If you struggle with eating issues, chances are you’ve had well-intentioned loved ones tell you to “just eat.” Variations of this phrase, including “it’s just food” and “calm down, it’s not that big of a deal,” do little to help you in the moment you are facing a challenging food situation. And if you struggle with an eating disorder, the reality is that every food situation can be very challenging.
In the past ten years, researchers have made significant progress in better understanding factors contributing to the development of eating disorders. Eating disorders were mostly blamed on cultural pressures or controlling parents, until recent history. Thankfully with dedicated research, we have come to understand much more of what contributes to the development of eating disorders. Researchers have been able to challenge the idea of stereotypically-controlling mothers “causing” a daughter’s eating disorder and genetic components.
In terms of contributing to the development of eating disorders, we understand cultural pressures are still real and significant. We also have better understanding of minds and bodies of those diagnosed with eating disorders and what is happening genetically.
With advances in brain scanning technology, we can actually see what is happening inside the brain. This is fascinating to me, especially for what it teaches us about eating disorders. First, women with anorexia seem to have altered responses to rewards. More specifically, women with anorexia have less active processing in brain circuits tied to reward, therefore rewards are less rewarding.
Additionally, brain circuits are more active with losing. What does this mean? Women with anorexia don’t identify pleasure as actually pleasurable when compared to individuals without eating disorders, but their brains react more to situations tied to losing. They find less pleasure in activities most of us consider pleasurable (like eating) and feel more angst tied to loss.
What does this mean to you? Well, when a loved one tells you to “just eat” it’s hard for them to understand that you experience very little pleasure in eating. They may assume that eating is enjoyable for everyone and you’re just being stubborn. Sound familiar? And, it may be really difficult for them to understand just how challenging a meal can be. They might recognize that you have fear about eating. However, it may be tough for them to understand eating is difficult and it actually makes you feel worse afterward.
Understanding the research on brain circuits can be beneficial not only for you, but for your loved ones as well. First, let’s talk about you.
Knowing this research can help you have a bit more empathy for yourself. If you’re like most individuals with eating concerns, you feel pretty guilty. You feel pretty guilty for the following: the ways you struggle, the impact this has on relationships, and the fact that family meals can be incredibly difficult. Knowing this research can help you be more patient with yourself. Understanding this research shouldn’t be an excuse not to eat, but hopefully it can help you be kinder to yourself. And hopefully it will be encouraging in the moments when it’s really difficult for you to eat.
Knowing this research can also be really helpful because then you can educate your loved ones. You can let them know that eating is actually really hard. And while it’s in your head (meaning brain circuitry), it’s not all in your head! It can be really empowering teaching your loved ones about your concerns; it represents you taking the lead in understanding your experience. It’s also helpful because when you understand what might be contributing to your difficulties, you can work closely with your treatment providers to develop skills to target the very specific difficulties you are experiencing.
For example, you can develop cognitive strategies that address the challenges you are experiencing. You can tell yourself: yes, eating is hard, but I can do hard things. Will this statement suddenly make eating easier? Nope (I wish, oh how I wish. . .). But you can feel empowered to take on challenges. These are the moments you can strengthen your sense of self. By taking on a food challenge, you can begin to feel capable, rather than helpless. You can begin to see yourself as strong, rather than weak.
Helping Loved Ones
Now, let’s talk about how loved ones can benefit from this research. First, knowing this research can help loved ones be more patient. Tell me you can’t use some patience in your life! When loved ones understand your difficulties, they can provide more understanding. They can encourage and support you, rather than feeling impatient and frustrated. Loved ones can help you focus on strategies to get through a meal rather than telling you to just eat. Perhaps a distracting word game over a meal could help you get through a challenging meal. Maybe a gentle walk after dinner can ease the thought of food in your stomach.
So, while it’s really important to push through difficulties and eat, it’s also really important to have a good understanding of why eating may be difficult. Then everyone (you and your loved ones) can be compassionate, encouraging, and supportive. With a strong support in place, it can be much easier to eat. And yes, you need to eat.
(Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, 2013)