by Madeleine Lundberg
Let’s face it– people are obsessed with being thin. Over 80% of 10 year old girls in the US are afraid of being fat, and for many, this obsession turns dangerous; it is estimated that 24 million people suffer from anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating disorder. While these numbers are staggering, they seem to make sense. With the global rise in social media has come an overwhelming influx of images of incredibly thin models and celebrities– there’s no escape from the constant reminders that you could always be thinner.
While Anorexia Nervosa is the most deadly psychiatric disorder, many who suffer from it are able to recover. But what does “recovery” really mean? Can anorexia permanently alter the way we think?
Individuals with Anorexia Nervosa are able to severely restrict their caloric intake for extended periods of time; they are not motivated to eat even when their body tells them they are emaciated. A recent study compared patients who have recovered from anorexia to women without anorexia to see how they differed in their ability to suppress the desire for immediate rewards. Women with anorexia are able to do this well, as they suppress the desire to eat to obtain their long-term goal of being thin daily. In looking at the differences between these two groups of women, researchers are able to see if the brain functioning of women that have had anorexia nervosa is significantly different from women who have never had anorexia.
In this study, participants were asked to choose between two monetary rewards: a small sum of money given immediately, or a larger sum of money in 6 weeks. Because hunger has been proven to increase someone’s likelihood of choosing a more immediate reward, even when the reward has nothing to do with food, participants were asked to do this twice: once when hungry, and once when full.
The study found that hunger level did not affect the choices made by the women “recovered” from anorexia; essentially, their brains were not motivated by hunger to choose the more immediate reward. This differs significantly from women without anorexia, whose responses were affected by hunger; when hungry, women never having had anorexia were more likely to choose the immediate, smaller reward over the larger reward.
So what does this mean? Basically, the brains of women having had anorexia value rewards differently from unaffected brains — even after someone is technically ‘recovered’, their cognition is still not the same as someone without anorexia. The results of this study can have a huge impact in the way we think about eating disorder recovery; it’s not just about getting back to a healthy weight, but also getting back to a healthy mindset about food as a reward. While anorexia may alter the circuitry of the brain, having a keen awareness of this change may help those recovered from anorexia continue to mend their relationships with food and rewards.
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