Eating is obviously a primary impulse. However, many eating disorders are associated with this simple act, such as anorexia and bulimia, which manifest themselves in a conflictual relationship with food. Sometimes, in some periods more than in others, we find ourselves eating voraciously, breaking down all inhibitions and resistances. We often attribute our lack of self-control to the current situation. We point to a strong disappointment, a particularly intense emotional situation or a very demanding work period as the cause of our greed eating. So we find ourselves eating a whole tub of chocolate ice cream to alleviate our wounds or consuming whole boxes of cookies and fridge leftovers.
Now new studies have tried to clarify the causes that lead to this compulsive eating, arriving at contrary results compared to what has been previously assumed. If we binge without food control it is not for stress relief as many believe.
Anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa
Aware that it is not possible to address in a few lines the complex reasons that lead to eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia, we only mention the main characteristics of these two conditions.
In anorexia nervosa the patient is severely underweight; does not admit to being and has a constant fear of gaining weight. This leads the subject to overeat in an uncontrolled way and to vomit what has been eaten.
In bulimia nervosa, on the other hand, the patient incurs continuous episodes of bingeing, often alternating with periods of guilt (with consequent use of laxatives, drugs or induction of vomiting). The bulimic individual does not accept the shape or weight of their body.
If we binge without food control it is not for stress relief as many believe
In a recent study (Westwater ML et al, 2021), researchers went to investigate the relationship between stress and food. In particular, they went to evaluate whether stress can undermine our self-control in eating (or eliminate our self-inhibition).
To do this, they enrolled subjects with eating disorders (anorexia and bulimia nervosa) and subjects without eating disorders for the study. The researchers asked them to press a button to stop a moving bar on a screen when it reached a specific point. In some cases, subjects had to force themselves not to press the button because the bar stopped early. This simple task had to be performed both in stressful conditions and in a calmer situation. All subjects were monitored by magnetic resonance imaging.
It emerged that, in subjects with eating disorders, stress had actually changed the brain activity used for self-control (in the superior frontal gyrus), but this did not prevent them from adequately performing their task. This change in brain activity was different between subjects with anorexia and bulimic subjects.
In other words, contrary to popular belief, our loss of control over food is not caused by stress but is linked to other elements that are not yet well understood. In fact, the relationship between stress and binges is linked to environmental, genetic, hormonal and psychological factors and further studies are needed to evaluate the fine mechanisms linked to anorexia and bulimia.
Here’s what to keep in your pocket against hunger pangs while on a diet
(We remind you to carefully read the warnings regarding this article, which can be consulted WHO”)