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With the year-end festive season drawing near, it brings with it the promise of fine food and drinks… and the threat of overindulging! ‘Tis the season to exercise restraint, but ignoring the allure of satisfying nosh is not simply a matter of willpower. Why is it so difficult for so many?

Understanding why we get food cravings is key.

Our actions are controlled by brain signals. This is why people react positively to the sight of rewarding foods. Our brain contains neurons, which communicate with one another to create feelings, store information and control behaviour. Upon sight or smell of delicious food, sensory neurons react by firing electrical signals and releasing brain chemicals that then travel to interconnected neurons, which are programmed to react positively to the food.

Endorphins are produced by the pituitary gland and the hypothalamus in people when they exercise, experience pain, have sex or eat certain types of food. Endorphins block pain and release feelings of wellbeing. Therefore, stimulating endorphins with food will drive us to eat. This is how the pleasure of reward is felt, and is usually set off by food groups high in sugar, fat or salt, and sometimes food textures.

For the class of people who tend to get hungry more easily because they digest their food quickly, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) considers that they may also exhibit symptoms such as thirst, bad breath and constipation. TCM also has a theory that too much of seven emotions (happiness, anger, worry, sadness, fear, alarm, longing) could cause the organs to react adversely. Hence, you would tend to overeat when you are stressed, faced with relationship problems, or in a foul mood, alerts Yang Zeng Jie, a registered TCM physician practising at Eu Yan Sang TCM clinics. How does TCM help these people curb their appetite? “We have to find out about the person’s medical history,” Physician Yang explains. “Medicine or acupuncture is applied to correct imbalance in the body; in this way, appetite can be curbed and the attitude towards food can also be changed.”

Keeping temptation at bay is a challenge because, in today’s society, food is big business. Chefs are increasingly creative when it comes to the taste, presentation and even form of the food—molecular gastronomy stimulates endorphins not only through smell and taste but also through excitement of its inventiveness as well! In other words, good food engages and pleasures all the senses, not just the sense of taste.

It works like an addiction: once the reward-seeking dopamine in the brain is activated and recognised, it pushes us to pursue the object of desire. If the stimulus is powerful enough, or administered intermittently enough, the brain may not be able to curb its dopamine response, setting off a yearning for food that cries out to be satisfied.

Freeing the body from continually longing for food may be easy for some and hard for others. Methods range from the simple to the extreme. Tricking the brain to curb one’s appetite would be part of the solution; drugs are sometimes prescribed for this in serious cases. Surgery may also be carried out to reduce the size of the stretched stomach so as to reduce food intake.


Photo courtesy of Thinkstock. This article first appeared in NATURA magazine issue No.3. Find NATURA at Eu Yan Sang retail outlets, newsstands and major bookstores in Singapore.