In order to understand why eating disorders are so hard to recover from, it’s best to try to consider some basics about brain function.
Behaviors around food are among the most essential and automatic actions humans have. Like sleeping or breathing, eating enough food is necessary for basic survival, and in the end our bodies and brains are programmed to survive.
The most necessary functions are built into the automatic, unconscious parts of our brain. It is almost as if the brain doesn’t trust our more fickle attention spans with such a crucial human need.
In fact, we share the need for basic functions with all mammals, so our brains force us to act quite similarly to most animals when it comes to food, especially if our bodies are a state of malnutrition.
Higher order brain function differentiates humans from other animals. However, those cognitive processes of organization and abstract thinking don’t apply to food when it comes to survival. We can convince ourselves we get to choose how and what we eat, but that all changes if we deprive our bodies of enough food. In a state of starvation, automatic, unconscious actions demand eating food under any circumstances.
Automatic behaviors are almost a backup system to ensure adequate nutrition no matter the circumstance. Willpower or personal desire can’t withstand the urgent need for survival.
But when new patterns of behavior around food begin, even if they are disordered, they will become ingrained in the same automatic system in the brain as any food behaviors. If that means binging and purging, eating at night or eating all day, once a new pattern is set, a person must pay a significant amount of conscious attention for a period of months to start a new pattern.
It is the need for so much effort to change these unconscious patterns that makes eating disorder recovery so difficult. The process of recovery isn’t just understanding the emotional reasons for the behaviors. It’s also the difficult task of reversing longstanding neurological patterns around a necessary human function.