Hungry Ghosts

ADDICTS are known to Buddhism as 'hungry ghosts'. No matter how much they consume, it is not enough. They are lured by the voices of sirens, their cravings, which lead them to self-destruction. Hungry ghosts are on the increase and food has become the first love of many of them. This is particularly apparent from the wave of obesity that is spreading worldwide. The American Obesity Association says that a third of the adult population is obese and that at least 300,000 people die from obesity each year. Huge chocolate bars, fizzy drinks, luscious cakes and tempting sweets are in every shop. They are advertised as desirable 'sins' - and people don't like to deprive themselves. If you're having a hard day at work you can reach for a chocolate bar. If your partner is annoying you then you can have a sticky cake. Sugar triggers the release of feel-good hormones into your brain - and, bang, you're fixed. At the same time as obesity, anorexia is on the increase as well. Everywhere we look we are bombarded with pictures of anorexic women. Models, actresses and the many girls who try to emulate them struggle not to eat. This phenomenon is now becoming apparent in men, as there is increasing pressure for them to be thin as well. And, perhaps most worrying of all, it is also affecting children.

The American Obesity Association says that a third of the adult population is obese

Can all those sweets, cakes and chocolates really make you feel better? Well, if sugar does, so does alcohol. So does heroin. And the more you consume the more immune you become to the effects. Just as with alcohol and drugs, the body tries to maintain its balance, absorbs less of the sugar - and you need more just to achieve the same high.

Add to this the conflicting pressure of having to be abnormally thin to be beautiful, and the guilt of bingeing is multiplied. In extreme cases this can lead to purging (bulimia), or to a further binge, cloaking your feelings of despair at having eaten more than you meant to. People drown their sorrows with the many delicious sugary treats on offer. They then hate themselves for not being able to resist temptation. Life becomes one long food obsession. Anorexics see a good day as one in which they manage not to eat at all. They also have a tendency, because they eat so little, to go straight for the substance that gives them most fuel - sugar. After being weak with hunger, they can consume huge amounts of sugary foods to give themselves an instant high. Even when they are not eating, they drink sugary drinks.


There is an organization that recognizes the addictive nature of sugar - and the huge problem that food has become. It is called Overeaters Anonymous (OA). There are now approximately 6,500 groups meeting in over 50 countries around the world. Based on the '12 steps' and traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous, it recognizes the two-fold problem of food addiction - the physical cravings and the emotional void that finds many people unable to stop even when they are physically full. Members are re-educated about food, learning to use it to satisfy hunger, only afterwards for pleasure. The guilt and compulsion that surrounds so much eating is gradually eroded. As with alcoholics, overcoming the obsession is achieved by abstaining, though in many ways it is more difficult with food because you cannot simply stop eating. Some of these people were throwing up several times a day for years. As individuals learn to observe their eating habits they become aware of the foods that cause them problems and trigger frenzied eating sessions. These tend to be of the processed, sugary variety. It is these (not salads!) that people crave when they are feeling down - and that they cannot stop eating once they have started. Such foods include any that have sugar labelled fifth or above on the list of ingredients. Some very surprising products have a high sugar content. One young woman remembers how it was for her when she was in the midst of her food obsession. 'I used to wake up with a feeling of dread, knowing that I was going to binge before the day was out, even though I didn't want to. I was three stone (19 kilograms) overweight and I just couldn't stop eating. I was miserable. I used to go to bed at night feeling sick because I was so full and I used to wake up with the most terrible hangovers from all of the sugar I had eaten. The whole day would pass in a haze and I would feel so bad that I would binge again in the evening. I just couldn't stop myself.'


When people pay attention to their food they can feel the physical effects of the chemical highs and lows that sugar causes - talk of ' sugar hangovers' is common. Some people in recovery from food addiction are also recovered alcoholics. They are astounded at how difficult it is to clean up their food. 'It wasn't this hard coming off the drink or the drugs,' says one. ' Eating sugar is endlessly justifiable - everyone does it.' Abstinence allows the cravings to subside and the mind to clear, leaving the individual free to deal with emotional hang-ups. Honesty is very important. The shame that people feel over their uncontrolled eating makes them very secretive about what they did to feed their habit - which makes the bingeing worse. Talking helps to remove the sense of being different from others and alone - a defining characteristic of addicts - and provides an invaluable support network. Friendship and a sense of connection fill the emotional void of addiction in a way that no amount of chocolate or cakes ever could. People find that as they 'clean up' their food their lives open out. As they process their emotions instead of stuffing them down with food, other areas of their lives fall into place. If they manage to overcome their demons they are free to experience a sense of connection that many who have not been along that path do not experience. Meanwhile, it is now quite 'normal' to be either on a permanent diet and attempting to become stick-thin or hugely overweight and sugar dependent. The problem itself has become so out of control that people are beginning to realize - something has to change.

Anita Ferruzzi is a journalist based in London. For more information contact:

New Internationalist issue 363 magazine cover This article is from the December 2003 issue of New Internationalist.
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