Are you a food addict? An emotional eater? Do you have an eating disorder? You’re certainly not alone. In fact, quite the opposite: About 30 million people in the U.S. alone suffer from some sort of eating disorder, so you’re in abundant company. This brings to mind a couple of questions: Why are eating disorders so prevalent these days, and what can we do to resolve the issue?
The first question, I believe, is easy enough to address upon thinking about it. The second is much more difficult. So I’ll take on the easy one first:
As mentioned in prior blog posts, the job of the human brain is to notice patterns, and there are some very primal, instinctive, and basic patterns that we pick up early in life, as infants, like “Food is good; lack of food is bad.” This particular pattern is essential to survival and benefited our ancestors back in the days when food was scarce. After all, those ancestors who did not form that connection tended not to leave as many offspring as those who did… In a nutshell, what I’m saying is that we human beings are wired to eat. For greater detail on this topic, check out Robb Wolf’s latest book of the same name.
The bottom line is that as children, we learn by forming very rudimentary “if/then” connections which carry us through our lifetimes. Sometimes, in the case of eating disorders, these well-trodden “neural pathways” are overused and unknowingly (or even knowingly) exploited. These days, since food is abundant in every sense, and highly processed foods are specifically engineered to be highly palatable, the “food is good” neural pathway can become so overused and exploited that it acts less like a pathway and more like a modern interstate highway at rush hour. For the 30 million sufferers of eating disorders, it can consume their lives and lead to severe health consequences, the least of which being modest weight gain.
So, what can we do about it?
First we need to FULLY recognize that the “food is good” neural pathway is genetically hard-wired into us at birth. Second, we need to realize that the pathway has been overused and exploited by some means, such that it has become a problem. Third, we need to forgive ourselves for succumbing to the problem in the first place, because IT’S NOT OUR FAULT, LITERALLY. We are inarguably, absolutely and totally INNOCENT with respect to the formation and exploitation of that neural pathway early in our childhood.
Writing the above paragraph was an easy task. Implementing it is NOT. It will likely require assistance from a licensed professional therapist to help work through an eating disorder. But IT CAN BE DONE. In essence, what we’re talking about is reforming and/or redirecting an ancient neural pathway, a concept called “neuroplasticity,” which not only can be applied to eating disorders, but to any other neural pathways that have been exploited in the past. The most difficult part of the process will probably be the realization of exactly HOW that neural pathway has been exploited, and how you can redirect it, which is what a therapist can help with.
In the meantime, food addicts and/or emotional eaters may be able to band-aid their situation by trying to ensure that whatever foods are at hand are healthy, not the usual pre-packaged, gluten-laden crap that’s advertised everywhere you look. If you’ve been paying attention to our blog posts and other information, you know what kind of snacks to look for.
It may also be helpful to implement a mindfulness meditation practice. Once you start getting good at it, you can dig DEEP into your psyche and try to figure out exactly how the problem actually began. The most difficult part of this process will be FORGIVENESS, not only for yourself, but for any others that may have been involved in the exploitation of the neural pathway. True, heartfelt forgiveness for yourself and others will be key to your improvement.
Again, if you’re suffering from an eating disorder and associated health consequences, the above steps will be helpful, but the quickest and most solid recovery strategy will be to seek the assistance of a good, licensed professional therapist specializing in eating disorders. Self work will be necessary and beneficial, but in all likelihood will not be enough. Invest in yourself - you’re most definitely worth it!