Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Emotional Eating and the Modern Diet - Which Caused Which?

There is a growing belief that the composition of the western diet, not greed or laziness is the chief driver of obesity, a view for which Gary Taubes has become well known. An excess of refined carbohydrates, it is said, is driving the accumulation of excess fat and it's the resulting obesity that causes lack of activity as opposed to the lack of activity causing the obesity; since carbohydrates also apparently disrupt our appetite regulation mechanisms, blaming people for their obesity may be unfair and merely pandering to our finger-pointing instincts. Yet there is more at work here than biochemistry.
The Allure of Carbohydrates
Sure, carbohydrates are more-ish to say the least - in the past I have been known to nail a packet of biscuits in a single sitting, slotting them in one-by-one with machine-like determination. And we can certainly lay blame for some of this squarely at the door of those responsible for the current composition of the western diet - the organisations who peddled the low fat myth and the food companies who cynically exploit it to sell junk masquerading as health food. However, society must shoulder some collective blame for another factor, not as often discussed: our emotional eating.
Learning and Association
Food associations can be powerful - our negative experiences as children can lead to lifetime likes or dislikes - even phobias - of food. Often these are minor and we grow out of them - most of us disliked at least one vegetable as a child but later came to tolerate it. But sometimes they stick - I have a colleague at work who cannot even look at cooked fish, let alone eat it. I have not pried as to the possible causes, but given that the issue extends beyond taste, it's reasonable to assume that there is more to it.

Likewise, we form associations with positive experiences and develop learned emotional responses to foods. When I was young, my grandmother used to bring me sugary, milky tea and excessively buttered white, crust-less toast in the morning. I sometimes crave these foods even now, but sense it is as much the experience of staying at my grandparents I am hankering for and if I went to the trouble of recreating that breakfast I would probably be disappointed by the reality.

These examples are inevitable consequences of our associative learning mechanisms, about which there's little we can do. However, there are also more ingrained social factors at play which have become part of the grammar of parenthood. As a society we have built an emotional framework around food, teaching our children from an early age to associate it with positive behaviour, using it as a bargaining chip, reward and even punishment.

By her own admission, Mrs M has an emotional relationship with food that adds an extra dimension to her efforts to eat a healthy diet. Those of you who followed The Great Cake Porn Tour will recall how she made heroic efforts to indulge her every sugary whim on our recent trip to the US, taking a break from her usually sugar-free diet. For Mrs M, there are a few buttons which, when pushed, created a powerful urge to eat sugary food. These are stress and the excitement of holidays. We think the latter is a result of childhood associations.
Reward and Punishment
I was recently shopping in a supermarket when I noticed a screaming child, aged around two, whose mother was browsing nearby. The child was clearly not happy about being confined to the shopping trolley. The mother, almost without averting her gaze from the shelf, reached into her handbag, rummaged for a moment, then leaned back to provide the child with a chocolate bar. Immediately, the child was silenced.

In my childhood family, like many others, the mantra 'If you don't eat your meal, you can't have any pudding' could sometimes be heard. Similarly, the notion of sugary food as a treat or a reward for good behaviour was not unheard of. To be fair to my folks, the reward and punishment systems they used were far more varied than this, as a result of which (I speculate) my brother and I do not have particularly strong emotional associations with food. This may also be because we are male, because we are genetically predisposed to functional as opposed to emotional eating, neither or both.
The Media
For years the media and advertisers have been reinforcing our emotional responses to food. Consider the dumped girlfriend with a tub of ice cream watching Friends re-runs. The industry thrives on stereotypes and caricatures and we often take them as a cue for our own behaviour, leading to a positive feedback loop - life imitates art then art imitates life's imitation. At moments of great stress, it sometimes fleetingly occurs to me to find a bar and ask the barman to line up the whiskies. Why? Because that's what they do on TV.

When I Googled "comfort food" for images, I found over 200,000 - and that's just images. It gives you an idea of how the link between food and emotion has become part of our culture.
Which Came First?
Yet this is surely a modern phenomenon. Would stone age woman, upon discovering that her cave-partner had clubbed a neighbouring female over the head and dragged her into the cave while she was out foraging, have sought solace with a handful of nuts and berries whilst asking some friends to re-enact The One Where Ug Kisses Og?

The food industry and society have semi-consciously conspired to create a situation in which not only do our foods make it hard to eat according to our appetite, but our socialisation has created appetite triggers that have nothing to do with hunger.

The question is, which came first? If we had never manufactured these foods in the first place, would the available natural foods have been considered emotional currency? Or was it our innate desire to comfort ourselves in an increasingly stressful world that drove the demand for crappy food and encouraged the food industry charlatans to swap their overalls for lab coats? I am not sure that knowing the answer will help us much.

For my own part, my kids won't be getting nasty foods as a treat or reward. I know parenthood is tough and don't for one minute underestimate the scale of the challenge - but I will certainly do my best to keep unhealthy food out of the bargaining process.


Jeff said...

Great post. I struggle with my 5 year old every single day with this. She won't eat many of the healthy foods I put on her plate and my wife uses treat(healthier, but treats nonetheless) bribery to try and get her to eat. Threatening her with punishment or even punishing is also involved, usually being sent to her room. I prefer to just let it go and let her go hungry, but my wife isn't down with that. Any advice you have related to this would be greatly appreciated. I want a healthy daughter in body and mind.



Methuselah said...

Jeff - I should have made clearer in my last paragraph that these kids of mine have not yet I am not well positioned to advise!

That said, Mrs M and I have spent a lot of time hypothesising about how we might deal with issues like these. Our main focus has tended to be on how to keep junk food out of their lives whilst still allowing enough exposure so they can establish mechanisms for controlling their desire. I guess school and friends is probably that exposure.

For what it's worth, I am with you on this - I think going to bed hungry now and again is no bad thing. Perhaps it's training for future fasting ;-)

Your workout from yesterday looks pretty tough, by the way. I did 5x5 clean and jerk this morning, followed by 3x5 stiff-leg deadlift. It nearly fnished me off!

Asclepius said...

With my kids, I try to stay away from food as a reward or punishment.

But, I too have succumbed to using 'food as a reward' - within reason. A treat MAY, ON OCCASSION follow the finishing of a (paleo) meal for my eldest.

I try to emphasise to my child that when she eats junk food it is 'junk', but that a little bit will not be too bad for her.

Outright prohibition has obvious drawbacks. I think if you deny children food that their peers are eating, they may well rebel and you can end up in a tricky situation. Junk food is all but inescapable to kids, especially at social gatherings like parties.

Education is the best policy. Thus I always point out the benefits of 'healthy/paleo' food choices to my kid and inform them of the drawbacks of junk food.

Kids naturally want to 'win' and emulate superheroes - and it is easy for kids to appreciate the link between excellent physical performance and appropriate nutrition (or conversely poor nutrition and obesity/smoking etc)

Bottom line is that at home I am in control of the family diet and I will make sure that every meal is healthy.

As an aside, when in town you see the obese chowing down on fries/chips, chocolate and crisps. My 4yo knows that no superhero is obese and that obesity indicates poor health and a low level of athleticism. All I have to do is ask her 'What do you see that fat-dude eathing?' - it works like a treat. She is learning the lesson.

Better still, she can see in me the benefits of the paleo approach.

Methuselah said...

All sounds like good policy Asclepius. I remember my Mum banging on about Dr Bieler's book 'Food is your Best Medicine' when I was a teenager and telling me what was good and bad to eat. I duly ignored it, but it must have sunk in because once I had figured out I was not invincible I was way ahead of most people on nutrition and had an innate desire to eat good stuff. Now I have taken my revenge by talking her into the Paleo diet ;-)

Anonymous said...

Cool post. I have long for gone comfort or emotional eating but sometimes get a craving for a huge bowl of granola or crunchy nut cornflakes as they were a staple for me when growing up and into my teenage years. For me the ultimate comfort food is a bowl of carbs but that is purely psychological and is just from the years of eating that way before going paleo. Now my tastes have changed and I actually crave a huge meaty salad with all the trimmings!!

Its amazing how many people I see eat copious amounts of sugar when they are stressed out or angry, they seem to grab these foods with no remorse. Or even the amount of people who will binge on carbs after a workout or a long day of work because their "body needs them".....

Great post and well done highlighting the topic....

Methuselah said...

Chris, thanks. I crave weetabix with cream and sugar - something I nailed with frightening regularity as a teenager!

Anonymous said...

This is such a great article, I felt like I was reading my own thoughts in a more concise format! I cringe when I see my 3-year old niece being fed a steady diet of french fries and candy bars, along with the occasional bowl of pasta napoli. Now I don't have children yet so who can say to what lengths I will go to keep my kids happy but I sure don't think that this is the answer! (Nor will it actually keep them happy or calm in the long run anyway). I researched sugar addiction at length a year or so back and it was fascinating to learn that children are instantly addicted to sugar from the very first taste. Treat - or torture? I don't think it's the first.

BlueGirl said...

Great Post, I can see myself in the emotional eating trap. I wanted to spare my children from the torment I suffered as a child (I was the fat kid) so I have never used food as a reward/punishment. It just isn't fair. We offer her healthy foods at mealtimes and if she isn't interested, she can leave the table. If she gets hungry later, she can have a hardboiled egg. One thing we did with her as a baby was feed her off our plates. I think since most baby food is bland and carb laden it sets kid's preferences early for the sweet & breaded stuff. We also have never been to a fast food joint (something w/ a drive through). But we hit Starbucks more often than we should.

Methuselah said...

CrstlGazer - sounds like you have some great policies there. Not sure how old your daughter is, but I guess the real challenges come when kids start making her own decisions, based around what her peers are doing. I suppose then one has to just let them get on with it and hope that what they learned in the early years stands them in good stead.

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