May 17, 2009
Cookies to the rescue
I binge when I'm feeling blue. Why do some women have such a complex relationship with food?
By Sumiko Tan
I'm nursing a sore throat as I write this because I've just eaten 36 cornflake cookies.
Okay, 'just' is an exaggeration, but I did scarf down 36 cookies in the span of three working days.
I know I ate 36 because they came in a bottle containing 42 pieces and I had shared a miserly six (yes, I kept count).
I had ordered them from a home baker and they really are delicious - crunchy and salty on the outside with a soft, sweet, scone-like centre that's packed with big, fat, juicy raisins.
Cookies are my ultimate comfort food and I will demolish any within sight, which is why I keep away from them.
I avoid buying them although every once in a while, my will power will crumble and I'll find myself salivating in front of the Cookie Man stall in Takashimaya and picking up, oh, just about every variety there (their brandy snaps are fantastic).
I blame my latest binge on my colleague in the next cubicle.
For the last six months, a bottle of oatmeal cookies has been sitting on his desk mocking me. It was a farewell gift from another colleague but he's clearly no cookie monster. He's eaten at most four pieces.
Every time I turn around to talk to him, I hear those cookies calling my name (he has somehow never offered any to me).
So when I found out that this home baker does cookies, I had to order the cornflake ones.
I told myself it would be a test of my will power. I was going to behave like my colleague and nibble maybe one cookie a week. I was going to be disciplined and good.
The cookies arrived on a Friday evening. I ate three (yummy!) before I went home. Not bad. The container still looked filled to the brim.
On Saturday I had to work a full day. We were doing Mas Selamat follow-ups that weekend and I was rather stressed out. I needed to feel better. I ate 12 cookies.
I was off on Sunday and back to work on Monday. Mondays tend to be slow and I felt bored and lonely. I gobbled down another 12.
Horrified by my lack of self-control, I decided to spread the calories around and lessen my guilt. I shared my hoard with others. They took six.
On Tuesday morning, a few cookies remained. What the heck, I thought, I might as well clean up the container. By 11am, the last nine were in my stomach and I was left licking my lips, dusting the crumbs from my desk and feeling lousy as hell.
If this devotion of column inches to cookies has got you puzzled, you must be blessed with a healthy relationship with food - that is, you regard food for what it is, a source of nourishment and sometimes enjoyment, which you partake of three times a day.
I, on the other hand, fall into the category of people - mostly women - who have a more complex relationship with food. Food isn't just food but both a friend and a foe. I love it, I hate it, I need it, I don't want it, it is both a comfort and a crutch.
I suffer from what is known as emotional hunger.
Emotional hunger, researchers say, is different from physical hunger in several ways.
Emotional hunger is triggered by something that upsets you - you feel stressed out, angry or unhappy - whereas physical hunger is part of a day's living cycle.
Emotional hunger hits you suddenly whereas physical hunger comes on slowly.
In emotional hunger, your brain becomes obsessed with a particular food. Images of it keep playing in your head and you feel compelled to satisfy the craving at once. In physical hunger, you're not that picky about what you're going to eat and the meal can wait a bit too.
Once an emotional eater gets to his food obsession and has eaten his fill, he is overcome with guilt. Physical hunger, on the other hand, leaves one pleasantly full.
Why are some people more prone to emotional eating than others? Scientists say the human body has an automatic mechanism that alerts us when we are full and should stop eating.
But emotional eaters have learnt to ignore the stop-eating signals. They continue to eat to lessen the negative feelings they are feeling. Ironically, the binge leaves them reeling with guilt, regret and revulsion.
The problem with emotional overeating is the sort of comfort food people turn to. If we hankered for healthy stuff such as broccoli and spinach and fruit, nobody would be complaining.
But we always crave for food that is highly processed and deliciously rich in fat, sugar and salt, and which leaves one overweight and unhealthy.
There's a scientific reason for this too. Neuroscientists say that food heavy in fat and sugar has been found to light up the brain's dopamine pathway. This is our pleasure-sensing spot and the same area that gets all tingly when people consume alcohol or drugs.
Because bad food brings pleasure, we learn to want it. The obsession isn't helped by how cheap and easily available fatty, sugary food is.
Studies have found that more women than men turn to food for comfort, and that women have a higher tendency to overeat when presented with palatable food or when under emotional distress.
Women also prefer snack-type comfort food such as candy and chocolate while men seek meal-type food such as pizza and steak. But no matter what they eat, women are likely to feel more guilty than men.
Apparently, differences in sex hormones such as estrogen may be the reason behind the gender differences.
While I do suffer from bouts of emotional eating, I don't have a serious eating problem.
I did though, when I was in my late teens and early 20s. I was anorexic and then bulimic. At my lightest I was 39kg - a result of over-exercising, under-eating and sticking my middle finger down my throat to get rid of whatever I ate.
I've long been cured of that and have kept to a constant weight for the last 20 years. I don't consciously count my calories, I eat whenever and whatever I wish and I try to eat healthily.
But there are still periods when I lose control and they coincide with the times I'm feeling down. Then, at the end of the snack attack, I feel even lousier for having consumed needless, nutrition-less calories.
Thankfully, the range of food I can't resist when I'm feeling low is not that wide.
Cookies are my biggest downfall and I can go really mad for bread, tortilla chips, potato chips, sweetened nuts and other crunchy, salty-sweet, carb-laden snacks. But I don't really like chocolate all that much, ice cream seldom turns me on, I don't fancy sweets other than toffee, and I can pass on creamy cakes.
Come to think of it, emotional eating is a bit like emotional shopping, which I'm also a victim of. It is a way to deal with stress, banish the blues, lighten feelings of anger, frustration and boredom, only in the case of the former you end up fatter and in the latter your wallet is lighter.
Emotional shopping? Now that's a topic for another day.