Eating Disorder Awareness Week (Feb. 1-7)

Take a moment to look at the table below. How many of these statements have you said or thought? How many of these statements have you heard a loved one say aloud?

“I need to burn that off”“My diet starts tomorrow”“I hate my thighs”“I think I’m addicted to sugar”
“I just need to lose weight”“I’m only going to eat vegetables and meat”“I’m exhausted but I have to get this workout in”“I can’t stop snacking”
“I’m not eating carbs”“I’m not eating after___ time today”“I’m not in good enough shape to workout”“How do I lose weight?”
As a Personal Trainer, I’ve heard it all. What’s more? I believe that these are only a small percentage of the detrimental thoughts going through our minds. We are painfully obsessed and experience these thoughts that rudely interrupt our time spent with loved ones and attention to other priorities in our lives, and take us out of the present moment. We are living in fear.

There’s so much to say, I’m not even sure where to start. So, I’ll begin by briefly addressing the challenges of identifying disordered eating, recognizing body dysmorphia, eating disorders, and disordered relationships with movement including exercise addiction/compulsive exercise. The reason that these can be difficult to spot and to mitigate is because they are highly encouraged, rewarded, and even desired within Western culture.

“You look so petite!”“You look great!”“Have you lost weight?”“You’re so jacked”
“You’re so fit”“She’s in great shape”“Wow, you’re so dedicated!”“I wish I could be more like you”
“She looks great”“She bounced back quickly after the baby”“You have such good willpower”“#bodygoals”
Intended as compliments, the above statements can be harmful as they tie personal identity, to social connection, to acceptance, to morals and values – wrapped in one tight little package and equate this to self-worth in relation to physical appearances.

Studies show that when rats are deprived of food (AKA a diet: restrictive eating, intermittent fasting, keto diet [for non-medicinal purposes], cutting out food groups, or just not eating regular meals and snacks, etc.) and the rats were given free access to a running wheel (Routtenberg and Kuznesof as cited in Avena et al.), and after a few days – the rats engaged in excessive exercise.

This is a common feature in anorexia – HEAR ME OUT ON THIS ONE IF YOU’RE LIKE “But Bria!! I’m a BINGE EATER & I HATE exercise”, because this may actually apply to you too & I’ll explain more below. So, from a biological basis when people restrict their food intake physically this can lead to compulsive exercise (like the rats on the wheel) because from a evolutionary perspective, when food was not in abundance, we were required to migrate to land where there was more food. This can also be why persons with eating disorders can experience other mental health comorbidities such as anxiety and depression, and why they might also experience feelings of hostility, competitiveness, impatience, low sex drive, irritability, constipation and digestive issues, and fatigue. This is because the body and brain feel like they are migrating, feel like they need to be in survival mode, feel like they need to be on the move, fight or flight, sympathetic nervous system activated- your brain thinks that your only option is to ‘keep on keeping on’. There’s no room for joy. No room for rest. No room for play. No room for spontaneity. No room for flexibility.

In an acute sense, sure – we as organisms can handle this type of stress. But chronically? We were not built for years of deprivation. For more information on the biological approach and migration response, check out my podcast interview with author Tabitha Farrar.

Check out the references below for information on one of Tabitha’s books.

So, how does this also apply to you if you identify as someone who binge eats and doesn’t really like to exercise? Well, I had mentioned above the effects of physical deprivation, and I also believe the same is true for mental deprivation. I believe that every time you tell yourself the below statements, you’re creating a scarcity within your brain and body – THEY DON’T KNOW THE DIFFERENCE – whether food is actually scarce in your environment or not. Biologically, it just feels like you need to keep eating and maybe even move less (might feel like depression, low-energy, exhaustion, or low-motivation) to conserve energy (ex. hibernation). Your brain and body don’t know when they will be deprived of nutrients again, this creates a lack of trust within us and feels like a threat to our safety – CUE SURVIVAL MODE!

“I can’t have that”“I shouldn’t be having this”“Just one more”“Just one more”
“OK, last one.”“I failed”“I fell off the wagon”“I’ll try again tomorrow”
“I’ll go hard next week”“I’m not gonna have any more treats”“I’ve already had this one so I may as well keep going”“This is not part of my diet”
Mental deprivation feels the same to your brain and body as if you were physically restricting your food intake.

If you struggle with any of the above, you might also experience:

  • Anxiety including frequent worrying and ruminating
  • Substance use
  • Obsessive or rigid thoughts and behaviours
  • Perfectionism

If you’ve read this far, you’re interested. So, let’s geek out for a sec on the neurochemical level

FACT: Dopamine is released in the brain when we eat (and do other things that feel rewarding to us – like having sex, or seeing likes on our Instagram posts, etc.) especially if you’ve been mentally or physically deprived – you might be more sensitive to the experience of dopamine when eating. This can also be linked to binge eating because the dopamine makes us feel good, and safe – so why stop eating if it’s LITERALLY making you feel better? It’s not “emotional eating” it’s much more than that.

FACT: If you struggle with binge eating, you might also struggle with substance use due to dysregulated dopamine reuptake in the brain.

FACT: Carbs are our bodies preferred source of fuel to burn so especially if you’ve restricted (mentally and/or physically) sugar and carb intake, you might be more likely to seek out foods high in carbs and sugar to help your body and brain on their mission to keep you alive.

FACT: Exercising, as we all know releases endorphins including opiates that affect the central nervous system (make us feel super good, relieve stress, diminish pain) – this is why you can literally become addicted to exercise. Studies have shown that female mice engaged in hyperactive behaviour and decreased food intake when given morphine (opioid).

Check out this link for more information on opiates.

One thing that I’m wondering after all of this research, countless conversations with others, and time spent in reflection alone is…

Although some people may not experience compulsive exercise in the way that I’ve experienced it (just like the rats running on the wheel, ie. limited food intake, multiple workouts a day, etc.), are we as a collective experiencing it in other ways? Are we so starved for nutrients (and knowledge, intellectual stimulation, deep connections with others) that we keep hopping from career to career, from relationship to relationship, finding new hobbies and passions, having more kids, buying more stuff, always competing, always comparing, always striving to be the best, to be the most productive. Are we living in one gigantic migration pattern to that leads to… nowhere? For real though – are we just food deprived rats running on a wheel? Looking for what’s next? What’s next? What’s next?

AND, if my hypothesis proves true, can the remedy to our culture of toxic busyness be as simple as nourishing our bodies through food, by slowing down and taking time to rest, to meditate, to feel, to digest, to live in abundance – not through material items but to instead focus on connecting and enjoying the company of loved ones. Could the antidote to all of our discomfort, discontent, disconnection, and disease be to create a sense of safety within ourselves and within our environment so that our bodies and brains know that this land is safe – that there’s no need to be in survival mode any more, that it’s time to experience life once again.

References:

Avena, N. M., & Bocarsly, M. E. (2012). Dysregulation of brain reward systems in eating disorders: neurochemical information from animal models of binge eating, bulimia nervosa, and anorexia nervosa. Neuropharmacology63(1), 87–96. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuropharm.2011.11.010

Farrar, Tabitha. Rehabilitate, Rewire, Recover!: Anorexia Recovery for the Determined Adult. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2019.

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