E se l’emotional eating, the nervous hunger that drives us to gorge on pies when we’re down in the dumps or something has gone wrong, wasn’t it just due to our emotional state? Doubt came to Silvia Gonsahn-Bollie, American expert on obesity and author of popular textbooks. Who dedicated an article published on the topic Medscapein which he invites us to investigate the possible physiological causes of these uncontrollable hungers.
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Food seen as a reward
“Interesting reflection,” he notes Livio Luzi, professor of Endocrinology at the University of Milan and director of the Department of Endocrinology, Nutrition and Metabolic Diseases of the MultiMedica Group. “In this case we are talking about hedonic hunger, that is the mechanism that leads us to see food as a reward, but there are also physiological elements behind emotions, which we must not overlook: let’s think about the role of stress in these behaviors”.
Emotional hunger, it is important to remember, is not a pathology, “but an approach to food which, however, can easily open the door to eating disorders such as bulimia or binge eating disorder, the so-called binges, or obesity with the consequences that they derive from the state of health,” he adds Antonios Dakanalishead of the Research Center on Eating Disorders at the University of Milano-Bicocca, member of the European Council on Eating Disorders and author of a recent study on the subject.
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Stress that leads to wanting to eat even in the absence of hunger
“We call hunger or emotional eating the tendency to respond to stressful and difficult feelings by eating, even in the absence of physical hunger,” continues the specialist. A problem that manifests itself as a craving, usually for unhealthy foods that are low in nutritional value and high in calories, fat, salt, starch, and sugar, “such as candy, snack foods, or fast food eaten quickly and mechanical, especially in the presence of stress or negative emotions such as anxiety, anger, fear, sadness or loneliness”.
A different mechanism from that of physiological or homeostatic hunger, “which signals the need for energy and is regulated, in humans as in all mammals, by the hypothalamus”, recalls Luzi, “while here we are talking about hedonic hunger which is regulated from the prefrontal cortex, and is linked to the reward circuit. For this reason, a real food addiction can arise in some subjects; the problem arises when the communication between these areas is altered”.
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A problem that especially affects women
And it seems to mostly concern women, “but we don’t know for sure if this depends on the fact that they are more studied”, observes Luzi “even if there is a female prevalence in obesity”. And the research carried out by Dakanalis and his group also indicates that women are more prone to emotional eating than men: “We have created an Italian version of the Dutch Eating Behavior Questionnaire, the most famous questionnaire for assessing the presence and of emotional eating through questions such as “Do you have the desire to eat when you are irritated?” explains the teacher.
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According to Gonsahn-Bollie, among the clinical conditions that alter the physiological regulation of appetite and can trigger nervous hunger are diabetes, polycystic ovary syndrome, insulin resistance and sleep disturbances. “We don’t have definitive empirical confirmations, but it is very likely that people resort to emotional eating also to suppress negative emotions or stress induced by these or other clinical or physiological conditions such as menstruation,” explains Dakanalis.
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Nervous hunger and lack of elements such as iron, phosphorus and magnesium
“Certainly emotional eating derives from a series of factors rather than from a single cause”, confirms Luzi “there may be a reaction of the body to insulin resistance, but also to a lack of nutrients and micronutrients such as iron, calcium, magnesium or phosphorus, which can be useful to evaluate in case of nervous hunger”. Without forgetting that even depression can have an organic component: “We know that most of the obese are also depressed”, continues the teacher, “and treatments with transcranial magnetic stimulation, already used to treat depression, are also proving to be effective to control appetite.
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Physical activity is also very important
To prevent nervous hunger from turning into obesity, however, something can be done, “starting with physical activity, which helps fight stress and control weight gain”, recalls Luzi. “Moreover, studies carried out with magnetic resonance imaging show that food craving, the uncontrolled desire for food, is also linked to an activation of the visual cortex when food is seen: for this reason it may be useful not to keep too much food at home, and Don’t go shopping on an empty stomach.”
To keep nervous hunger under control, adds Dakanalis, it is useful to fight stress and boredom, “by experimenting with stress management techniques such as yoga, meditation or deep breathing, and trying to distract yourself by replacing food with a pleasant activity, such as looking a movie, playing with a pet, or spending time with friends.”
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A food diary
It can also be useful to keep a food diary, “writing down how much and when you eat and how you feel, to bring out the connection between negative emotions, moodiness and food”, concludes the specialist. “And if needed it’s important to seek help, either in a support group or even a mental health specialist.”
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