Articles

FOOD CAN BE A DRUG

Some people stuff themselves to bury their secret sorrows. Some become faddists. Others starve. What’s your food quirk?

LOUIS N. SARBACH January 1 1949
Articles

FOOD CAN BE A DRUG

Some people stuff themselves to bury their secret sorrows. Some become faddists. Others starve. What’s your food quirk?

LOUIS N. SARBACH January 1 1949

FOOD CAN BE A DRUG

Some people stuff themselves to bury their secret sorrows. Some become faddists. Others starve. What’s your food quirk?

LOUIS N. SARBACH

MARTHA'S suicide came as a terrible shock to her friends. She had always seemed such a happy, jolly girl. It seemed monstrous that

men should have ignored all her excellences of character and ability.

Of course, you had to admit that Martha was rather monstrous herself. The day she* took the overdose of sleeping tablets, she tipjied the scale*s at just, over 480 pounds.

Two hundred and eighty pounds of fun and folly? Evidently not. Two hundred anel eighty pounds of misery.

hew obese |>ersona commit suicide. Rarely, indeed, do they allow themselves even a glimpse of the bitterness that lies somewhere beneath those protective folds of fat. Most of them, like Martha out with the girls, seem jolly on the surface. When anything threatens their state of perpetual sunshine they make a beeline for their drug food—and the cloud passes.

A wealth of recent scientific evidence points to the strange role played by food in many cases of psychological maladjustment. The experts in this line have even coined a name for their specialty:

psychtnlirtetics— the relationship of food to mental processes.

Top-flight clinics like the Menninger and the Mayo report the latest psychodietetic findings in their bulletins. Scientists at important medical colleges (Tulane, Columbia, Cornell and Illinois, for example) contribute learned papers to medical journals about patients who try to drown their secret sorrows in food» or about strange, twisted personalities who have somehow managed to confuse food with sex and are gradually starving themselves to death.

Child-guidance files bulge with case histories of fat little boys who hate their mothers but love spaghetti, or scrawny little girls who earnestly tell their dolls that if they don’t eat they’ll never have to grow up. A Chicago psychiatrist tells of a businessman who suffered acute palpitations whenever he quarreled with his wife. Food instantly “cured” his suffering. He would put away a t wopound roast at a sitting. A Cleveland woman used candy— a pound at a timeto quell her nerves

after a domestic quarrel. Sweets were her sedative.

“Compulsive eating,” writes Dr. Samuel Hochman of New York City, in an authoritative article in the Medical Record, “seems to be part of a defense mechanism to combat anxiety ... In an attempt to gratify their desire for contentment and peace of mind, patients, whose ability to obtain satisfaction from normal living has been impaired, frequently give vent to their restlessness by an overindulgence in food.”

Some authorities now believe that an unsatisfactory feeding situation during infancy is almost certain to result in a frustrated, maladjusted adult.

That your appetite is intimately connected with your emotions is scarcely news. Dozens of common situations are effective temporary appetite-squelchers (anticipation of a “heavy date,” a death in the family, the first day of school, anxiety over one’s job, an impending major operation).

It’s an Old Theory

MEDICAL science has been taking notes on certain aspects of these matters for a good number of years. Back in 1694, in England, a strange “distemper” that caused people to starve themselves was described by one Dr. Morton. Seventy-five years ago, the first successful psychological treatment of abnormal weight loss was announced by Sir William Gull, but his findings were overshadowed by the rise and world-wide popularity of endocrinology which attempted to explain excessive thinness or fatness in terms of underor overactivity of glands.

The last 15 years have

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seen a strong revival of interest in Sir William’s viewpoint: psychiatry has gradually come into its own and doctors rarely find anything wrong with the glands of most overweight persons. It seems that they get that way simply because they overeat. And they overeat for reasons which psychiatrists usually have little trouble discovering.

World War II yielded facts about men’s food interests which gave a further boost to psychodietetics. A wartime study of service rejectees in Detroit showed that 90% of psychoneurotics had some kind of food fad or bizarre eating interest. Typically, they couldn’t eat this or that food item because of wholly imaginary “stomach trouble.”

One man, who insisted that he couldn’t eat “fatty meat,” turned out to be morbidly jealous of a brother who

was fond of it. Another claimed that he could endure Army food only if it was specially cooked according to the regime his mother, who had a severe stomach disorder, had been obliged for many years to follow. There was nothing organically wrong with his stomach — but he had somehow developed every one of her symptoms!

Our food habits start forming the very first day of our lives. Their connections with our feelings, psychodietitians tell us, are exactly as old as that. A baby’s need for love is a basic necessity. Without love, the new world he has just been pushed into seems strange and hostile; he feels uncomfortable and ill at ease or, as the psychologists say, “insecure.” And for the newborn, love and security are inextricably tied up with food and foodgetting.

It’s here that a human being’s first conscious relationship with another human being—his mother—is established. The mother’s function, from the

infant’s point of view, is to provide the necessary love and security. In other words, to feed him. At ifs best, pediatricians say, this means a lot of affectionate cuddling, the soothing process of sucking, the resultant calming of hunger pains, all leading to easeful, contented slumber. Severe disturbances of such a feeding pattern, case studies indicate, often leave personality scars impossible to get rid of.

They Blame It on Mom

The child of a neurotic mother often develops a superfinicky appetite, using food as a weapon to take revenge on her for being an unsatisfactory parent. He derives satisfaction from driving her to distraction with his unpredictable and seemingly irrational refusals to eat.

Or he may become a glutton, stuffing himself with food in an effort to make up for the lack of genuine love. Food calms him. In the psychiatrist’s view, he is merely reverting to the earliest period in his infancy, when food and security were identical. Such reversion, clinical records show, may occur at any point in the life span. Eating, in fact, is one of the commonest ways in which the loveless seek to console themselves. Those who have custody of orphans, refugees or other uprooted people have frequently noted the greater-thannormal appetites of their charges.

Food habits, more than any others, are logical reflectors of one’s emotional difficulties. The emotional significance of “mother’s cooking” to men in the armed forces during the war (and, indeed, to most grown men) was no accident. And it’s likewise no accident that, in people who are emotionally ill, eating habits and attitudes are often seriously affected.

Thus, a man who could eat neither green vegetables nor salads eventually revealed the all-but-forgotten fact of the hatred he felt toward his unloving, high-strung mother, whose favorite color turned out to be green. Dr. Hilde Bruch, of Columbia University, mentions a delicate boy, scorned and dominated by two strong older brothers, who tried to solve his problem by overeating. “I was so scared of the big boys,” he told the psychiatrist, “that I thought they would he afraid of me if 1 were big.”

One expert, Dr. L. S. Selling, noted Detroit psychiatrist, goes so far as to claim that answers to a carefully constructed food-preference questionnaire will reveal a comprehensive picture of an individual’s over-all mental life!

We All Have Quirks

That doesn’t refer solely to mental patients, of course. No two persons, normal or otherwise, react exactly alike when it comes to eating. As Dr. Selling notes, farm boys have different food interests from youths of the same age reared on the “Gold Coast.”

A young Jew, product of a strict kosher household, inadvertently bit into a sandwich containing both beef and butter (a forbidden combination) — and instantly became violently and uncontrollably ill. If this seems strange, consider how you would like an inadvertent mouthful of a popular native Chinese item known as “shrimps of the earth”— and then learn, even in the act of swallowing, that “shrimps of the earth” are grasshoppers!

For their part, certain Chinese raise their hands in horror at the thought of drinking milk. "They consider it a kind of white blood.

These are normal reactions. The psychodietitian becomes interested at the point where a person’s feelings about food become queer and take on

One New York woman’s weight reflected with surprising accuracy the state of her financial affairs at any given lime. As long as things went well, her weight was normal. As soon as there were reverses, however, she’d make a beeline for the dinner table to quiet her anxiety and her extra poundage would tell the story.

At a Cleveland clinic, a young woman turned up whose weight rose and fell with astonishing rapidity. Psychiatric treatment uncovered a deep-lying fear of sexual relations. When her weight was normal, she attracted men. But as soon as the friendship threatened to ripen into something more serious, she began to eat enormous quantities of food. In a short time her obesity had the (subconsciously) desired effect of disgusting her current boy friend and driving him away. Then the process would he repeated.

Case records show a discouraging number of failures to cure psychodietetic maladjustment. Food habits send long roots backward, even into the scarcely rememberable days of infancy. Often the psychological dislocation (which the abnormal eating attitude reflects) is so deeply ingrained as to be incorrectable, like an old, badly knit fracture.

Family Interference

One young woman, in New York City, had somehow identified the idea of food-taking with becoming pregnant. She lost weight to the point where hospitalization was necessary to keep her from starving to death.

At first she openly resisted efforts to get her to eat. But she soon realized that the hospital people meant business and she then adopted a sly policy of partial co - operation. Meanwhile, psychiatric treatments were probing through layer after layer of her surface rationalizations, excuses and “explanations.” And, gradually, patient and psychiatrist alike realized the actual inflamed core of her neurosis was on the verge of being exposed. At this juncture, something happened:

The girl unable to face whatever it was that lay festering at the heart of her trouble, began eating in earnest. She rapidly put on weight and presently, with the help of misguided relatives (and against the advice of the hospital authorities who knew what was happening), obtained her release.

Here was a case of “flight from therapy.” The patient had literally eaten her way out of the hospital. The “cure,” of course, couldn’t last because it really wasn’t a cure at all. Once safely home, with her secret still intact, she could once again starve herself without (at least for the time being) fear of interference.

A 24-year-old Philadelphia youth, grossly overweight thanks to his mother’s overindulgence, started what promised to be a highly successful series of psychotherapeutic treatments. In a single month his weight dropped from 366 to 329 pounds. Then one morning the doctor’s phone rang. It was the mother who (the doctor reports) “in no uncertain terms told us that since her only son was starving to death (at a weight of 329 pounds!), she would have no more of doctors, and that her son would henceforth eat as he had been taught since childhood.”

So often, in fact, do cures fail because of family interference that one authority, Dr. Ruth Moulton of New York’s famed Psychiatric Institute, believes that psychotherapy in these cases should be regularly “accompanied by careful social-service work” with

parents and other relatives likely to influence the results of treatment.

No one can predict exactly how food is going to figure in your psychological life or mine. Are you a second-genera! tion Canadian and think that the old > folks are stuffy, un progressive and oldfashioned? Perhaps, for that reason, you havesdeveloped a strong distaste for the old-country foods and modes of cooking that they brought with them across the Atlantic.

Or maybe you’re a third-generation Canadian, romantic and sentimental, who eagerly cultivates a liking for these same old-country dishes, hoping, as you eat them, to capture something of the authentic old-country “atmosphere.”

Medical scientists admit that their knowledge of food psychology is very limited. They do know that anorexia nervosa (extreme undernourishment due to psychological causes) is found mainly in young women and adolescent girls. Sex figures subconsciously in many typical cases: food means getting fat, which in turn becomes a symbol of pregnancy. Underneath this train of notions is the patient’s fundamental dread of growing up and having to face the responsibilities of a mature adult.

The doctors are sure of one thing: it is parents, particularly mothers, who turn children into “feeding problems.” The newest advice (promulgated by the noted Mayo Clinic child psychiatrist, Dr. Benjamin Spock) is to feed a baby as much—and no less—than he wants. And the logical time to feed him is when he is hungry.

There’s no sense, says Dr. Spock, in torturing an infant into continued wakefulness because he happens to be satisfied with less than the 4x/¿ ounces in the bottle. If the youngster tends to be emotionally sensitive (most very young human beings are) the mother’s urging and forcing, in conformance to an arbitrary and inflexible schedule, may only arouse his physiological disgust.

More than that, Dr. Spock warns, most so-called naughtiness in small children grows out of a sense of insecurity that centres around feeding problems. A child who is not fed when he is hungry, or is forced to change too abruptly from familiar to unfamiliar foods, may become hostile and even remain so ever after.

When you really stop to consider, it’s a wonder that so many of" us turned out to be normal eaters, after all.

Or did we? ★