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I knew I had to stop overeating when the local Chinese takeaway memorised my address

I’m ready to wave goodbye to emotional eating and junk food, but it’s not that easy.

Christine Allen Sports convert and IT engineer

“CAN I PLACE an order? 18 Deansgrange -”

The receptionist cuts me off mid-sentence.

“That’s grand; it’ll be about 30 minutes.”

With this the line goes dead.

The realisation that staff at my local Chinese takeaway now have my address memorised invokes an instant sense of shame. However, it’s quickly displaced with thoughts of finding change for the deliveryman’s tip.

It’s Tuesday night, closing in on 8pm.

Am I hungry?

Realistically, I can’t be. I had dinner two hours previously – an enjoyable meal which could only be credited to an Irish mammy: a wholesome stew.

What I do have though is an insatiable craving for something tasty to consume whilst watching the reveal of Lucy Beale’s murderer on Eastenders.

In fact, half an hour earlier I had made a hurried trip to the local Tesco Express in order to source a dessert.

My junk food habit

Being the second night in a row that I had stealthily made my way to that refrigeration aisle, the shame factor had arisen there too, as I circumvented the self-service checkouts – my embarrassment spiking when I spotted a familiar-looking staff member, loading products into the ice cream fridge. (I had had a conversation with him two evenings previously regarding the edibility of a tub that had been removed for the defrosting process.)

Thankfully he moved aside without any sign of recognition, allowing me to fetch a large tub of Ben and Jerry’s Caramel Chew Chew.

Later that night, as I sit filled to the brim on the couch, subconsciously extending the collar of my jumper to its full capacity in order to cover what is undoubtedly the beginning of a double chin, I swear to myself that I’ll kick the junk food habit.

Family and Facebook friends are supportive. Slimming World and a walking group are recommended. A link to a Ben Dunne membership form is supplied by a friend who has a metabolism quicker than Usain Bolt. RTE’s Operation Transformation is set to pre-record.

All in all, I’m set up for the healthy lifestyle.

However three nights later, I find myself huddled in the furthest corner of the house, attempting to avoid a pre-order family intervention by whispering those five sweet words – “Can I place an order?” into my smartphone. When the receptionist asks me to speak up, I realise that I have a problem.

There’s no escaping it – I’m a junk food addict.

Is there really such a things as ‘food addiction’?

While aligning my overeating with the word ‘addiction’ may to some seem extreme, research into this topic is at fever pitch of late.

So far, the most convincing cases for food addiction have resulted from studies conducted on animals.

In fact, one recent experiment published in Nature Neuroscience found that upon being given access for one hour per day to sugary and fatty “cafeteria” foods, the animals concerned not only began to binge, but continued to consume the unhealthy foods when other options were laid out.

In research conducted by the late Bart Hoebel from Princeton University, drug-like responses to sugar in animals were also discovered. In fact, when sugar was offered in high doses and then removed, classic withdrawal symptoms like anxiety, tremors, and chattering teeth were displayed.

Most shockingly, experiments conducted by Sarah Leibowitz from Rockefeller University reported that pregnant rats on a high fat diet gave birth to offspring with neurological alterations in the hypothalamus, the part of the brain heavily responsible for appetite.

Taking it a step further, and perhaps most relevant to food addiction in humans, Nora Volkow, along with a team at Brookhaven National Laboratory, found through the use of PET Scanners that the brains of obese people lacked certain receptors to dopamine, one of the brain chemicals associated with reward and drug abuse.

Volkow found in her subjects that a lack of dopamine receptors resulted in an inability to repress the strong urges sent into the areas of the brain involved in action, leading to overeating.

Why do we overeat?

While the above research outlines some of the science relating to the neurological causes of overeating, what it doesn’t examine is the ‘why’.

According to many experts in the field, this can be attributed to the phenomenon of emotional eating.

“Chronic stress creates elevated levels of the hormone cortisol,” says Jeffrey Morrison, M.D., a family practitioner in New York City, and the author of Cleanse Your Body, Clear Your Mind. “Your body thinks you are going through a famine, which can increase your cravings.”

This particular statement resonates with me. After all, on foot of an argument with a partner or a difficult assignment at college, my first port of call has always been the local Chinese takeaway.

At the risk of sounding like an addict prepping their fix, I also can’t deny that the mere ritual of peeling back the openings of those container trays delivered to my door results in a feeling of calm and undoubtedly a boost in mood.

Bringing science back into the mix, Scripps Research Institute found that rats given a diet consisting of bacon, sausage, chocolate and cheesecake experienced sharp rises in dopamine and serotonin; neurochemicals that affect the brains pleasure centres. This goes some way towards explaining my increase in mood upon unpacking my prawn crackers.

Framing emotional eating another way, Michelle May, M.D., founder of the Am I Hungry? Mindful Eating Program in Phoenix believes that emotional eating is caused by our tendency to associate food with comfort. She traces this back to our subconscious memories of being fed in our mother or father’s arms as a child.

Again, this strikes a chord. There is undoubtedly that ‘safe’ cocoon-like feeling that envelops you as you get comfortable on the couch with a plate of your favorite food. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that when I’m fully engrossed in my fish and chips or three-in-one, the whole world zones out.

Beating overeating 

So what is the solution? With the journal The Lancet showing that a massive 66% of Irish men over 20 are considered overweight or obese, and 50.9% of Irish women over 20 years (well in excess of the western European average of 47.6%), it is clear that we are in need of one.

While there are a myriad of books on the market offering to help overeaters kick their habit, the one that has caught my attention is a book entitled What Are You Hungry For?, published in 2013 by American bestselling author Deepak Chopra.

Examining hunger from an emotional and spiritual perspective, Chopra outlines his belief that in order to lose weight you must fulfill yourself. In fact he believes that obesity is a deprivation syndrome.

“People put food in their body for two reasons;” Chopra states, “One because they are physically hungry and two because they’re hungry for something else.”

In his book, Chopra details what he has labeled the S – T – O – P Formula; S standing for ‘stop’ (no surprise there), T for ‘taking a breathing break’, O for ‘observing your body’ (asking yourself ‘am I hungry?’/'what am I hungry for?’) and finally P, for ‘proceeding with awareness’.

Does it work?

While I’ve been implementing Mr Chopra’s teachings, and at the time of writing am eight days into my junk food detox, kicking the habit is by no means easy.

Having once day dreamed about Ella Henderson during lectures, I’m now envisaging rich images of noodles drowned in curry sauce and pizza’s sprinkled with extra mozzarella. Walking past a fast food joint is torture, not to mention the fact that the number of takeaway menus being stuffed into the letterbox appears to be increasing at an exponential rate.

Realistically, by the time that this article is published, there’s a very real chance that I could be using Mr Chopra’s book to balance my three-in-one tray. However, I live in hope, with Snap’s 1990 anthem ‘I’ve Got the Power’ mentally on repeat as my source of motivation.

That said, if you do happen to spot me on a Tesco refrigeration aisle, risking hypothermia as I thoroughly search the ice cream fridge for my favorite Ben and Jerry’s flavour, I’d ask that you do one thing.

Don’t judge.

Christine is 26 and entering her third year of Information Technology at DCU – a part-time course funded for those that are unemployed. In between trying to get to grips with JAVA programming and looking for work, she loves nothing better than sitting down at the laptop with a cup of tea, and writing. She has been published in DIVA Magazine, on TheJournal.ie and Gaelick.com. She is also Opinions Editor for the DCU newspaper, thecollegeview. One day she would like to be known as the lesbian version of Carrie Bradshaw. Follow Christine on Twitter @AllenChristine2.

This article originally appeared in The College View.

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About the author:

Christine Allen  / Sports convert and IT engineer

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