eating disorders 2Obsessively over eating, under eating, binge eating, obsessively fussy eating – all forms of eating disorders which are becoming more and more common in modern society, by why?

To understand why so many people are developing eating disorders from mild to extreme which span gender and age, we first need to understand a bit about the brain and what is driving the compulsion.

Your eating template is stored in part of your brain called the hippocampus which is also responsible for habits and behaviour patterns.  The hippocampus is part of the limbic system or the primitive part of the brain and associates very closely with survival triggers, which makes sense because you need to eat to survive.

Your eating template is absolutely necessary, you cannot delete it or decide you are not going to eat again as you can with smoking or biting your nails, for example, which are also habits stored in the hippocampus.  The difference is that you are born with the eating template and it is intrinsic to survival.

When you are operating from the intellectual part of your brain you are happy, calm, relaxed, motivated and just getting on with life.  Your body’s systems are balanced and operating in harmony with your brain, so take eating for example, when your body needs fuel it will send a message to your brain in the form of hunger, you eat normally and top up the fuel needed to create energy.  You will naturally crave the foods you need, when everything is balanced, you don’t crave sugars and chocolate, you will eat healthily.  It’s a bit like fuel in a car, as it gets low the warning light or the gauge gives you a verbal signal that you need to top up so the car keeps running.  You can neither over fill a car or drive when it is empty.

When babies are young they a balanced gauge, you cannot overfeed a baby and it cries when it needs topping up and if it isn’t hungry it won’t eat.

However, this eating template gets distorted and eating starts to become an obsession of some description.

As anxiety levels rise the primitive brain becomes alerted to some sort of crisis, emergency or danger.  Your brain cannot tell the difference between an attack by a wild animal for example and a bill arriving or an argument with friends, it just interprets the negative thinking as crisis, emergency or danger.  The primitive brain, which is responsible for your survival, steps in and takes precedence over your intellect and rational thought, perspective and logic go out the window.  This primitive brain is not an intellect, all it can do is refer to previous patterns of behaviour for a reference of what to do in these circumstances or feelings.  It refers to its database of survival strategies in the hippocampus where it finds the eating template.  If there are no better relevant strategies it can gradually build rules around the eating template of how to survive.

When people are in an anxious state they produce adrenalin and this can suppress appetite, so the primitive brain learns that when anxious you don’t eat so a rule can be formed that when worrying about something don’t eat.  For some people it goes the other way and your brain learns that when there is an impending crisis, emergency or danger you need to stock pile fuel and therefore energy, so you need to eat in excess.

A distorted eating template is actually an anxiety and control issue.  When your life or aspects of your life seem out of control and there is nothing you can do about it, you can always control what you are putting in your mouth; which is why eating disorders and extreme fussy eating is so prevalent amongst children and young people.

The reason we go through extremes of over eating and starvation is also due to this primitive part of the brain.  In primitive times we would have gone through constant cycles of feast and famine.  It would have been natural to eat to excess to store energy for the inevitable famine which followed every year and then, as soon as there was an abundance of food again, the pendulum would swing back to excess eating.  In this modern developed world however, famine is rare and food is nearly always in abundance and in our face with advertising all the time, so commonly people get stuck in the feast phase.

Weight gain and over eating can also be associated with emotion eating or comfort eating.  This is also when the body’s natural balance and intellectual control are not as they should be, usually because serotonin levels are too low.  Serotonin is the neurotransmitter which helps us cope, motivates us, makes us braver, helps us cope with physical fear, boost our immune system, helps us cope with pain and is the off switch for appetite.  In other words, if everything is good in the world, then food is just for fuel, you don’t need to eat more than necessary.

However, if you don’t have sufficient levels of serotonin, the body will look for substitutes and outside sources;  sugar is a substitute for serotonin – it temporarily gives energy and feel good boost.  It is no surprise that the things you crave when it is not necessary to eat are sugar or simple carb based, they are not often a nice healthy salad or piece of fish!

The way to determine if your primitive brain or your intellect is in control of your eating habits is obsession.  Do you think about food a lot, either eating or not eating it?  Do you obsess about not eating sweet foods?  Do you go from thinking about one meal to the next?  If your primitive brain is operating your eating template you will think about food an abnormal amount of time.

People who operate from their intellect do not think about food until they are genuinely hungry and need a fuel top up.

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