Getting control of food binges is not necessarily just for Christmas

At this time of year many of us will come across messages which warn of the hazards of consuming excessive quantities of food and drink. For example, a week or so ago I read a report which maintained that children can get through 6000-odd calories on Christmas day. And last week I wrote a piece which was actually about the potentially fattening effects of carbohydrates which suggested cutting back on carbs as a way of preventing body weight spikes at this time of year.

While festive weight warnings have some merit they, for me anyway, pale into insignificance for many people. If your weight is healthy and stable, but transiently expands by a few pound/couple of kilos as a result of some overindulgence at this time of year or, say, when on holiday, then I suggest you’ve not got too much to worry about in this department. If, on the other hand, you find your weight tends to yo-yo throughout the year as a result of periods of self-restraint interspersed with spells of ‘prolonged overindulgence’, then this is generally more of an issue. When I use the word ‘over-indulgence’ here I don’t use it in a pejorative way. I know for some this term will conjure forth concepts of weak will, lack of self-control and greediness. However, I know from experience that many individuals over-indulge not so much because of these factors, but powerful biochemical and physiological forces that drive them to overeat.

One of the most obvious ways this can manifest is in the form of food bingeing. I’ve met many capable, self-reliant, adequate, and seemingly well-organised individuals who can have extreme difficulty controlling their food intake at times. Just a week ago I was having dinner with some friends and met for the first time a lady who had had a stomach ‘lap-band’ fitted some time ago to assist her attempts to lose weight. She was previously 17 ½ stones (245 lbs/112 kg approx) but now looked, to my eyes, perhaps 13 stones. This lady commented that while the operation had been a success in terms of weight loss, it had failed to cure what she regarded as her true underling problem: food bingeing.

She very openly described her eating pattern being of one of cycles of eating very little which would then lead to cravings for sweet foods, including chocolate. She told me that in one single day she might consume nothing apart from three or four ‘large’ bars of milk chocolate.

I mentioned to this lady that perhaps her eating habits might be, at least in part, due to a biochemical/physiological factors. I mentioned specifically the capacity for episodes of low blood sugar (hypoglycaemia) to trigger cravings (sometimes overwhelming) for sweet foods like milk chocolate. I also talked about how hypoglycaemia can be induced by not eating very much, or by eating foods that are generally disruptive to blood sugar (like a ‘large’ bar of milk chocolate).

At the risk of sounding patronising (I do not mean to be), this lady was undoubtedly intelligent. But the idea that her eating habits might be at all related to wonky internal balance was news to her. But she could most certainly see the sense in it, and was eager to learn what she could do to get better control of her biochemistry and her eating.

As it happened, another person at dinner had been struggling with some eating issues of his own for some years. Previously vegetarian, he had eaten a relatively carb-rich diet for the past 23 years, and had also gone through periods of relative starvation to control his weight, interspersed with overeating. Two months ago, he had taken it upon himself to introduce fish back into his diet and cut back on the carbs. His eating, from what I could make out, was now eminently healthy, and he has lost about 20 lbs in excess weight to boot.

He had, during this time, also been supplementing with the amino acid L-glutamine, which as I describe here, can be useful for quelling cravings for carbohydrate. The net result of these approaches was that he had put a stop to any bingeing, and was now happily eating to a consistent, healthy pattern. The weight loss was almost by the way: at last he felt free of cycles of bingeing and near-starvation that had punctuated significant portions of his life.

My experiences with these individuals last week reminded me just how common it is for individuals to find themselves mired in unhealthy eating habits which can be difficult to break free without addressing the biochemical issues that can be playing a surprisingly large part in the problem. Last week also reminded me of how even a little nutritional know-how can liberate someone from an unhealthy eating pattern without the need to exert undue willpower or discipline.

If you or someone you know should struggle with compulsive eating from time to time or perhaps persistently, then it may help you to take steps to balance blood sugar levels and quell cravings. Taking such action could well mean that 2010 marks the year where cycles of bingeing are put to bed for good.

2 Responses to Getting control of food binges is not necessarily just for Christmas

  1. Nigeepoo 22 December 2009 at 11:29 pm #

    Have you seen Hypoglycemia & Neurosis. ?

  2. Jackie Bushell 27 December 2009 at 3:19 pm #

    Wish there were more doctors around like you, Dr Briffa! I think that wider recognition of this issue of, as you put it, ‘powerful biochemical and physiological forces that drive them to overeat’ is absolutely crucial in the fight against obesity.

    Please do continue publicising this little understood aspect of weight problems. The sooner we get ‘mainstream medicine’, the food industry, the ‘diet products’ industry and most importantly, the ‘healthy eating advice’ brigade to understand that ‘gluttony and sloth’ are not the fundamental problem, the sooner we’ll be able to make real progress with the ‘obesity epidemic’.

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