Obviously, the fridge door does not open wide of its own accord, nor by the use of a magic wand! It is a usual phenomenon for people to find solace in excessive food intake under circumstances of sentimental pressure, rejection or stress. Besides, it is no accident that obesity has lately taken such worldwide dimensions to constitute the most basic preventable cause of death among humans. In this article, as we pick up the thread from the introductory article “Emotion and diet: How do they affect each other?”, we will analyze the particular characteristics of sentimental polyphagia, gluttony and night eating syndrome.
The characteristics of polyphagia
Polyphagia is the most common and wide-spread eating disorder today. It concerns the cases of people who, under conditions of sentimental pressure and stress, consume uncontrollably large quantities of food in a small amount of time. This reaction can happen either as an isolated incident or on a more systematic basis. Its most significant characteristic is that the person may very well experience a sense of shame or guilt about the quantity of food they consume, yet do not resort to self-induced vomiting. University research shows that over 10% of people suffering from polyphagia are also afflicted by obesity problems.
In reality, polyphagia syndrome is inextricably linked to compulsion; also with the person’s sentimental fluctuations during the day, as well as depression. The most common situations recorded as leading a person to an episode of polyphagia are either during breaks from work (particularly if the person is an employee), where tension experienced is channeled into food, or after a sentimentally painful breakup, which is accompanied by a sense of rejection. In Greece, a large percentage of the population intensely exhibits episodes of polyphagia and cases of obesity after retirement, due to the manifest mentality and the existing perception that the person is no longer active after ceasing to work and feels “grounded”. Yet another group to exhibit cases of polyphagia and, in extent, obesity in our country are teenagers during their preparation for the exams that will determine their admission into the third level of education.
An individual, who has the tendency to “burst out” into food over-consumption under conditions of psychological pressure, is very often led to isolated episodes of polyphagia; these episodes will very likely result in the person consuming more and more often (constantly and uncontrollably), throughout the day, large quantities of food – obviously without experiencing hunger. It is also characteristic that polyphagic individuals do not enjoy the taste nor the type of food; they usually devour it, almost skipping the process of chewing and at great speed. Nevertheless, they always tend to consume foods particularly high in fatty substances, with intensely spicy taste and large amounts of salt – all the while left completely indifferent to more simple and healthy dietary choices. This happens because the individual is trying, through food, to avoid negative emotions and reach a state of euphoria. Simple foods cannot satisfy this goal; ergo, the person is constantly changing the type of food they consume, choosing as much as possible more complex and curious tastes, until their mood improves.
It is essential to note that sentimental polyphagia is an addictive disease and exhibits cycles – like all types of addictions do. The term addiction means the use of a substance, like alcohol, drugs, pharmaceutical substances, food, etc., or a certain habit, like the extreme use of the internet and gambling, through which the individual manages to change their mood for the better or experience momentary euphoria.
Therefore, people with polyphagia syndrome are, in essence, addicted to food and, either consciously or unconsciously, feel intense dissatisfaction or even stress when distanced from it. There are, in fact, documented incidents of polyphagic individuals who experience social isolation; this means that people actually avoid attending a social meeting because they are intensely afraid that they will not have access to adequate quantities of food. It is also common that these individuals do not consume food in the presence of others – either declaring that they are on a diet or, more often, that they are not hungry – and, later on, when they find themselves away from the eyes of other people, literally devour enormous amounts of food.
As in any case of addiction, when suffering from polyphagia syndrome, the individual often suffers low self-esteem and is searching for ways to deal with painful emotions. Low self-esteem functions in a punitive way and pushes the person to a polyphagic episode; which, in turn, obviously creates anew a sense of low self-esteem. We are, therefore, talking about a vicious circle that starts from an obsession. Afflicted individuals know they should not over-consume food and keep repeating so in their heads. Yet, in truth, they are addicted to food and cannot control themselves. Therefore, they give in and a polyphagic episode ensues, which is followed by an intense sense of guilt. This sense of guilt, in turn, is followed by consolatory and appeasing promises of the type “Tomorrow, I’ll start dieting”, “I’m not eating anything for the rest of the day”, “On Monday, I’ll enroll in a year-long gym program”, etc. The appeasement of guilt and the relevant promises usually last for a certain amount of time, during which people continue their activities normally; until, that is, the same circle begins again, containing yet another polyphagic episode. After the long-term repetition of this vicious circle, the appeasement phase becomes milder and shorter; the result is that, in turn, the repetitions of polyphagic episodes become more and more frequent.
In turn, gluttony is a condition in which a person exhibits systematic and repeated polyphagic episodes; these episodes are also accompanied by a sense of guilt but, in no case, by an attempt to self-purge from the excessive amount of food.
People suffering from polyphagy or gluttony can be initially identified by the fact that they eat with extremely rapid rhythm (skipping the proper chewing process); they also continue to consume food until the moment they feel particularly uncomfortable and complain about it. Another characteristic is that they consume food when there is no real, physical sense of hunger; instead, they are driven by the sentimental condition in which they find themselves.
According to psychologists, if we look at cases of polyphagy or gluttony, we will find people extremely sensitive to rejection or abandonment, overly insecure and with difficulty in handling loneliness. Moreover, it is often the case that they tend to set unrealistic goals in life – and this does not only concern loss of weight or exercise; they also have very low self-esteem and claims. Therefore, a polyphagy episode may just as well symbolize the individual’s liberation from all the above and the further concealment of that part of themselves which is weak and unacceptable; yet it is that very same act of liberation that will lead to a sense of failure – thus creating the vicious circle of gluttony.
Night eating syndrome
This syndrome concerns the bad habit of interrupting night sleep on a regular basis and finding solace in extreme food consumption, without necessarily experiencing an actual sense of hunger. It is also motivated by situations of intense stress and is characterized by decreased appetite for food in the morning. According to research, individuals susceptible to affliction are those who already have obesity problems, who have trouble sleeping, who diet for long periods of time, and, generally, people with low self-esteem and negative self-image. Also, people who show an inability to manage stressful situations and are dominated by a lack of calmness are likely to be affected.
The causes of polyphagy
Clearly, bad sentimental condition, lack of acceptance and self-esteem, depression, negative psychology and inability to manage it are basic causes that could lead a person to a polyphagy episode. However, not all people manage their negative psychology with such an episode. Therefore, let’s take a closer look at the syndrome’s causality.
The cultural factor is one of the most fundamental reasons for the increase in numbers of polyphagy cases in the last few years. It is a fact that the media pass rather contradictory messages and stereotypes to modern people – which, to a large extent, define their relation to food. The show business industry promotes the message – especially to teenagers and young adults – that success, acceptance, love, wealth are all a result of “good looks”; yet only in the way that very same industry defines those looks. In truth, this is the so-called “aesthetic racism“, which intensifies insufferably and without mercy the already existing feelings of inferiority and low self-esteem in people with obesity problems. Therefore, our TV and PC screens are flooded daily by diets of dubious effectiveness and of possible danger to our health, as well as extremely elegant (in their majority) people of show business; their principal representative being models thin to the point of illness. Therefore, it becomes clear in our conscience – and, in the end – accepted that successful and loved individuals should have a certain look that does not deviate from projected stereotypes; all the while, being bombarded by another, entirely contradictory, message by that same media.
High gastronomy recipes are concocted ritualistically for hours on end every single day in front of awe struck TV viewers. Fattening and unhealthy dishes are deified through never-ending TV shows, at the same time when the country is struck by a serious financial crisis; this means that, apart from the dietary syndromes cultivated, these shows are, to some of our fellow human beings, not a tasty luxury but a constant reminder of their poverty and, in extent, a cause for grief. Our everyday routine is bombarded by reality cooking shows, where chefs are obsessed with detail, passing the message that the greatest thing in life is succeeding to get the tomato-taste whipped cream in the form of the Eiffel Tower; while the internet is literally flooded by cooking blogs and “freak-out” photos, in which elegant (bordering on underweight) beauties hold in their hands fattening foods that can actually cause addiction, like chocolate and chips. Yet, it is highly probable that, in real life, these models have not tasted anything of the sort for the last 10 years – at least.
A superb analysis on the approach that dominates Greece through the media as far as nutrition is concerned has been made by current_Panos in his article “And Greece is chopping onion”. I have cited the link below this article.
A person’s psyche, as well as biological factors, can constitute perhaps one of the most fundamental causes in the emergence of polyphagia syndrome and determine in an essential manner their relation to food and their body. On a psychological level, when an individual experiences sentimental vacuums – especially during childhood – or feels intensely criticized or rejected, they often develop the tendency to seek solace in food so as to cover the void. However, polyphagy is also often encouraged by the approach taught to a child by their parents regarding food intake – thus not being the result of negative psychology. The most common example is a case where parents and grandparents buy a lot of candy for the child as the only everyday show of love; a fact that can become disastrous to the child’s relation with food, since, according to research, sugar is a highly addictive substance and should be consumed in moderation. Another very common case of weight increase and excessive food consumption, during which polyphagy episodes are usually exhibited (especially in women), is that of breakup. People’s psyche is particularly vulnerable after a breakup and statistics show that, in a very large percentage, they find solace in food as a sentimental substitute.
The first step to combating polyphagy
It should be generally understood that, when a loved one exhibits polyphagy episodes, trying to help with special nutrition is actually ineffective. This happens because, with the exception of cases when an actual pathological problem exists, in all other instances, polyphagia is the result of negative psychology and lack of self-esteem. The syndrome’s background is sentimental and should be dealt with at its psychic root with the help of specialized scientists – not just with a diet to lose weight. In any case, the realization of this bad approach as a problem and a first visit to a psychologist of our choice is a very good beginning towards attaining a better relationship not only with food but with ourselves.