Are we what we eat?

Negative emotions can send us rushing to the grocery cupboard or hiding our horrors in a tub of ice cream ... with up to 43 percent of people using food to alter their mood, according to a survey by the Priory Clinic.

Negative emotions can send us rushing to the grocery cupboard or hiding our horrors in a tub of ice cream ... with up to 43 percent of people using food to alter their mood, according to a survey by the Priory Clinic.

Others binge and vomit or develop anorexia as a way of trying to gain some sort of control over runaway feelings.

Why do so many of us have this up-and-down relationship with what, at its most fundamental level, is just a means of fuelling our bodies?

According to Deanne Jade, principal of the National Centre for Eating Disorders, our complex relationship with food starts in the cradle.

"A baby's blood sugar falls if they are hungry and they get in a dire emotional state. They scream and cry, are fed and feel better.

"So very early on we learn to associate stress reduction with eating and drinking.

"Secondly, the chemicals we gain from food have a strong impact not only on our appetite but also on our emotional brains, so the connections between food and mood become intricately connected in a very complex way."

Very early on we learn to associate stress reduction with eating and drinking.

Because of this complex relationship, people might say they are hungry and genuinely believe it, when in fact they are sad.

They will also feel sad and miserable when they are hungry because of the deficiency of certain neurochemicals, which carry messages in the brain.

"For example, when we eat we get changes in serotonin, endorphins and dopamine levels in the brain. These are very powerful chemicals, which also affect mood.

"Sugar, for example, causes serotonin flows and serotonin is a chemical used in certain anti-depressants, such as Prozac, which cause the user to feel more balanced and equitable.

"People who are low in serotonin in the brain do generally feel better when they eat sugar, but that's not true of people who have adequate levels of serotonin."

So could that mean we can become addicted to certain foods? The notion has certainly sparked vigorous debate.

Jane Ogden, a reader in health psychology at King's College, London, says it depends on your definition of addiction.

She says: "If addiction means you have no control over something, then this could apply to food, but if you take the classic definition of addiction, which means you get withdrawal and tolerance, then I'm not sure it can apply to eating behaviour.

"Ideally, if we were purely biological beings, we would eat only when we were hungry, but food intake isn't like that.

The family meal has little to do with hunger and satiety and a lot more to do with communication within families and the way you show whether you care about people or how you are bonded

"Food becomes a central part of the currency of social life and also the individual's day-to-day emotional life.

"It is no longer about whether you are hungry or not but takes on a range of other meanings. It becomes part of social negotiation and about celebration and special occasions, about relationships and power.

"The family meal has a whole context that has very little to do with hunger and satiety and a lot more to do with communication within families and the way you show whether you care about people or how you are bonded.

"Then on an individual level, food has taken on the role of comfort and distraction from boredom. "

How does this apply to people with anorexia or bulimia?

"Starving causes people to feel high and spaced out and separated from their emotions," says Jade.

"When you starve, you don't feel the normal range of emotions. You feel kind of insulated from them. It doesn't mean you don't get depressed and miserable - you can get severely depressed - but we are talking about a narrowing of emotional range.

"What is common to people with eating disorders is that body image and feelings about their body are a very big part of their self-esteem."

With binge eating, it has been proved that an unhealthy diet leads to chemical disturbances in the brain, setting up a cycle, so we become depressed, irritable or aggressive, then eat more of the very food that makes us feel that way.

It also has a lot to do with the fact that we're all different. Our emotional response to food is formed in childhood, due to many things - the way our parents feed us, and our own experiences around food, which are very personal.

And as well as our chemistry and our individuality, the way we experience emotion and how we handle it also play a part. - BBC

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