Nutritional approaches to disordered eating

Disordered eating can take many forms. It can involve food restriction, bingeing, night time eating, purging and compulsive or emotional eating. It is not uncommon to see a number of these types of eating over the course of time; the habitual dieter who restricts food intake for weeks only to return to compulsive eating or bingeing. Swinging between control and lack of control. It might seem like two separate issues but they are rooted in the same cause and exist on the same spectrum. 

Binge-eating involves eating large amounts of food in a short time frame. This is usually an attempt to stabilise mood or to avoid dealing with certain emotions. Eating is often fairly frantic, uncontrolled and followed by a period of remorse or shame. Foods chosen are usually ‘reward’ type foods, foods that are able to trigger dopamine production in the brain. 

Restrictive eating can have a similar pathway, where the avoidance of food and the switch into ‘fight or flight’ can trigger dopamine release. This leads an individual to feel good when avoiding or restricting food for long periods of time.

Understanding disordered eating

It is this reward pathway that is key to understanding and overcoming disordered eating. The stimulation of this pathway in disordered eating is the same as we see in other forms of addiction. Managing addiction is tough because there is a biochemical glitch affecting a person’s will and self-control. Understanding why you have become addicted or why you struggle with disordered eating is not enough. You need to work on normalising your biochemistry and production and signalling of neurotransmitters to recover.

We need to understand the biochemical reasons for disordered eating in order to move forward. Issues like blood sugar imbalances can play a role in the restriction-binge cycle. This is a prime example of how our biochemistry can trip us up. When blood sugar drops too low, it impacts the way we think and feel. We can feel low, on edge, anxious and struggle to focus. At this point, only starchy or sugary food will increase blood sugar levels and lift us out of this. The problem is that the sugary or starchy food will lift blood sugar too high, leading to a release of hormones to mop up excess blood sugar - resulting in levels dropping too low again.

Sometimes it is not just the obvious foods causing blood sugar peaks and troughs. We might be trying to make healthy food choices but find that due to an individual intolerance to a specific food, our biochemistry reacts and produces a similar effect on blood sugar balance. Eating foods we are intolerant to can affect our mood, well-being and contribute to disordered eating.

There are sometimes more complex factors involved in the development of disordered eating. These can include an inability to break down the protein in gluten and dairy. This can lead to addiction-like cravings to foods containing these proteins. Nutrient deficiencies are also common, especially those needed to build neurotransmitters like serotonin. Good levels of serotonin can help with the management of disordered eating. Sometimes digestion is not optimal too - bloating, IBS, etc. can all be signs that your body isn’t able to break down protein into its component amino acids, which are needed to build neurotransmitters.

Another common issue is not having the right balance of omega-3 fatty acids to enable adequate signalling in the brain. Too many hydrogenated fats, which are found in many products on the supermarket shelves, can affect the uptake of omega-3 fats. These are needed for good ‘connections’ in the brain.

Biochemical imbalances play a huge part in the development and continuance of disordered eating patterns. The social, emotional and environmental influences of disordered eating can be explored through counselling. Practising mindful eating and challenging long-held perceptions about food can be useful too. However, the whole process of overcoming disordered eating is difficult, maybe even impossible without addressing the biochemical and nutritional factors that contribute to it.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Nutritionist Resource are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Birmingham, B13 8JP
Written by Sarah Hanratty
Birmingham, B13 8JP

Sarah is an experienced practitioner at the Brain Food Nutrition Clinic specialising in the link between digestion and physical and mental well-being.

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