By: Caitlyn BrownAs human beings, we rely upon fundamental necessities for our survival- shelter, water,and most importantly, food. Food is our sole source of energy and due to its necessity for every human, we often revolve areas of our lives around it. We plan our day around when we will eat, we make plans with individuals to meet to eat, we travel to new places to try new cuisines and experience different cultures- our relationship with food is one of the most significant ones we have in our lives. Unfortunately, it is one we often take for granted until something impedes our ability to consume or enjoy food.
Diabetes, Gluten Intolerance, Food Allergies, Kidney Disease- there are numerous biological diseases that could impact an individual’s relationship with food. We view these as medical issues, something that an individual was born with or has a predisposition towards but overall, it is treatable, manageable and not the individual’s fault. However, we don’t see all food related diseases as biological. Often times, we view individuals with eating disorders as unhealthy or unable to eat by choice- that the individual made a conscious decision to not eat. Dr. Laura Hill is working on changing that perception of eating disorders because she contends that, in reality, eating disorders are just as much a biological disease as any other.
When an individual consumes food, there is a process the body and brain go through as we process and digest the food. Our gut sends a signal to our brain, which sends a message to other areas of the brain involved in our perception of hunger/fullness, whether there was anything in the food we should be alarmed or worried about and the degree to which we enjoyed the food. Every time we consume something we enjoy, our brain releases a spike of dopamine, the neurotransmitter for pleasure. This process happens for every individual, even those with an eating disorder. However, individuals with an eating disorder, don’t often enjoy food. They may try it or take a small bite of something in order to make those they are with feel better, but certain areas of their brain do not receive the messages required to register hunger/fullness. So, when an individual with an eating disorder consumes some toast, it is tasteless, and the stomach sends that information to the brain. The brain tries to make sense of the lack of taste and when it can’t it views the food as something to be concerned about, something alarming or worrisome. This alarm manifests as anxiety for an individual with an eating disorder. Dr. Hill compares the anxiety to a constant cafeteria noise that only the individual can hear and that becomes more intense around food. As you can imagine, this makes it very difficult for an individual to function on a daily basis- to complete their work, take tests, follow instructions, etc.
Through fMRI images or 3D scans of the brain, Dr. Hill aims to explain how eating disorders impact the brain by identifying the process and activity in certain areas of the brain when presented with food. She explores the impact that eating disorders have on an individual’s psychological well-being and presents ways for individuals to reframe their perception of food. Much like any other skill, learning to eat healthy both for individuals with and without eating disorders can take time and preplanning. Dr. Hill highlights that recovery will take practice and that implementing certain strategies can be easily done with support from family or friends.
This post was written by Caitlyn Brown of the MFLN Family Development Team. The Family Development team aims to support the development of professionals working with military families. Find out more about the Military Families Learning Network Family Development team on our website, Facebook, and Twitter.