The Hungry Heart Syndrome

By Susan Parish Walker

What’s eating you? Individuals concerned with their weight report their eating pattern or weight interferes with their relationships, with their work, and with their ability to feel good about themselves. Current research on binge-eating disorder indicates that certain individual’s binge eating may be triggered by dysphoric moods, such as depression and anxiety. Binge-eaters report higher rates of self-loathing, depression, anxiety, somatic concern, interpersonal sensitivity, and disgust about their body size. There may be a higher lifetime prevalence of Clinical Depressive Disorders, Substance-Related Disorders, and Personality Disorders.

“The Hungry Heart Syndrome” describes how emotional eating may be triggered by specific emotions such as loneliness, anxiety, or stress. Why do most people enjoy eating? Specific food cravings are unique to our gender and may result in a positive affect on one’s mood. Seratonin is a chemical released in the brain after eating carbohydrates that transmits mood stability. Similarly, endorphins are chemicals released after eating fat and chocolate that  transmit a food induced euphoric-state. Hence, women are more likely to crave chocolate, bread, and ice cream whereas men are more likely to crave meat, pizza, and potatoes. Therefore, one can learn to moderate food cravings and stabilize mood by balancing food intake and avoiding emotional deprivation. Thus, food deprivation may create more problems in terms of overeating and bingeing episodes.

More than five million American suffer from eating disorders. Anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge-eating disorder are diseases that affect the mind and body simultaneously. Three percent of adolescent and adult women and one percent of men have anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, or binge-eating disorder. A young woman with anorexia is 12 times more likely to die than other women her age without anorexia. Approximately, fifteen percent of young women have substantially disordered eating attitudes and behaviors.

What are the causes and roots of eating disorders?  In a study of children aged 8-10, approximately half the girls and one third of the boys were dissatisfied with their size. However, most dissatisfied girls wanted to be thinner while about equal numbers of dissatisfied boys wanted to be heavier. Boys wanted to grow into their bodies, whereas girls were more worried about their bodies growing. Additionally, approximately half of black and white girls chose ideal body sizes thinner than their current shape compared to approximately one third of black boys and white boys. Recent findings indicate that girls who smoke to suppress their appetite are the highest group of new nicotine addicts. The cigarette industry is aggressively targeting the vulnerability of girls who want to lose weight. Girls who participate in elite competitive sports where body shape and size are a factor (gymnastics, ice skating, dance) are three times more at risk for eating disorders. Boys, who participate in similar sports, or in wrestling, are also at increased risk.

Eating Disorders, binge eating, or weight management issues can cause a partner to experience shame about one’s body image. Methods of prevention such as addressing mood stability and assessing precipitating factors of emotional eating are reviewed carefully. Furthermore, partners may avoid sexual activity and intimacy due to feeling uncomfortable with their body or having body shame. In essence, this chapter will focus on specific psychological issues that may contribute to weight management, healthy body image, and the intimacy in relationships.