Yesterday we discussed the difficulty, for parents and health professionals concerned about childhood obesity, in having a positive effect, or making any impact at all, on the production, advertising, or availability of junk food. Call it less-than-optimal food, call it pseudo-food, or call it ingestible matter that does the body more harm than good. Especially, call it hedonic food.
We can spend endless time and resources on trying to change the school board or force the legislature to do the right things. We can boycott products and write letters to the editor. All that is good. But we can also put time and energy into dealing with the reasons why children so often get into the comfort-eating lifestyle.
The kids who need help need help now, and the rest of them need guidance to avoid getting into a position where they need help. But most of all they need some of whatever is missing on the emotional plane. That’s what we need to work on — as Dr. Pretlow says, we need to focus on the reasons why kids overeat.
Sometimes, hedonic or hyperpalatable food is eaten purely to entertain the mouth. In relative terms, it is probably easier to break that kind of a habit by substituting some other type of activity that is pleasurable to the senses, but has fewer calories. In Overweight: What Kids Say, Dr. Pretlow passes along a few suggestions from young people. They recommend alternate activities that can take the place of comfort eating, by occupying the body or the mind, or both, with something enjoyable to do and feel.
The suggestions include going for a walk with a friend or a dog, biking, rollerblading, or doing some other activity like Dance Dance Revolution. Sometimes it helps to write down all the problems or express the emotions in writing. One might also visit a library or museum, or volunteer at an animal shelter. Dr. Pretlow writes,
Successful kids find soothing and stress relieving activities, such as non-competitive sports, pets, hobbies, books, musical instruments, volunteer work, counseling, calling a friend — anything they enjoy besides food. Relaxation, meditation, and deep breathing exercises, like yoga, help relieve stress.
So, that’s what they used to call “sublimation,” when it was sex they were talking about, rather than eating. One possible response is, don’t eat comfort food, and do another enjoyable activity instead.
But what if a person isn’t eating just for fun, but for the solace of the heart? When comfort is the motive, all bets are off. The right kind of substitute activity is harder to find, so emotional consolation is much more convenient to find. Food eaten for emotional reasons can be anything. In the most recent decades, emotional eaters tend, more and more, to go for edibles that are engineered, processed, extruded, manipulated, and brightly packaged. Pseudo-food is the equivalent of a cubic zirconia pinkie ring.
Before we acquired so much technology, comfort food tended to be what your mom fed you when you were sick. A person suffering from emotional trauma would seek out that invalid food, like 7-Up with the bubbles shaken out, or a bowlful of soda crackers soaked with milk, and sugar sprinkled on top. Just like a hard-drug addict, a food addict is self-medicating with a medicine that has been proven to work in the past. The tragedy is that it works less effectively as time goes on, and, for the person who is food-addicted for psychological reasons, that usually leads to eating disorders and/or obesity.
Carrie Fisher is one of the funniest people anywhere, but that is partly what led to her latest trouble, out-of-control eating and an obesity problem that is really obvious on a petite woman just a little over five feet tall. As a comic doing live one-woman shows, Fisher fell into bad habits. (Being on the road can really unbalance a life, as many musicians will attest.) Then, she was hit hard by the death of her father, and called on Dr. Junk Food and Nurse Ice Cream to take care of her. Uncontrolled eating is a very common human response to bereavement. The German language has the word kummerspeck, or “grief bacon,” which is the fat a person puts on through eating to fill an emotional void.
Take a look at Slide 17 of Dr. Pretlow’s presentation to the Royal College of Physicians National Obesity Forum. A 12-year-old girl says,
Junk food = comfort food. Food listens to our problems. It’s like a therapist.
Fisher is now a celebrity spokesperson for a well-known weight-loss program. She told the reporter she has spent a long time in denial about the obesity and the eating, despite knowing all about denial from her previous bouts of substance abuse. And this is totally possible, especially for an intelligent, imaginative, and creative person like Fisher, who, besides being a movie star, is the author of several books. Your denial system is only as good as the stories you tell yourself, the stories about how your problem isn’t really a problem. Of course, if you are a celebrity, the public and the press will obligingly diagnose your problem for you. The Daily Mail quotes Fisher as saying,
I look on the Internet and they say, ‘Whatever happened to Carrie Fisher? She used to be so hot and now she looks like Elton John.’
Your responses and feedback are welcome!