If you feel you've spent much of the pandemic with a hand in the biscuit tin, you're not alone: Britons comfort-ate more than anywhere else in Europe during lockdown, according to a study released last week, with 34 per cent saying they had relied on "tasty treats" more heavily than ever before.
Endless time at home, little to do and supermarkets all but constituting as an outing have had a seismic effect on how much Britons have been consuming: a study by Rennie's last month found that 45 per cent had turned to emotional eating, while one in three have been consuming more than they ordinarily would.
Add Christmas – a period synonymous with eating to excess – with the stress of the pandemic and continuing restrictions on our lifestyles thrown in and the likelihood of cutting back seems close to fanciful.
For most, this short-term absolution of waistline responsibility will level back out when normality returns. But for many, it's not so simple.
Compulsive eating is on the rise – affecting 12 million people in Britain. Meanwhile, Binge Eating Disorder is now thought to be the UK's most common eating disorder – more so than anorexia and bulimia.
Research suggests 22 per cent of the 1.25m-3.4m people in the UK with an eating disorder have the condition – defined by the National Health Service as feeling "compelled to overeat on a regular basis".
Often, this is done rapidly over a short timeframe, will be planned ahead and done in secret, with the quantity of food eaten producing almost disassociative effects while the binge occurs and subsequent severe discomfort from the volume consumed.
Last week, Telegraph columnist Bryony Gordon posted of her experiences with compulsive eating on Instagram, explaining how "over lockdown, I really numbed myself out with food and it was making me feel ill".
Many chimed in to say they'd experienced the same. Now undergoing cognitive behavioural therapy for the condition, around which there is "so much stigma and shame", Gordon says she has come to realise "how much food can be a drug for people".
Everyone is capable of emotional eating. But when it "occurs on a daily or weekly basis, combined with it being the only means that people have to soothe emotions, avoid emotions or when strong negative emotions such as shame, guilt, anger or hopelessness result from this emotional eating, it can be considered problematic", explains Dr Bryony Bamford, clinical director at the London Centre for Eating Disorders and Body Image.
Food as a means of control
Dr Joanna Silver, lead therapist for eating Disorders at Nightingale Hospital, reports a "massive increase in referrals" since March. "These include people who are presenting with eating disorders for the first time and others who have found their symptoms have worsened as a result of the pandemic."
A global crisis "has made many people feel uncertain and out of control" and some have "turned to food as a way of gaining control when everything feels so chaotic", she says.
Empty supermarket shelves led to panic stockpiling among some, which then led to binge eating, she adds – while working from home, with ready access to food, has also been a factor.
But for longtime sufferers of binge eating, the issue began long before Covid-19 entered the lexicon.
While everybody knows what it's like to overindulge, to be able to think of nothing but what you will eat next and when, and how to consume as much of it as possible without anyone seeing may constitute a different condition entirely: food addiction.
How food addiction works
Ashley Gearhardt, Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Michigan, has long worked to see the term medically recognised; her research has found that a diet rich in ultra-processed foods – particularly the trinity of high sugar, fat and salt lurking in everything from breads to cereals to pizza and crisps, ice cream and cakes – "can start to alter the brain in a way that seems to mimic drug abuse".
A 2017 article in the British Medical Journal argued that consuming sugar produces effects similar to that of cocaine in "altering mood, possibly through its ability to induce reward and pleasure"; other studies have shown the brains of obese individuals react to food in the same way a drug addict's brain would to a toxic substance.
The concept of food addiction was first named in scientific literature by Theron Randolph, an American physician, in 1956; Binge Eating Disorder remains its more common modern classification, but Gearhardt believes the BED label doesn't tell the whole story.
Just as an alcoholic's pleasure centres fizz far beyond the norm when a drink passes their lips, so too does eating set the food addict's dopamine levels soaring.
The difference is, of course, that unlike alcohol or cigarettes, going cold turkey isn't an option – you can't cut out food. And on top of that, continued exposure builds tolerance, requiring more intense levels of stimulation to replicate that initial buzz.
Maria Navas*, a 38 year-old PhD student, has spent much of her life caught in this grim cycle. "I couldn't even work any more," she recalls of an affliction that began in her early teens.
Every morning, she would wake up vowing to resist temptation, but sitting in front of her computer, pernicious thoughts would plague her to the point of paralysis, culminating in a trip to the local supermarket, a basket filled to the brim with high-sugar foods and a sleepless night of crippling stomach ache.
Addicts like Navas say the desire for food is entirely out of their control; so mentally and physically overwhelming, just as an alcoholic's urge for liquor, that they have no choice but to give in.
Ascertaining the physiological (hunger-induced) and psychological (emotion-driven) causes for bingeing are essential, Dr Silver explains. Often, bouts of extreme over-consumption "are triggered by restriction and when someone denies themselves foods that they consider as 'bad'... Bingeing and restricting are different sides of the same coin," she says.
Given that many more of us have sought comfort in food this year, how can we stop this becoming a gateway to something more serious?
The key, says Bamford, is to "follow a healthy eating structure – sufficient amounts of all good groups across three meals and 2-3 snacks per day". This will "avoid hunger driven binges or a sense of constantly grazing".
She also advises "being aware of how you are feeling emotionally" in order to avoid using unhealthy foods as a crutch.
If you're experiencing an urge to binge, Silver advises finding ways to distract yourself from the desire to overeat, such as talking to loved ones, listening to music or going for a walk. Plan your eating as much as possible and, if you have a day where you've eaten more than you intended, "do not beat yourself up for this but instead try and move on".
That has been an essential tool for Navas who, after years in junk food binges' thrall, heard a podcast describing the drug-like power of sugar; now, she finally feels as though she has turned a corner.
"I'm trying to take it one day at a time," she says, adding that she is "so scared" of a success still in its infancy. "I don't want to jinx it because I think I've found the cure."
* Some names have been changed
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