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How Neuroscience is Helping Us Better Understand Disordered Eating

Have you ever eaten “comfort foods” to calm yourself down? What about ice cream when feeling sad or depressed? Or, on the other end of the spectrum, does the thought of eating chocolate cake after already eating a meal stress you out with anxiety about your body? According to neuroscience, there is a reason for it.

I can now see more clearly why my clients recovering from anorexia are so resistant to eating what is considered a “normal amount.” The brain of an anorexic signals certain foods or amounts as dangers that will increase anxiety.

In someone with a brain predisposition to anorexia, food actually generates a “risk signal.” And so eating less (or not eating) reduces anxiety, and eating more increases anxiety.

These clients are not deliberately being rigid or resistant. As one recovering woman says “I’m so messed up,” it turns into, “Oh. That’s just the way my brain is wired!” So when she goes out to dinner and her partner is excited about dessert and her anxiety starts to skyrocket, she can understand this anxiety from a place that is free(er) from shame and self-judgment.

For bulimics and binge eaters, overeating can relieve symptoms of depression and anxiety. Overeating is associated with an exaggerated “reward” drive to eat. Brain dopamine, the “pleasure” neurotransmitter, is likely to be involved in food intake. And brain scans have shown dopamine increase to correlate with binge eating.

Since this dopamine release tends to come from sugar or carbohydrates, that also explains why most people will tend to binge on cookies, ice cream, pastries or chips instead of carrots. There is a reason for it. For someone who struggles with secretly binging or binging and purging, this can help alleviate the shame and the feelings of chaotic lack of control associated with the behaviors.

Work being done currently at the Laureate Institute of Brain Research (LIBR) is showing that the insula region of the brain is of particular interest for eating disorders. This part of the brain is related to one’s “introspective awareness” (sense of self) and therefore affects body image distortion, lack of recognition of symptoms of malnutrition and a decreased motivation for change.

I’ve always known that when an anorexic who is drastically underweight looks at her- or himself in the mirror and sees fat, they are having an experience of the “funhouse mirror,” but now there is empirical evidence as to why their brain is causing them to see in that way.

It also explains why anorexics who have recovered can look back and see the severity of their previously malnourished body but not realize the severity while they are still in it.

But what hope is there if that’s just how their brains work?

I often use the analogy of butterflies when working with women in the recovery process. Caterpillars transform themselves into butterflies by intuitively knowing when and how to go about doing this.

They turn toward the transformation. And, after creating the container of a cocoon (container = therapy/treatment/support) they turn themselves into soup, liquid soup, inside the cocoon. (Soup = uncomfortable feelings such as anxiety, fear, inadequacy, depression, anger, and grief that the eating disorder is no longer masking).

As they gather new strength, they reform themselves from this soup into a butterfly body with crumpled up, wet wings (wet wings = early recovery). They then split open their cocoon. If you cut a butterfly out of its cocoon, it very likely will not survive, because it needs to split itself out to develop the strength to then pump all the liquid from its body into its wings (wings = the freedom of later recovery).

What I like to focus on here is the metaphor of the body and the psyche knowing and trusting itself. When someone is ready to recover, they know it and they know it isn’t necessarily going to be easy. Some part of their body and their psyche knows that it is time. And, just like the caterpillar, knows that it is ready.

Neuroscience is now offering empirical evidence to assist in decreasing shame and increasing awareness of what a person recovering from an eating disorder is facing. Once this shame is decreased or eliminated, the deeper work of acceptance and change can occur.

It’s not that you won’t have to travel difficulties and go into the discomfort of caterpillar soup to recover. But it is that you can do it, it’s not your fault, there is help, and there is hope. You may even turn into a butterfly in the process.

How Neuroscience is Helping Us Better Understand Disordered Eating

Linda Shanti McCabe

Dr. Linda Shanti McCabe holds a doctorate in Clinical Psychology and works with women (including pre- and postpartum) recovering from food, weight, and body image issues. She holds SoulCollage(R) groups for women (including pregnant and postpartum) using expressive arts to find and express the many parts of the Self. Website:

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APA Reference
Shanti McCabe, L. (2018). How Neuroscience is Helping Us Better Understand Disordered Eating. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 29, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 21 May 2014)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.