Eating Disorders: Over-Eating

New Book! Jade Miller’s “Attachment and Dissociation: A Survivor’s Analysis” in e-book form. About intergenerational dysfunctional attachment and Jade’s healing process. (Jade is the author of “Dear Little Ones.”)

In my mind, I should be writing about anorexia at the beginning of the series on eating disorders and over-eating at the end, but I am arranging it according to the way my interest is flowing.

The other day, I was waiting for my mechanic to tell me where the oil was coming from (good news: he found out where the leak is – more good news: it can be fixed – bad news: it will be expensive – even more good news: I don’t have to fix it until next year.) I picked up the January 2016 issue of the Scientific American and found an article called “That Craving for Dessert” by Ferris Jabr. (The title has been changed, but the article itself is the same.)

And then, just today, I came across an article by David Ludwig, Professor of Nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health called “Are All Calories Equal?” Ludwig points out that excess insulin causes weight gain and insufficient insulin causes weight loss. Refined sugars and processed carbohydrates make insulin levels spike, causing more calories to be stored in fat cells and fewer in the blood. And low blood sugar makes the brain think that the body is hungry and the process repeats itself.

The other article is a bit more complicated, but I feel it is worth trying to follow the chemistry.

Until fairly recently, it was assumed that all hunger came from a need to keep the body in equilibrium. When we burn more calories than we eat, we get hungry and when we are below our normal body weight, we get hungry. When we eat enough calories to equal the calories expended, we stop eating. So calories in = calories out.

This is the way it works. When the stomach is empty, it sends out ghrelin, which tells the brain that the body should feel hungry and seek out food. When the stomach is full, it sends out hormones that tell the hypothalamus, where the control center is, to stop the feelings of hunger. When there are an excess of calories, they get stored in fat cells for a time they may be needed. As the fat cells expand, they send out the hormone leptin, which tells the brain to reduce appetite and rev up the metabolism. It’s a really nice mechanism to keep everything in equilibrium.

But that doesn’t seem to be the whole story. There is another process going on at the same time: eating for pleasure, regardless of hunger. There is a part of the brain called the reward center, which releases dopamine and creates an intense feeling of pleasure. Sweet and fatty foods (along with cocaine and cigarettes and lots of other addictive things) are triggers that activate the reward system. The brain learned thousands of years ago that some foods were calorie-dense and that gorging on them when they were available could ward off starvation later on, when people were living on the edge of starvation. Having a reward center that encouraged eating these foods was a survival mechanism.

These days sweet and fatty foods are plentiful. They remain pleasurable, but if eaten often enough, the brain adapts by shutting down some of the dopamine receptors. Then larger quantities of calorie-dense food are required to give the same feelings of pleasure. It’s the same as a heroin addict “chasing the high” –  taking more and more of the drug in an effort to regain the initial rush.

There is an off-switch to pleasure-eating. Ghrelin (the hunger hormone) increases the level of dopamine and leptin (the satiation hormone) and insulin decrease it. This way, the first few bites of something yummy are pleasurable, but as the pleasure fades, the brain says, “Okay, that’s enough for now.”

The problem is that, as the amount of fatty tissue increases, the brain stops responding to leptin and the off-switch no longer works. So the more fat there is, the more the hormones tell us to eat. Not fair.

There is another problem — there always is, it seems. The reward center can be activated by seeing a sugary, fatty food, or talking about it, or even seeing a photo of it. This is the source of the cravings that we know all too well. But how do we avoid seeing those addictive foods, when they are in every supermarket,  every fast food restaurant, every fancy restaurant, every coffee shop? It is so easy to make money off of addictions!

I need to write a section specific to multiples and ritual abuse survivors. And I need to write a section on how to handle this horrible, complicated problem.

Use the comments section to share what has and hasn’t helped you and we will go from there.