Eating Disorders: Breaking the Cycle

Comfort food. It's a term that often describes the type of meal Mom used to make: meatloaf and mashed potatoes, chicken noodle soup, brownies. Food that inspires the warmth and security of home.But for many people the term comfort food takes on a different meaning. Instead of eating to bring back pleasant, nostalgic memories or as sustenance, many eat to physically and emotionally relieve stress, anxiety, depression or other emotional problems. It's this use of food as a source of "comfort" that often leads people into the dangerous cycle of emotional overeating.There are many factors that can lead to a person developing an eating problem: emotional issues, genetics, bio-chemistry, learned behavior, environment. According to Ellen Shuman, director of Acoria Center, a Cincinnati treatment center for persons with emotional overeating problems, "Rarely does one factor alone cause an eating disorder. Usually it's the result of many factors coming into play at once."Comparing eating disorders to alcoholism, Shuman says it's a matter of potential and life's experiences. Just because the potential is there, however, doesn't mean one is relegated to developing a problem.Everyone uses food as a comfort tool once in awhile -- a bad day at the office, the breakup from a significant other. What separates normal behavior from the behavior which leads to an eating problem? According to Shuman, who has publicly acknowledged her personal struggle with binge eating disorder, it's an abnormal relationship with food that impacts your health and social life and how you feel about yourself."Food is not just there for sustenance, enjoyment value or pleasure value," she says. "Food takes on a much more important role. Food is the main coping strategy. Bio-chemically, it works for some people. Some people are particularly sensitive to carbohydrates, for instance."Research indicates that some of the reasons behind this kind of overeating come from the brain. According to Dr. Judith Wurtman, people who binge are biochemically different from those who don't.It's like aspirin. If you have a headache and take it and it doesn't work, you stop taking it. But if it does work, you keep on taking it for headaches. Food can work that way for some people when they're feeling stress and depression. Eating certain foods, such as sweets or starches, leads to the production of a calming chemical in the brain called serotonin. When serotonin is produced in large enough amounts, it makes people feel less anxious, less depressed, more alert and emotionally stable. When unavailable in sufficient amounts, it can cause a person to feel depressed and anxious as well as an urge to eat sweet and starchy foods. This process happens in everyone, but some people are more sensitive to its calming effect.This relationship with food starts the cycle. After a problem starts and the person feels bad about her eating or weight, that acts as another trigger to perpetuate the cycle of emotional eating.So how can someone change her attitude toward food? Become aware. Become conscious of your need for food and why. Monitor not just what you eat but why, how you feel before you eat and after. Try to understand the role food plays in your life. When you try to modify your behavior, you can't change what you're doing if you don't know why you're doing it.Shuman says their treatment center was named Acoria for a word termed by Hippocrates, the Greek father of medicine, to mean "moderation in eating." "We think the answer," she says, "is in coming to understand the role food has come to play in our lives, developing healthier coping strategies, and acheiving moderation and optimum health."

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