Daily stress and the fast pace of life can entice us into habitually eating more than our bodies need, often without being fully aware of it, with harmful implications for our physical and mental health. Specialist family physician practising at Netcare Akeso Randburg – Crescent Clinic, Dr Louise Chalmers, sheds some light.
It’s easy to develop an abnormal relationship with food, Dr Louise Chalmers asserts that we cannot live without it. “Mood and food are inseparable in the sense that what happens at cellular level impacts how we feel and function. When a person has very unstable sugar levels this stimulates the production of stress hormones. You may have noticed that when your blood sugar is low, you may feel edgy or tense and eating something that is loaded with fat and sugar is a quick fix that makes you feel ‘better’.
Often unhealthy choices creep in out of convenience, and very quickly these can become part of our habits or routine. Many people who live with food addiction and obesity may eat healthy meals but tend to also constantly ‘graze’ throughout the day, far exceeding the recommended calorie intake without necessarily realising how much they are consuming daily.
This may start gradually, perhaps having a smoothie on your way to work after eating breakfast at home, or coffee and a doughnut when you are having a stressful morning. After lunch, do you perhaps feel you ‘deserve’ a chocolate for working so hard, and maybe a drink and a packet of chips as you’re driving home? It all adds up, and before you know it, you can find yourself trapped in a pattern of overeating and its consequences.
Food makes us feel ‘happy’, albeit a temporary and superficial sense of contentment. Our relationship with food starts when we are very young, and it is especially important for parents and schools to consider their influential role in the development of healthy patterns in children and young adults.
Of course, it is easier to feed kids fish fingers and chips, typically with calorie-laden mayonnaise and tomato sauce, than a healthy freshly prepared balanced meal. As an occasional treat these ‘easy’ meals are fine, however giving in to food cravings to make us or our children ‘happy’ on a regular basis risks establishing a dangerous precedent in how our families relate to food and may eventually come to emotionally rely on it.
Many tuck shops are selling caffeine and sugar laden energy drinks nowadays. Not only is this normalising the idea of using chemicals to get through the day, the buzz of caffeine and appetite suppressant effects can even become a gateway to more serious addictions in future.
Food is a cornerstone of our lives, and this makes it especially difficult for people with food addictions. It is not possible to stop eating, like one can permanently stop drinking alcohol or avoid drugs – food is a necessary part of life and is also an important focus of many social occasions. Instead, those who struggle with compulsive eating must learn how to redefine their relationship with food and this is often more successfully achieved with inpatient treatment.
All forms of an eating disorder benefit from a multidisciplinary team approach to treatment, and at Netcare Akeso Randburg – Crescent Clinic, in addition to me as a family physician, a dietician, occupational therapist, psychologist and psychiatrist, if needed, all contribute to helping the person reclaim their life.
No one ever sets out to become addicted, whether to food or any other form of addiction. It is possible to break unhealthy habits before they become so deeply ingrained, and this starts with simply being aware. Keep a food diary, noting portions of everything that passes your lips including water, how many cups of tea and coffee and how many sugars in each, and all snacks between meals.
It is important to be honest with yourself and recognise if your relationship with food has spiralled out of control, however, don’t be too hard on yourself. If you notice you are overeating, seeing it written down can help to empower you to make small changes that can make a huge difference to your wellbeing and long-term health.
Food addiction is nothing to be ashamed of, as addictions develop in response to circumstances but there are ways to overcome these harmful habits. Practise self-compassion, as shame and guilt can often lead to a person hiding their inner pain rather than seeking professional help when it is needed.