Two Reasons Why Anorexia is Extremely Hard to Treat

Photo credit: Bigstockphoto
Photo credit: Bigstockphoto

Here’s a sobering fact about anorexia: Of all mental illness, eating disorder has the highest mortality rate. In fact, the mortality rate for anorexia is 12 times higher than the rate of all causes of death for women aged 15 to 24 years old.

According to the World Health Organization or WHO, 50% of individuals who suffer from anorexia nervosa are also suffering from depression 1. 30 million people all over the world suffer from various forms of anorexia, but only 1% seeks treatment. As a result, thousands of people die from the disease each year. But why is anorexia so hard to treat? Let’s find out:

It’s Habit Forming

Anorexia is notoriously hard to treat and for decades, scientists tried to determine exactly why this condition is so difficult to cure. Earlier studies hypothesized that anorexia is caused by extreme will power to avoid weight gain, but now a new study is going against this established theory: it is habit-forming.

A study published in the journal Nature Neuroscience found controlling weight through an endless cycle of starvation is habit forming. The practice is deeply ingrained in the brain’s processes. Eventually, the disease becomes a part of a person’s psyche. This is why those who suffer from this disease are unable to gain weight.

The same report also found that anorexic individuals are less likely to regard fatty, high-calorie foods as tasty. The study involved tracking the eating habits of 21 anorexic women and 21 healthy individuals. Apart from monitoring their diet habits, the participants went through brain scans while deciding which foods to eat. The brain scans indicate parts of the brain that are activated while choosing which foods to eat for both groups of participants.

Researchers found that anorexic individuals favor low-fat, low-calorie foods. Their brain scans show that as they make their food choices, their dorsal striatum is activated. This part of the brain is linked to habitual behavior. This shows that instead of making food choices based on what they like to eat at the moment, they choose food out of habit and learned behavior. Meanwhile, healthy participants tend to choose food according to what they feel like eating, regardless if it’s low-calorie/low-fat or not.

The groundbreaking study could explain why anorexic individuals reach a point wherein their bodies are shutting down and their organs are failing and yet, unable to consume a normal diet. Unfortunately, almost all recovering anorexics experience relapse.

Failure to Differentiate Between Positive Emotions

In a separate study conducted by clinical psychologist and researcher Dr. Edward Selby that involved 118 women who are going through outpatient treatment for anorexia, anorexic individuals have trouble “differentiating between positive emotions.” This could be the reason why anorexic patients are engaging in extreme forms of weight loss despite being underweight.

The study involves analyzing the patients’ feelings, food intake and weight-loss behaviors in a span of two weeks. Researchers found that the patients’ pride about losing weight is confused with other positive emotions such as accomplishment or confidence. In addition, Dr. Selby said women are especially prone to this kind of behavior. The findings were published in the Clinical Psychological Science journal.


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