THE Economist said in 2014, quoting The Lancet, that up to 70% of SA women and nearly 40% of men were overweight or obese. “Even among children, a quarter of girls and a fifth of boys are too fat, and thus at greater risk of ill-health, from diabetes to heart disease. For years the government has been struggling to contain HIV/Aids but now, some health experts are arguing, it should also concentrate on making people slimmer.”

While these statistics represent a kind of prosperity, it may also just be that we are becoming a nation of comfort eaters. There is no doubt that many people turn to food in times of extreme stress, and as a country in transition we have our fair share.

This is no accident, says dietician and clinical psychologist Hannetjie Van Zyl-Edeling: “As part of our developmental history, over centuries, during times of major stress, the body goes into conservation mode.” In effect the body goes into a “go-slow”, storing energy and blocking its release, and taking longer to work through nutrients.

This is one of the reasons dieting can have the opposite effect to the desired one: “If you feel deprived, you trigger the starvation mechanism and a massive rebellion of, ‘why can’t I?’.”

Food and emotions can’t be separated, it seems. One can gain weight after a loss, whether this was through a crime, death of a loved one or any emotional feeling of loss or deprivation, she says. Comfort eating is about psychological issues — trying to satisfy a need for nurturing — or even as an expression of anger. “Many of my patients have internalised a critical or controlling parent and overeating is a rebellious reaction.”

Ranging into a well-known fairytale and the symbolism of food, she adds: “If you give yourself the poisoned apple, like the bad queen gave Snow White, you can kill your own inner child.”

Stress takes a toll on our neurotransmitters, robbing us of dopamine, GABA and serotonin, which affect mood. “If your dopamine and GABA levels are low, you can’t stop eating,” says Van Zyl-Edeling. “They are connected with anxiety and if there is an imbalance in these, your blood sugar levels can go up and down.”

A lack of serotonin in the system is linked to depression and eating disorders such as bulimia and compulsive overeating.

Urbanisation, a factor of our country’s transition, has the side effect of preventing us from doing sufficient exercise. People often don’t feel safe to go for a walk in their neighbourhood and many can’t afford to join a gym.

Our more technology-orientated, sedentary lifestyle also exposes us to more negative food messages: “Junk food ads hit us when impulse control is at its lowest — late afternoon and early evening, before supper.” The repetition of these ads is lethal for bad habits: “It really goes into the mind. The ad industry creates a need and conditions people into wanting their product.” Children especially are vulnerable to these messages — another reason not to plonk them in front of the TV in lieu of quality time.

If you feel guilty about eating junk food too often, this is with good reason. This kind of food provides too many macronutrients — the refined stodge that provides little nutrition and is stored as fat — and too few micronutrients, the vitamins and minerals the body needs to function. “Vitamins and minerals are like baking powder to a cake,” says Van Zyl-Edeling. “You can have all the other ingredients but if you don’t have that main one, it will be a disaster. Vitamins and minerals are essential to spark the biochemical processes needed to allow food to be transformed into energy, building the body, whatever is needed.”

Ever feel hungry after eating a load of carbs? “Through refining, the macronutrients are removed from food — for example, the germ is removed from wheat. When you eat refined carbohydrates you may feel more hungry because the insulin surge has thrown the body into storage mode and you register hunger.” Carbohydrates need to be balanced with a protein, which takes longer to metabolise.

The Banting epidemic is not helping, she says. “Eating is a sociable thing. It is about connecting, a celebration. After all, you eat at a restaurant to show care and attention.” Banting, while being highly unsuitable for some bodies, is socially awkward.

Enjoy more satisfying meals and avoid piling on extra kilos in this way:

• Ensure a regular input of good nutrients so your metabolic processes can fire up and your blood sugar remains steady.

• Eat foods rich in micronutrients — vitamins and minerals.

• Help maintain proper neurotransmitter levels by finding foods rich in dopamine, serotonin and GABA; taking prescribed medication and supplements; and practising yoga and meditation.

• Increase your activity to about 30 minutes a day. Exercise has physical benefits and improves mood.

• Ratio is important when preparing food: balance a portion of carbohydrates with two portions of protein.

• To help satisfy emotional as well as physical needs, your meals should look attractive, says Van Zyl-Edeling. “It must be beautiful, lovingly prepared and in the right quantities.”

• Where you eat is important: “Sit down with a plate and setting.”

• Eat the best quality food you can afford.

• Prepare food in a healthy way. “The less intervention the better.”

• Practise mindfulness when eating, and avoid watching TV at the same time. “If you are not mindful, you will forget what you have eaten.”

• Be mindful of your mood before eating, and take active steps to relax by walking in the garden or buying flowers, for example. If you are feeling sad or worried, make plans to deal with the problem.

• Find other ways to reward or spoil yourself apart from food, and try not to reward children with sweets, helping them to avoid a fatal connection with food.

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