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A theory on why anorexics spurn food

July 22, 2009 |  7:00 am

Anorexics spurn food

What causes someone to starve himself? That's the central question among researchers hoping to solve the puzzle of anorexia. A new theory, proposed by one of the leading researchers on the disorder, suggests that faulty wiring in the brains of people with anorexia causes them to fail to recognize when they are hungry and feel anxious and depressed when they do eat.

"Individuals with anorexia tend to report that dieting reduces anxiety, while eating increases it," said Dr. Walter H. Kaye, the lead author of the report, in a news release. "This is very different from most individuals, who experience hunger as unpleasant." Kaye is director of the Eating Disorders Program at UCSan Diego.The theory, published online this week in Nature Reviews Neuroscience, helps explain the motivation propelling people with anorexia to starve themselves. In effect, starvation makes them feel better -- psychologically.

Kaye's research suggests that anorexia occurs in people who tend be perfectionists or have anxiety or obsessive-compulsive tendencies. Changes in hormones triggered by puberty may promote these tendencies. Once a patient begins an altered pattern of eating, neuro-chemical changes take place in the brain. Brain scans performed by the co-author of the study, Julie L. Fudge, of the University of Rochester Medical Center, show that people with anorexia have an imbalance between circuits in the brain that regulate reward and emotion and circuits associated with consequences and the ability to plan ahead.

"Brain-imaging studies also show that individuals with anorexia have alterations in those parts of the brain involved with bodily sensations, such as sensing the rewarding aspects of pleasurable foods," said another co-author of the study, Martin Paulus. "Anorexics may literally not recognize when they are hungry."

The science suggests that successful treatment of the disorder may lie in correcting these neural imbalances.

-- Shari Roan

Photo credit: Mark Boster  /  Los Angeles Times

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Comments (8)

This research was rather pointless. Of course anorexics prefer not to eat and find eating stressful. If it were the other way around they wouldn't be anorexics would they?

Also, identifying anorexics as obsessive, anxious, and with perfectionist tendencies dances around the truth. Anorexia is about control. Anorexics control themselves by making not eating the center of their lives, and they control those around them by putting themselves in a constant crisis state.

As for the brain and anorexia, the researcher is confusing cause and effect. In anorexics the brain does not respond to hunger the way it does in a non-anorexic because the anorexic thinks and feels differently about food than do non-anorexics.

It is much more effective to view anorexia as a symptom of Borderline Personality Disorder. In this context, anorexia can be interpreted as a form of self mutilation, much like cutting behavior.

L. Gilsig

Please take that picture off of the article's story.
As a recovering anorexic who is fighting a relapse, it's very triggering!

I'm fat -- 350 lbs -- and I'd LOVE TO BE ANOREXIC.

Our society rewards that behaviour. Certainly Hollywood does. Look at the waif thin actresses running around.

And male actors too. It's "contagious".

In the old days before they were labeled as having a psychological problem rather than a hormonal imbalance, anorexics were treated with insulin injections, which made them hungry and gain weight.

I wish I was anorexic.

I have a son with anorexia. And for those of you saying that you wish you had anorexia, you don't know what you're talking about. It's easy to only see the weight-loss, when really anorexia is brain disorder and is a terrible way to live. You're not considering the depression, the hours of crying while curled up in a ball, the physical toll on your body, the inability to function at school/work, and the personality alternation that accompanies anorexia.

Anorexia is a medical condition. It is not a choice, a rebellion or about control. New research is challenging the old ways of thinking about anoreixa. You can read about this new research here:

After trying to treat my son unsuccessfully using old attitudes and methods, we turned to the Maudsley method. We worked as a family to support and feed our son back to health. He is currently weight restored and is doing really well.

Peter and Steve- think again.

Would you wish you had cancer? Would you hope for diabetes? Would you covet depression? Probably not...

I can see that from a completely uninformed, inflammatory, and ignorant perspective, anorexia might be desirable. But, really- would you ever hope to be sick and miserable? I doubt you would enjoy the sleeplesness, lack of concentration, racing thoughts, self loathing, weakness, osteoporosis, languo, etc. that would accompany your glamorized weight loss. Sure, you might be thinner, but I promise you won't be happier. Instead, you'll feel lonely, worthless, and ugly. You'll have a hard time enjoying anything. And, hey- you might even die...

But, then again- if you die, you just might make the headlines!

I was wondering if you've grown up in an environment of poverty where food was in minimal supply and you were really skinny and got use to it. Then you started gaining weight. The question is would the brain already be triggered to be anorexic?
Also would it trigger alcoholism? All of these traits are connected to alcoholism...obsessive compulsive behavior, control, and perfectionism, or is there a gene connected to all of the above?


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