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Eating Disorders: A Biological Perspective

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I developed anorexia when I was 17. I wasn’t diagnosed early, because I didn’t fit the usual stereotypes of a person prone to an eating disorder. I was a tomboy, I was older, I didn’t have high anxiety, and I didn’t have negative body image. However, I still developed anorexia, and suffered seriously from the illness for over 10 years.

My recovery was complicated, but in a nutshell, it was nontraditional. The traditional psychological explanations for why I had an eating disorder never held true for me. I knew from the start that whatever was going on with me had a very biological basis to it. It felt instinctual to be scared of gaining weight. It felt natural to avoid eating. It felt compulsory to exercise a lot and never want to stop still. The idea that I was not eating enough and moving so much because I wanted to be thin felt ridiculous to me. I was not eating enough and moving too much because it felt as natural and as right as breathing air.

Biology makes us do irrational things. Logically, the idea of putting oneself through pregnancy, childbirth, and then 18 years of looking after offspring makes no sense at all. Biologically, however, when most people get to childbearing age, it feels natural and right to want to do all of these things. Our biology has so much more control over our desires than we think it does. My desire to eat too little and move to much felt to me very biological. I felt like something I could not explain had come over me and was refusing to leave. I never clicked with any psychoanalytical explanation of anorexia, but when I read about migration in animals, everything I was experiencing suddenly fell into place.

  • In animal species that are prone to migration, it is perceived lack of food in the environment that triggers the desire to migrate. In humans with the genetic predisposition for an eating disorder, it is weight loss that triggers the eating disorder.

  • Migrating animals feel the desire to move a lot and rest very little. This is also true for many people with anorexia.

  • Stopping to eat too often doesn’t aid migration. Migrating animals stop to eat only the very least that they need to. This is also true of people with anorexia.

Migration is not a conscious decision a mammal makes. It is a compulsion brought about by a perceived lack of food in the immediate environment. The perception that food is scarce is a result of energy deficit – or weight loss.

People lose weight for many reasons. Yes, often, it is because society tells them that thin is better, and they make the conscious decision to go on a diet. But not always. Not all of us lose weight because we are dissatisfied with our bodies. Some of use lose weight because we fall ill etc. Regardless of the reason why weight is lost, if a person has the genetic disposition for an eating disorder, and they lose weight, their eating disorder (the desire to eat very little and move a lot) is triggered. If this doesn’t sound like migration, I don’t know what does.

Final thoughts

If you are interested in learning more about biological explanations for eating disorder, visit Tabitha FarrarIf you are interested in eating disorders in general, there are a number of resources available on Mirror Mirror.

Tabitha Farrar is an eating disorder coach. 

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