When relationships with food become unhealthy

Over the years we have done a good number of sessions about our relationships with food; healthy food, how food affects mood-specifically the link between gut health and mental health and changing our eating habits. In this session we looked at what happens when our relationship with food becomes the behaviour through which we try to manage difficult emotions and thoughts.

We looked at three specific types of eating disorder; anorexia, bulimia and binge-eating and a syndrome called authorexia which can sedge way into anorexia.

Much of the following information is adapted from a webinar from SMART Recovery calledBehavioural Addictions — A Look at Gambling and Eating Disorders with Dr. Chris Tuell and Ms. Ann Hull ‘

Anorexia is an inability to maintain weight and the body goes into starvation mode. The body craves carbohydrates but these messages are ignored. The brain produces opioids creating a high .  The experience of starvation becomes a high due to the numbing effect from the opioids. Anorexia can take many different forms from not eating, eating but then vomiting and also over-exercising as well.

Anorexia often starts in adolescence. The way out of disordered eating is through eating, so it’s complicated to recover from something you have to do every day. Research shows that the average adult makes 226 food related decisions every day. It’s important to remember that it’s not about the food.  People talk about the food, but it’s not about the food.

Bulimia is a pattern of binge-eating and then purging in order to prevent weight gain. It’s not a fear of food, it’s a fear of weight gain. Getting rid of the food creates a high, people start out purging so they can eat more food, but in the end it morphs very quickly into eating more so you can purge.

Binge-eating is defined as eating much more rapidly than normal until feeling uncomfortably full. Eating large amounts of food when not feeling physically hungry. Eating alone because of being embarrassed by how much one is eating and feeling disgusted with oneself, depressed, or very guilty after overeating.

Authorexia is defined as a syndrome, it is a focus on clean or healthy eating, or only organic etc which has become obsessive. It becomes time consuming, expensive and very restrictive meaning often the absence of food options, coupled with weight loss it may morph into anorexia.

People use relationships with food to cope with emotions in the same way that people self medicate with drugs or alcohol.

When eating starts again, just like any addiction-when you give up, all those feelings come flooding back, and they’re never the feelings of joy, peace and happiness they are usually resentment, anger, unhappiness , disappointment sadness so no wonder people want to give them up.  So we have to learn to sit still with all those uncomfortable feelings, about our bodies, who we are, about our life.

People in the group were able to talk about their own experiences of having difficult relationships with food at times. In thinking about what can help it is worth remembering that eating disorder is a symptom of emotional dysregulation. People say they feel fat, but fat isn’t a feeling. We focus on food and weight so that we don’t have to feel emotions because sometimes we have been conditioned from childhood to suppress these feelings for various reasons.

Because discorded eating is rooted in emotional pain it is helpful to find healing and supportive relationships. Also, because we take less care of ourselves when we are stressed we talked about a particular breathing relaxation method called vagus breathing.

The vagus nerve connects your gut to your brain, and is an important part of the parasympathetic nervous system which allows us to “rest and digest”, the opposite of “fight or flight”. A way to reduce stress or improve decision-making, is by doing a few rounds of vagus nerve breathing based on four breaths in and eight breaths out which stimulates the vagus nerve. Participants in a research project who focused on breathing patterns with longer exhalations for two minutes reported lower levels of stress. They were also able to do significantly better in answering test questions. Researchers concluded from the study that breathing patterns reliably increase heart rate and improve decision-making.

One thought on “When relationships with food become unhealthy

  1. Very welcome group discussion on difficult area. Anorexia has the highest death rate (25%) of psychiatric disorders, and bulimia and other disorders much misrepresented in media and all of these can be hidden conditions due to shame. Ash

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