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Why people with eating disorders are often obsessed with food

Lorraine Pascale, a chef and regular guest on the BBC’s cooking programme, Saturday Kitchen, recently admitted that she struggled with an eating disorder. For many, it would seem counter-intuitive that a person with an eating disorder would spend so much time around food. But an obsession with food is often linked with eating disorders, highlighting the complexity of effects that go beyond eating itself.

Many of us have dieted at some point in our lives. Whether this is to lose weight, maintain weight or be healthier, what they have in common is restriction. This restriction is not merely behavioural – it is not simply the absence of reaching for a biscuit. Rather, the restriction starts in our brains when we tell ourselves that certain foods are off limits. And, much like the famous “don’t mention the war” scene in Fawlty Towers - where a forbidden topic keeps popping up in conversation – people restricting their food intake can become preoccupied with food.

For people with anorexia nervosa, which has restriction at its core, this preoccupation can manifest itself in a strange desire to be near the very thing that is being avoided. Those suffering from anorexia are often obsessed with food – collecting recipes, reading articles, watching cookery shows, cooking for others and preparing meals that they themselves will not eat.

What drives an obsession with food?

There are two reasons why those with eating disorders might be driven to obsess over food. The first is that this is the brain’s way of telling a starving person that they need to eat. From an evolutionary perspective, this is adaptive. Our brain won’t let us forget that we are in need of fuel. Interesting comparisons can be drawn from a study conducted by American physiologist Ancel Keys after World War II. He wanted to explore the effects of starvation and re-feeding in order to better understand how to help concentration camp victims.

Keys found that those who were starved became obsessed with food, dreaming and talking about it constantly. All other things became insignificant. These thoughts only subsided when they regained body fat. Three of the participants even went on to become chefs, illustrating the great impact that the experience of food deprivation had on their life choices.

American physiologist, Ancel Keys. Wikimedia Commons

The second reason that people with eating disorders might obsess over food is related to the need for control that is often central to the development of a disorder. For many sufferers, controlling their eating is a way to feel some mastery in an otherwise emotionally chaotic world. Many people with eating disorders suffer from low self esteem, and often have other mental health problems, such as depression or anxiety. To prepare food and be strong enough not to eat it, reinforces their self-worth and, to some extent, empowers them. Pleasure from food is gained in an almost voyeuristic manner, by watching others eat.

Sapping the brain

But such obsession is not limited just to people with eating disorders. Anyone on a diet that is restrictive is likely to experience preoccupying thoughts. And it saps our brain power. A study, conducted years ago for my PhD, found that successful dieters (those who, when given free access to appealing foods, did not eat much) performed badly on a simple cognitive task. Unsuccessful dieters (those who ate lots of the food) performed very well. This suggested that those who were successful at restricting their intake did so at the expense of their ability to perform another task. But when others decided to ditch the diet, they freed up their brain capacity and performed well. So obsessing over food and trying to maintain a diet can have detrimental effects on our performance.

Learned obsessions with food

Our relationships with food can be influenced early in life and might affect our propensity to obsess over it. A recent long-term study conducted by colleagues found that mothers who use food as a reward were more likely to have children who overeat when distressed, compared with children of mothers who used less controlling feeding practices. Learning early in life that food provides a source of comfort could play a role in food obsessions later in life.

Recovery from an eating disorder can be a long process that may take many years, be derailed by relapses and it may never completely go away. Even for those who have recovered, food may always hold a special meaning.

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