The Science Behind Eating Disorders

I think many still believe today that an eating disorder is not a “real” disease.  That rather, the disease is fabricated by the human mind and used as a severe means for losing weight and attaining that “perfect” body.  I may have been guilty of this in the beginning of my experience with anorexia.  I blamed myself incessantly and was ridden with guilt over the idea that I had given up so much of my life just because of some self esteem issues.

But then I began to research the science.  I did a lot of work on my own and also had doctors and medical professionals at my disposal whom I could ask questions to.  A whole new world opened up to me about the science behind anorexia, which interested me more than ever.  More importantly, it forced me to realize that this disorder was not my fault.

Let’s start with the fact that eating disorders ARE genetic, yet can lie dormant for many years until they are triggered by some traumatic (or not traumatic) event.  The eating disorder genotype “is supposed to create enough of a false sense of calm and appetite suppression so that you can go out and find food for all of your famine-inflicted kin” (

So essentially, what this told me was that this gene – or genes – began to express itself because I felt in danger.  I felt that I needed to restrict my eating habits so that there would be more food for other people.  And reading this it all made so much sense. I tend to put other people before myself even if that means facing harm for myself.

So I continued to research and I learned that the amygdala, which is the emotion center of the brain and is responsible for recognizing threats, has abnormalities in those with eating disorders.  This gives us that all too familiar feeling that food is actually a threat, which manifests itself into phobias of weight gain and “unhealthy” diets.

Being afraid of food just does not make sense, and that is why we try to rationalize it and hide this fear behind justifications that might make others understand.  And it all comes full circle as we start to make excuses, “I am just focusing on eating better and fueling my body.”  “That particular food group makes me feel bloated.”  We make all these claims, yet really what we are doing is feeding into our fear, and strengthening our food aversion.

We continue to remove ourselves from situations where food is involved.  And again, if you have struggled with an eating disorder this will sound so familiar to you, as it did when I was reading up on the science.  You will avoid going out to eat, parties with food laid out on tables, or you will attend and the night will be ruined by your constant focus on not eating a thing.

If we continue to avoid food for long enough, it will become life threatening and our body will shut down and go into survival mode; the only focus becomes staying alive.  We lose our period, which is a biological response to the fact that we are not healthy or fit enough to give birth to a baby.  We lose our hair.  Our nails, lips, and toes turn blue and we get questions such as “why are you cold all the time?”  And we answer these questions with, “I just have really poor circulation.”

I think that perhaps the most common misconception with anorexia is that those who struggle with it are simply not hungry. This was true of me for a little while but only because in the depths of my disease I had lost my hungry cues.  But once those cues return, they hit you full force and it is frightening.  We must deal with scary cravings that we just cannot satisfy because it is too frightening to face a plate full of pizza or spaghetti.  We think about food constantly because that is all our body needs yet our brain is just not in sync and does not allow us that satisfaction.

“The patient STILL EATS and is extremely hungry, but creates as many distractions and compulsions as possible to minimize the food she must take in” ( Key words here: “the patient still eats.”  Do not think that someone is completely cured of the disease because he or she has eaten what is on the plate.  Please know that it was an absolute battle to get that nutrition in and every single bite was a fight.  If someone with an eating disorder is tired or irritable after eating, they have a right to be.  They have just struggled with the disease and though they won the battle, it is an exhausting process.

Below I have linked a few of my favorite websites if you would like to learn more.  This is simply my take on the science behind eating disorders because I believe it is so important to stay informed and educated but these websites will provide more insight. I really hope these help.

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