Thursday, October 15, 2009

Scientists discover comfort food

Nibbling on chocolate or even sipping a glass of water can relieve aches and pains, a study has shown. A team of researchers says the distraction of eating or drinking for pleasure acts as a natural painkiller. Although the findings come from studies on animals, the scientists believe the same effect takes place in people.

Dr Peggy Mason, of Chicago University, found that rats were less bothered by pain if they were eating a chocolate chip or drinking water. 'It's a strong, strong effect, but it's not about hunger or appetite,' she said. 'If you have all this food in front of you that's easily available to reach out and get, you're not going to stop eating, for basically almost any reason.' Past studies have shown that eating can ease pain.

However, the latest study, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, is the first to show that food and drink act as a painkiller in the absence of hunger or thirst. In the experiments, rats were given either chocolate, sugar water or plain water while the floor of their cage was heated with a light bulb positioned underneath. The animals reacted to the heat by raising a paw off the floor. But the animals were much slower to raise their feet when they were eating or drinking than when they were not occupied with food and drink. It made no difference whether the rats were eating chocolate or drinking water, despite past studies which found that only sugary food and drink protects against pain.

'This really shows it has nothing to do with calories,' Dr Mason said. 'Water has no calories, saccharine has no sugar, but both have the same effect as a chocolate chip. It's really shocking.'

When the experiment was repeated with quinine - a bitter drink that rats find unpleasant - the animals reacted to heat as quickly as when they were not eating.

The scientists believe that food and drink only triggers pain relief if it is pleasurable. Eating chocolate made no difference if the rats were ill, although drinking water continued to delay their response to the hot floor, they found. In the wild, animals cannot afford to be distracted during the rare, but important, times they are able to drink or eat.

The researchers say a part of the brain called the raphe magnus - helps blunt pain when eating or drinking. The same area eases pain while sleeping or going to the lavatory.

Dr Mason believes the effect is also found in people. Past studies have shown that babies suffer less pain if they are given a sugary drink while having a vaccine booster. But she believes the latest findings could end the practice of using sweets to calm children when they visit the doctors. 'Ingestion is a painkiller but we don't need the sugar,' Dr Mason said. 'So replace the doctor's lollipop with a drink of water.'

Dr Don Katz, a neuroscientist at Brandeis University who studies taste, said: 'They're saying the purpose of the taste system is to give the animal a cue that helps it decide what stimulus they should or shouldn't pay attention to. 'This shows there is a whole region there to enable the animal to keep eating.'

In 2005 scientists at the University of Cincinatti, in the US, found that sugary foods and drinks cut levels of the potentially harmful hormone glucocorticoid, which the brain produces when we're under pressure.

The research on rats showed when they had sugary food or drink, their bodies produced lower levels of glucocorticoid in response to stressful situations.


Orthorexia nervosa: An unhealthy obsession with eating "healthy" foods

Boulder dietitian Lisa Lanzano sometimes sees clients whose palms have turned orange from eating an excess of fruits and vegetables such as mangoes, carrots and squash to the exclusion of almost all other foods.

"They think they're eating healthy," she says of the diet so high in carotenoids that it causes orange pigmentation in the skin. "(But they) don't allow themselves to the eat the food that nourishes them in a healthy way."

Such obsessively correct eating has a name -- orthorexia nervosa -- although it does not have official recognition in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) published by the American Psychiatric Association. The term was coined in a 1997 Yoga Journal article by Coloradoan Dr. Steven Bratman. In 2000, the article was reprinted in the Utne Reader. Bratman then wrote a book, "Health Food Junkies," about the topic.

In the article, Bratman defined orthorexia nervosa as a "pathological fixation on eating proper food." Bratman, who still lives in Colorado and is now working on a master's degree in public health, says that after the publication of the article, he was excoriated over the idea that healthy eating can take an unhealthy turn. Some even accused him of working for McDonald's or agribusiness, even though he had practiced alternative medicine for 25 years.

Bratman says he rarely talks about orthorexia nowadays, but the concept has lived on among health professionals who deal with eating disorders. Although it is not an official diagnosis, the concept of orthorexia can be a useful way for health professionals to understand the perspective of a person whose once-appropriate idea of a proper diet may have crossed the line into disordered eating.

Lanzano says she sometimes see orthorexic tendencies at work in some of her clients when they travel. "Something is packaged in plastic instead of glass ... people will skip a meal in a travel situation. If it's not the food they believe is healthy for them, they just won't eat," she says. "That's where it starts to cross a line. Instead of taking care of themselves, it's ... abusing themselves in the name of health."

When healthy becomes unhealthy

Dr. Anita Kumar-Gill, a psychiatrist and medical director of the Eating Disorder Center of Denver, says people who have a tendency toward obsession, rumination and rigidity are more at risk than others for this type of eating disorder. "Especially when there's a tendency toward the elimination of certain types of food and the conceptualizing of certain foods as being bad," Kumar-Gill says.

It's a warning flag if a person's eating patterns begin to interfere with normal life, and he or she starts to forbid more and more types of food from his or her diet.

As Bratman described orthorexia in his 1997 article: "The act of eating pure food begins to carry pseudospiritual connotations. As orthorexia progresses, a day filled with sprouts, umeboshi plums, and amaranth biscuits comes to feel as holy as one spent serving the poor and the homeless ... This "kitchen spirituality" eventually reaches a point where the sufferer spends most of his time planning, purchasing, and eating meals."

If such food obsession reaches a point that the calories being consumed fall below nutritional requirements and weight drops below normal levels, a person should take a close look at his or her behavior, experts say.

However, even when such obvious physical signs are present, it can be difficult for a person to see such behavior as problematic. Kumar-Gill explains that many people with eating disorders -- with orthorexic tendencies or not -- are "egosyntonic," which means that the behaviors present in the disorder are closely in tune with the individual's ideal of a proper self. "It's like a really, really tight glove on your hand," Kumar-Gill says. "You don't even know the glove is there. It's difficult to distinguish the disorder from oneself."

Clinicians sometimes find the orthorexic concept useful because it can provide a perspective on how the patient might see his or her own eating habits. Orthorexics generally see their food restrictions as part of a quest for health rather than a desire to lose weight. "If you don't see the distinction that the individual sees, you may not be able to align with the individual clinically," Kumar-Gill says. "If you say 'You have an eating disorder,' you're going to lose (the patient.)"

With that understanding in place, however, the treatment for a severely orthorexic patient is similar to treatment for more typically expressed anorexia or bulimia, Kumar-Gill says. In the Eating Disorder Center of Denver, that would include work with psychiatrists, dietitians, and individual and a family therapist, art therapy, mindful meditation. Kumar-Gill says many eating disorders have co-morbidities, meaning that other conditions such as obsessive-compulsive disorder may be present. In some cases, those patients are treated with drugs.

The bigger picture

Dietitian Lanzano of Boulder's Essential Nutrition says she suggests that clients eat well, but not perfectly. That means incorporating a large variety of foods and eating the healthy things nutritionists espouse such as fruits and vegetables, whole grains and lean proteins. Generally avoiding pesticides, hormones and preservatives is useful, too.

She starts by asking clients what their favorite foods are. Often they list foods such as hamburgers, pizza or candy -- something that they consider absolutely forbidden.

Lanzano suggests eating "joyfully, healthy and naturally." "That means eating foods we love and trusting our bodies to handle the occasional piece of candy or pizza," she says. "If you know you love a food and never allow yourself to eat it, you're telling yourself you can't be trusted with that food." And she adds, the human body is designed to eliminate toxins and impurities. The occasional less-than-healthful food won't tip the body into an unhealthy sate.

Taking a strict attitude about various types of food can also take it out of its cultural context, making food a collection of complex chemicals rather than something that may have been cooked with intentionality, says Dietitian Lynn Smith of Source Nutrition in Boulder. "You can cook consciousness into food," she says. "Anyone can relate to a meal cooked by Mom or Grandma (where you felt) totally nourished."

As for Bratman, he says many people take food way too seriously. "There's way more important things in your life than the quality of what you eat," he says. "Nobody on their death bed says 'I wish I ate less ice cream.'"


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