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"You Are Not You When You're Hungry": Mood, Affect & Eating Disorders
How restriction turns you into a bit of a twat, according to science.
One of my favourite advertisement series is from Snickers. In these adverts, a person is acting visibly ‘hangry’ (hungry-angry), until an unsung everyday hero emerges to hand the grump a Snickers bar as an ‘hangriness’-antidote. “Eat a snickers - you’re not you when you’re hungry”. In contrary to most advertisements, this is very truthful marketing. You truly are not your best, truest self when hungry.
During my eating disorder, my mood and affect changed drastically. The best way to describe it is that it went ‘flat’. I was rather apathetic and indifferent to everything - except food. When objectively sad things happened, there was very little emotional response, but if someone touched the carrots I had planner to eat later I would throw a tantrum. Other people became nothing but hinderances for me to engage in whatever eating disorder behaviour I had planned, hence my ability and desire to genuinely connect with others (beyond superficial politeness) was minimal. You could have a conversation with me, and I’d be there but not really there. The lights were on, but nobody was home.
I’ve heard many similar lived experiences from people with eating disorders, and it is heartbreaking. I’ve heard from people attending the funeral of loved ones, yet admitting that all they could focus on was what kind of food would be served. I’ve heard from people spending their entire wedding stressed because of the wedding cake. I’ve heard from people who start resenting or avoiding spending time with their own children, partner, pets, parents and friends, because it would clash with their safe meals or gym trips. This is no way to live, and the thought of looking back at a life spent like this was one of my biggest reasons to recover.
So - what is actually going on here psychologically, mood- and affect wise?
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(Recover, and be a good egg.)
Food is a basic human need for survival. If we look at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, food is at the bottom (here meaning it is the foundation of life). Maslow’s idea is that without the fundamental physiological needs fulfilled (food, air, water, shelter etc.) you cannot really progress to the top and focus on ‘luxuries’ such as connection and self-actualisation. In comparison: if you’re being chased by a bear, you don’t really have time to stop chatting and connecting with the neighbour, do you? A starved body and brain is a body and brain in acute survival mode, where the focus is and has to be food. Your brain is detecting that food is currently a scarce resource, thus it turns up the food-focus (and in many cases, urges to move and ‘migrate’ to a more food-abundant landscape, as discussed in this episode).
I recently read a study that shows that being in an energetic deficit actually hinders pro-social behaviour (link for those interested). Pro-social behaviour basically refers to Being A Nice Person™️; taking other people’s feelings and wellbeing into consideration, and being kind, patient and helpful. Interestingly, this is the case in both humans and animals. Evolutionary, this makes sense to me - negative energy balance signals ‘hey, there’s a famine going on’, which suggests ‘hey, we need to think of ourselves here for survival’. To use the chased-by-bear example again, if you’re being chased by a bear you’re probably not going to be too concerned about tripping over your neighbour, either. Your number one focus will be survival; getting the F away from that bear!
The Minnesota Starvation Study is another great example of a study that (accidentally) illustrated the serious mood changes food deprivation triggers. The men in this study (I’d recommend checking out my podcast episode on this if you are not familiar) ended up irritable, withdrawn, food-obsessed and rigid. They lost interest in their partners, and conversations would centre food, cooking and eating. Some even developed full-blown psychosis. Prolonged restriction is powerful stuff.
As someone who works with people with eating disorders, I do tend to find this particular group of people to be very polite and kind. Nevertheless, this politeness and kindness can co-exist with apathy and emotional disconnect, and it is often those closest ones (family or partners) who get the brunt of any potential tantrums or emotional disconnect. I am sure my former Psychologist would at the time describe me as a pleasant patient. I am also sure my family members would at the time describe me as irritable, rejecting and withdrawn. In an odd way, I also feel that my kindness now is more genuine (“Doing good to you and seeing you happy makes me feel nice and warm inside”), whilst back then it was more performative (“I need to act polite and like a good person”).
For example, we had a dog at the time. Of course I did care about the dog and made sure she was fed, entertained and walked, but she was kind of just… there. With my dog now, I genuinely feel the love flowing in my veins from spending time with her and seeing her happy (ah, cheesy I know, but it is true!). It is like the emotional equivalent of seeing in black-and-white versus seeing in colour. This goes with my human relationships, too.
Then comes the guilt for feeling a certain way, or for not feeling; for not feeling warmth when cuddling your dog; for not desiring touch from your partner; for constantly checking the time to go home and eat when with a friend; for not acting in congruence with your values; for hoping your ageing parents leave early so you can have a binge-purge session, or go for that walk before it gets dark. These are moments you can not get back. Recovery can involve a lot of grief of what could have been, and a lot of shame for what was.
There is something so sinister about a condition that shrinks what truly matters - health, personal fulfilment, relationships - and instead focuses what does not matter at all.
One of the saddest thing I see in regards to eating disorders is people confusing their starvation side-effects with their true-self personality- and desires. For example, someone may start to genuinely believe that they simply are not interested in emotional and physical intimacy (not to be confused with genuine asexuality or aromanticism), when actually it is just their brain shutting down sexual- and social function. This means potentially missing out on a beautiful life, family and connections that would have been in alignment with that hypothetical persons ‘true self’ values.
An other example is people pursuing a social-, academic- or professional field that is chosen based on the brain’s extreme food- and movement focus rather than genuine interest, such as becoming a nutritionist or body builder (not to say that every nutritionist or body builder has an eating disorder, of course!). It is therefore important to take hunger out of the equation before making drastic decisions about who you are, and who you want to be. The person you are when you are hungry is not the same person who are when you are fed, and the only way to find out is by re-feeding.
It is also important to be aware that an eating disorder has a tendency to strengthen certain already pre-existing traits and tendencies. You were kind of rigid and perfectionistic prior? Let’s put that on steroids. You had a tendency towards introversion? Complete social isolation it is!
(How an eating disorder feels like)
The ‘numbing’ of mood and emotions that an energetic deficit can bring can be alluring for some. “The eating disorder prevents me from dealing with (insert event or emotion)” is something I often hear from clients. But here’s the thing: emotional constipation is pretty shitty. It is going to build up, and it will get heavy. When it comes to difficult emotions or events, you eventually have to digest them and let shit go. You have to go through it, not around it.
You cannot selectively numb your emotions. By numbing the bad, you also numb the good. You were put on this earth to feel the full spectrum of human emotions: the good, the bad, and the ugly. We often put so much emphasis on the good, but there’s no light without darkness - the good is good because of the bad. As human beings, what is shown to bring us genuine happiness and fulfilment is to have a sense of purpose and belonging, and this comes with a range of emotions, pleasant and unpleasant. Personally, my downs have taught me more than my ups, and in retrospect I’d not want to be without those downs and the wisdom earned. Purpose and belonging is something that is created rather than found, and the eating disorder seriously hijacks it. (Trust me, your purpose is not to hunt down low-calorie jello at the grocery store, and your belonging is not that fitness forum online). Don’t confuse your eating disorder’s hits of reward with true purpose and fulfilment. The eating disorder will make you miserable long-term.
When working with clients, I often explain the concept of ‘wanting to want’ rather than ‘wanting’. Right now, in an undernourished state, you may not want to spend time with your family, but your healthy-self (which is in there!) may want to want to spend time with your family. What you want when undernourished may not be the same as what you want when you’re nourished. What do you want to want?
”I want to want to be intimate with my partner.”
”I want to want to see my friends more.”
”I want to want to engage with my actual hobbies.”
You may not always know what you want or even want to want, and that is OK, too. Part of recovery is self-discovery, but as mentioned above, you have to ensure basic physiological needs are met in order to fully do so. In other words, you have to eat. Because you are not you when you are hungry.