Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
From the publishers of THE HINDU
ADDICTIONS: February 25,2001
Feel good food
Food writer and critic.
Are you really only wide awake after a tumbler of steaming, hot coffee? Is your child tetchy without a chilled cola before lunch? Do chocolates give you a high? If you find yourself nodding in agreement, then chances are that you and your family are under the influence of foods. For a long time it has been known that certain foods could alter moods, but today, we are in a better position to explain what brings about this effect.
Apart from vital nutrients, a number of chemical compounds are found in foods which do not necessarily promote good health, but which might, indeed, contribute to our sense of well being. Caffeine in coffee and tea is the chief stimulant that makes us alert, improves our concentration and puts more zip into our lives. Apparently, there is more to "Come alive with Nescaf‚" than just clever advertising. Caffeine is also the chemical in cola drinks that possibly makes children hyperactive. Besides, it could lead to dependency affecting the child's performance in the classroom or playground.
Although chocolate also contains caffeine, the feel-good factor may be largely attributed to a compound called phenylethylamine, PEA for short. When one is in love, PEA which occurs naturally in the brain, is believed to pour into the bloodstream. Does it come as any surprise, then, that many feeling lovelorn and lonesome have taken comfort in a box of chocolates? And what about confirmed chocoholics? Are chocolates the more pleasurable and infinitely less painful alternative to the real thing?
On quite another level, is the issue of how our feelings influence our approach to food. Princess Diana's confession of being its victim accorded bulimia nervosa celebrity status. In fact, this condition and its related disorder, anorexia nervosa, have a few traits in common. They seem to affect a greater majority of women than men, who are typically from upper middle-class or affluent families. They are conscientious, ambitious and hard-working but lack the means to express themselves. Additionally, these women come from close-knit, secure environments, where the mother is in obvious charge. Unable to get a hold on themselves in any other way, sufferers usually turn to food as a means of bringing some balance into their lives. They may also be compulsive shoppers, propelled by the shop-till-you-drop syndrome to buy things they don't need much less can afford, or nuisance callers who seem to think that getting someone to the phone at their every whim is a means of exercising power over somebody else, particularly if that person is an ex-lover or estranged spouse. Abuse of alcohol is also common, as is inflicting cuts or burns upon themselves.
Clearly, this obsessive behaviour has nothing to do with food, or any other dietary or physiological dysfunction, but everything to do with the mind. In short, victims have an unhealthy relationship with food. The term anorexia literally means "lack of appetite" while bulimia suggests "binge eating". The suffix "nervosa" indicates the psychological nature of the disorder. So, can you tell if a friend or family member has a problem?
Anorexics tend to be younger, mere teenagers or adults in their early twenties. Their quiet disposition helps to conceal their hidden aspirations. This contrast results in inner turmoil, which in turn leads to anorexics viewing their bodies in unrealistics terms. They tend to think they are obese and grossly out of shape. Initial indications that someone you know is anorexic is withdrawal from social encounters, particularly those that involve meals, because sufferers do not wish to have their intake of food supervised. In the light of this obsession with restricting food, anorexics will rarely reveal what they have eaten, if at all they do. If persuaded to eat, they will promptly resort to vomiting or the use of laxatives to empty the stomach.
In an effort to control their body weight, anorexics can also ignore hunger, and will pursue work and exercise relentlessly, not even pausing to take a break. Remarkably, despite these austere measures, they are adapt at being able to take daily tasks and community interactions in their stride. Most interesting of all, for their age, anorexics are exceptionally knowledgeable about the nutritional benefits of food, and, paradoxically, have a flair for cooking. Depression and belligerence often accompany this disorder.
With their body weights hovering around dangerous low levels, physiologicall changes become manifest in anorexics. Since many of them are young girls, delayed onset of menstruation and sexual maturation is probably the single most significant fallout of this morbid weight fixation, because women need a fat content of between 18 and 25 per cent of their body weight for this function to be normal and regular. Other effects include a drop in blood pressure, irregular heartbeat, constipation, feeling unduly cold, and, low levels of plasma zinc and copper. Lack of zinc is particularly relevant, since it depresses taste sensitivity, further limiting food intake.
Crucial to recognising anorexia nervosa is to understand that this fanatical desire for weight control is not linked in any way to the popular culture of slimness among the elite in bigger cities and towns. It stems from lack of self-worth, and an effort to make some sense of the many physical and emotional upheavals that attend growing up.
Bulimia nervosa, on the other hand, is more common among people who are older, usually those in their late twenties and thirties. Many bulimics may have a history of anorexia in their younger days, suggesting a link with an earlier unresolved predicament. They share many attributes with anorexics such as an industrious and ambitious temperament, but they do not starve themselves to destruction. Instead, they overcome their feelings of loneliness, inadequacy, boredom or unhappiness by binge eating.
This condition is rather harder to detect because many bulimics are of normal weight, some may even be overweight. Only very few of them are thin. Also, by turning up for meals and eating normally, bulimics fail to exhibit warning signs. But, in secret, the bulimic will characteristically consume huge amounts of food and drink, usually high in calories, or those she has been told or imagines should be restricted to control body weight. The stuffing will continue unabated unless there is an interruption, or until the supply runs out, or when the stomach can hold no more. Then feelings of guilt take over, and the bulimic will vomit voluntarily or stick fingers down her throat to induce it. Laxatives and diureties are also misused. This contradiction brings revulsion and depression, but the pattern will remain unchanged.
Others may be able to detect bulimic behaviour only if physical evidence like teeth corroded by acid brought up from the stomach becomes apparent, or when blisters and abrasions appear on the fingers used to provoke vomiting. Frequent vomiting may also swell the salivary glands situated near the ears, giving the face a puffy look. More subtle changes include sore throat, extreme mood swings, withdrawal from social functions, and frequent visits to the lavatory, especially after meals.
Bulimics also face physiological consequences resulting from the frequent vomiting and purgation. Usually potassium levels dip, as a result of which the heartbeat becomes irregular and kidney damage is likely. Faulty kidney function also causes the feet and ankles to swell. Pins and needles of the hands and feet, hormonal imbalances and muscular weakness are the other detrimental effects.
As should be amply evident by now, these two eating disorders are not about food. They are but manifestations of deep-seated emotional and psychological disturbances, in which food is used as a tool for greater control. Therefore, seldom can food be used to bring about a change in the attitude of the sufferer.
Rewards for eating and gaining weight are also worked into therapy, but reversing the original idea of ideal weight requires professional counselling and psychotherapy. It is preferable that the whole family is involved in the victim's recovery, but the mother's support and participation is of critical importance. If depression is present, medication is required. Encouragement and assistance have to be continuous, as the road to recovery could well be long and arduous, often lasting up to three years - the time needed for negative perceptions to be altered.
Therefore, eating disorders betray a deeper problem unrelated to food. It is about control in the midst of psychological and emotional turmoil. Women are particularly prone because there is increased pressure on them in today's world to have successful careers, while being the perfect wife and mother that society expects and demands at the same time. Since both these conditions stem from low self-esteem, appreciation and approval of individual traits and talents could be decisive in building confidence. However, even after treatment, the recovered anorexic or bulimic could revert to the old preoccupation of control through food at the slightest hint of stress or distress.
Needless to say, the seeds for contentment, happiness or just getting on in life, have to be sown in childhood. Constant comparison with other children could cause undue anxiety, making the child feel completely out of control. Happy and healthy children who can appreciate themselves for what they are, are less likely to suffer personality problems as adults. So, do the world a favour, and offer praise and reward to the child even when it is seemingly undeserved.
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