The Way We've Been Treating Anorexia May Be All Wrong

meal for anorexicWhen you're battling anorexia nervosa, food does not seem nourishing or even necessary. Seeing a full plate before you can fill you with dread. Now, researchers are an important step closer to understanding why: When choosing what food to eat, anorexic people use a part of their brain associated with controlling habits.


Eating disorders have been on the rise since the 1950s. In the U.S. alone, 20 million women and 10 million men suffer from one. Many never seek help.

People with anorexia have an obsession with being thin and an intense, and very real, fear of gaining weight. Controlling their food becomes all-encompassing. But the consequences of being super-thin can be devastating. Think: osteoporosis, anemia,  lethargy, infertility, brain damage. And without treatment, up to 20 percent of people with an ED will die.

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If that doesn't seem like a lot, well, let's put it a different way: Anorexia has the highest death rate of ANY psychiatric disorder.

You don't "get" anorexia because you're vain or narcissistic. It can run in families, so there's a genetic link. And plenty of social and psychological factors are at play. Now, researchers from Columbia University have added another piece of info to what's a pretty large puzzle: Anorexic people don't think about food in the same way other people do.

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Using MRIs, which track brain activity in real time, researchers asked 42 study participants to decide what they wanted to eat. Twenty-one were women with anorexia. The other 21 were healthy people who did not have an ED.

No surprise, the women with anorexia chose fewer high-fat foods. But they also used an abnormal part of their brain to make that decision. They relied on their dorsal striatum, the part of the brain that's related to habitual control of actions like gambling and other addictions.

This is the first data to link anorexia to off-kilter brain chemistry. And why is that a good thing? As the researchers themselves pointed out, it can lead to new and potentially better treatments for EDs, whether it's changes in therapy or better-targeted medicines.

Whatever it does, we hope it gives people with anorexia hope. If you or someone you love is struggling with an ED, don't just assume that you'll "get over it" or that it will go away on its own.

Reaching out for help could save your life.



Image via © dstaerk/iStock

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