Are Eating Disorders Brain Disorders

Authored by Helen Parson

Edited by Hugh Soames

Reviewed by Michael Por

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Are Eating Disorders Brain Disorders?


According to the American Society for Nutrition, the number of people suffering from eating disorders is on the rise globally, and the severity of the cases has increased as well. In fact, in the US alone, around 24 million people suffer from these disorders, contributing to approximately 10,200 deaths a year.


Interestingly, even populations that weren’t deemed prone to eating disorders, like men and citizens of non-western countries, are now seeing a rise in cases. As such, it is now more important than ever to understand these disorders.


What are eating disorders?


According to the American Psychiatric Association (APA), eating disorders are behavioral conditions that consistently disturb your eating behavior and cause distressing thoughts and emotions. Some symptoms of these disorders are binge eating, restrictive eating, compulsive exercise, laxative misuse, and purging by vomiting.


While there’s evidence suggesting that risk factors for these disorders can be hereditary, this is not always the case. Beyond that, these disorders don’t usually appear alone – they come with other psychiatric disorders like anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Common eating disorders include:


  • Anorexia nervosa – this eating disorder mostly affects women and usually presents itself during puberty or young adulthood. It’s characterized by a nagging belief that you are overweight and an obsession with weight loss, even if you’re underweight


  • Bulimia nervosa -this is another disorder that is more common in women and tends to develop in teenagers and young adults. People with this disorder binge eat large amounts of food until they become painfully full then they purge by vomiting


  • Orthorexia is an unhealthy focus on eating in a healthy way. Eating nutritious food is good, but if you have orthorexia, you obsess about it to a degree that can damage your health.


  • Binge eating disorder – while it may start later on in life, this disorder usually starts during adolescence or early adulthood. It is characterized by eating unusually large amounts of food in short timeframes, sometimes in secret. While they experience shame and disgust after binging, people with this disorder don’t purge


  • Pica- while this disorder affects children, adolescents, and adults, it is more common among pregnant women, children, and those with mental disabilities. It is characterized by eating things that aren’t considered food. These include chalk, soil, hair, and paper

Do eating disorders affect your brain?


Since eating disorders usually lead to malnutrition, they can affect your brain negatively. In fact, a 2007 study published in the McGill Journal of Medicine found that the severe weight loss associated with anorexia can deteriorate your brain’s gray and white matter; a condition linked to other mental health issues.


Also, a 2010 study by Yale University links prolonged anorexia with reduced brain volume1Morris, Jane, and Sara Twaddle. “Anorexia Nervosa – PMC.” PubMed Central (PMC), Accessed 12 Oct. 2022.. Ultimately, eating disorders can cause brain changes that negatively affect your mood, decision-making process, ability to think clearly, and ability to cope with daily stressors. Key brain changes to expect in people suffering from brain disorders include:


  • Neurotransmitter behavior disruption


  • Deterioration of the brain’s emotional centers


  • Brain structure damage due to malnutrition


  • Disruptions in executive and cognitive functioning


  • Brain oxygen deprivation due to a reduced heartbeat


  • Weakening of your brain’s reward system


  • Increased anxiety, fear of failure, perfectionism, and rigid thinking


Can the negative brain effects of eating disorders be reversed?


As long as you recover and maintain full nourishment, the negative brain effects of eating disorders can be reversed. The more you recover, the more your brain grows and its grey matter increases. Studies even show that MRI scans of people who have recovered from anorexia are normal while those of people who still have the disorder are abnormal.


However, brain recovery takes time and requires patience. Even six months after recovering your full weight, your brain will not be fully recovered. But with a good diet and a little patience, you will recover your full health eventually.

Can A-Grade students have eating disorders?


Even if you’re an A-grade student, you can still have an eating disorder. In fact, studies even show that there is a strong link between academic perfection and eating disorders in teenagers. This is because both of these activate similar reward systems in your brain. As such, you can suffer greatly from eating disorders but still perform well academically.


Treatment of eating disorders


To treat eating disorders, nurses, dieticians, psychiatrists, psychotherapists, and mental health professionals usually work together. This ensures that your treatment and recovery are holistic. Before these professionals treat you though, you will need a professional evaluation – self-diagnoses or hunches will not be accepted.


Once you are diagnosed with an eating disorder though, be prepared for a long and arduous recovery journey. Some treatment methods used for these disorders include:


  • Outpatient eating disorder treatments
  • Inpatient care
  • Residential programs
  • Secondary care at transitions house
  • 1:1 care
  • Group therapy


Ultimately, your assigned medical professionals are the ones who’ll advise you on an appropriate treatment plan for your unique situation.



Previous: Understanding Orthorexia Treatment

Next: Eating Disorder Signs in Teens

  • 1
    Morris, Jane, and Sara Twaddle. “Anorexia Nervosa – PMC.” PubMed Central (PMC), Accessed 12 Oct. 2022.
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