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What's eating you?

If you binge on food more often than anyone else you know, you could have a problem, writes Tavishi Paitandy Rastogi.
By Tavishi Paitandy Rastogi | Hindustan Times, New Delhi
UPDATED ON JUN 16, 2008 11:49 AM IST

Journalist Sneha Mishra just loves her pizzas and burgers. Actually, there's more to it than that. She just loves food, full stop. French fries, pakodas, cakes, wafers, masala peanuts… she can eat them every time. Or rather, any time. Whether she's really hungry or not.

‘Eat to live' is Mishra's motto. "And what's wrong with that?" she demands. "After all, isn't eating a good thing? Isn't it the most basic source of happiness? At least, that's the way it is for me. So why shouldn't I eat and be happy all the time?"

That could be a good way to look at things. Because there's no denying that a good meal can make anyone happy, any time.

But there's a difference between enjoying a good meal three times a day (or satiating yourself with six small meals a day) and enjoying a good meal all the time. The former is normal. The latter is classified as bingeing. And bingeing all the time, as we all know, is not at all a good thing.

So why do some of us do it? Do some of us need more food than others? Or is there something more to it?

Mind over Matter
Some of us could need more food than others, say experts cautiously . But the fact is that, often, bingeing on food has more to do with the cravings of the mind than with the real cravings of the body.

"Often, it has nothing to do with hunger pangs," says Dr Kersi Chavda, consultant psychiatrist, Hinduja Hospital, Mumbai. "When we refer to people who binge on food, we mean people who eat large amounts of food – often high in carbohydrates and fats – in short periods of time. Even if they've eaten a complete meal just an hour or two previously, they'll eat a large meal again."

That shows, continues Dr Chavda, that binge eating is a psychological disorder. That it has little, if nothing, to do with actual physical hunger.

"Eating recklessly has been associated with latent emotions that do not have a proper vent, like anger, anxiety, sadness or irritability," says Dr Chavda. "Eating often becomes the expression of these subdued feelings. A lot of people tend to express their frustrations and hidden turmoil through food."

Put simply, says Dr Jeetendra Nagpal, consultant psychologist, Moolchand hospital, Delhi, binge eating is a way that many of us disguise our mood disorders – hiding them both from our own selves and from others.

Happy Platter
Food becomes the outlet for such suppressed emotions for two reasons. The first is basic: there is a fundamental link between food and security that we feel from the time that we are babies. As any harassed parent of a small baby knows, one good way to calm down an upset child is to shove a bottle in his or her mouth. For many of us, that link between food and security continues to adulthood.

The second reason is more physical. Food provides us with more than nutrients and energy It also . influences our appetites and moods.

"It's a proven, scientific fact that certain foods affect powerful moodmodifying chemicals in our brains called neurotransmitters," says Dr Nagpal. "Therefore, food can work as a mood elevator because there is a definite biological correlation with the brain."

That's something that a lot of us know already, even if we had never heard of neurotransmitters before. Think about how we associate rainy days with adhrak chai and bhajiyyas. We can have adhrak chai and bhajiyyas at any time – but the combination is inextricably linked with cheering ourselves up on grey, rainy days.

For some people, such as marketing executive Deepak Dewan, food is an instant stress reliever at any time. "I feel happy as soon as I eat," he says. "And it does not need to be my favourite food item. I am happy when I eat just anything. It makes me feel energetic and lively I feel.

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