours; you tend to repeat them, often in the same context, same location, with the same people, at the same time of the day,” says Dr Wendy Wood, an American psychologist. “When people repeat behaviours that way, they become automatic. They are cued by the context and no longer involve decision-making.

Adds Dr Sharma, “Ever since processed food has hit the Indian markets, it has jeopardised our taste buds for good! One has to talk to our grandmothers to understand how much they would savour food as then good would be freshly prepared, with definite intervals between meals and no snacking – though snacking is not bad always. Today, one of the main reasons why we eat mindlessly is because we are not satisfied with the taste.”

Mindless munching is also a result of food being utilised as an emotional blanket. During times of stress or a crisis, we automatically turn towards the refrigerator for some sweet succour. Perhaps, that would partly explain why there more fat people today in India than before. Dr ShibhaUdipi, head, department of food science and nutrition, SNDT Women’s University, Mumbai, points out that one of the main reasons behind an increase in lifestyle diseases is mindless eating. “We take food very casually and hence eat what we prefer, which is usually high-energy dense food. And these food items aren’t even satiating, so we end up eating more. Also, our sedentary lifestyle ensures that the excess energy we accumulate is not expended,” she explains.

The consumerist age is another factor behind mindless eating. As partaking alcoholic beverages has increased over the years, so has the consumption of fried finger-foods. With each sip, your hand automatically stretches towards the plate that has calorie-laden snacks. Even otherwise, clarion calls in ads that induce us to Buy One as then you Get One Free or bigger packets with larger discounts, propel us towards eating more, often unconsciously.

As author and food critic, Rashmi Uday Singh avers, “Unlike the French, we don’t necessarily go for the finest food. Often, we are tempted by discounts or lower prices. But when the food is of high quality, you tend to eat less because you eat slowly, as you savour more. When you eat in a rush, before the brain gets the signal of being satiated, the person has already had a few extra bites.”

Eat a lot, then discuss!

Eating well is their problem. And they overdo it. For over seven years now, a group of overeaters has been meeting every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, at a restaurant in Bengaluru to discuss a solvable problem – overeating.

Overeaters Anonymous (OA), as they call themselves, are addicted to eating and the subsequent binge guilt. It is not a group of obese individuals with no control over their hypothalamus, but a surprisingly trim set pondering over their problem. Begun in 2001, the group was started by one John, a diabetic with a craving for sweets. He was joined by another man, who had shared his overheating problem at Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholic Anonymous.

In this world of power, prestige and promotions, a few people overeat because of a disease called feelings, according to John. “We overeat because there’s an emptiness to be filled. Food is the crutch. We seek approval through this binge. We try to numb jealousy and we get a sense of belonging.” The craving for food, say, members, is subtle compared to alcohol or drugs, “and hence not considered a problem till you hit the bottom.”

The biggest help at this 6 pm to 7 pm meeting is an exchange of experiences. As and when they feel an obsession or compulsion to overeat, they’re free to call each other at any time and cut short the craving. At the meetings, the dishonest self-image, manipulation through food, denial of overeating and willingness to change are discussed.

By Maharaaj K. Koul

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