The standard narrative around eating disorders goes something like this: Due to environmental or genetic factors, a person develops an eating disorder. That person then starts drastically restricting their food intake in order to lose weight.
But do eating disorders cause food restriction, or does food restriction cause eating disorders? You’ve probably heard of instances where a case of anorexia or bulimia started out as a diet gone awry, but the diet itself may have more to do with the eventual diagnosis than you’d think.
While dieting might start with a simple desire to lose a few pounds, restricting food intake can have a major impact on brain chemistry, particularly on serotonin (the “happy chemical.”) 1
Tryptophan, one of the major building blocks of serotonin, is only available through the diet. Not enough food means not enough tryptophan, which means not enough serotonin – and low serotonin is associated with almost all of the psychological changes that accompany eating disorders, including depression, anxiety and impulsivity. 2
In some cases, starting a restrictive diet can lead to chemical changes in the brain that actually help create an eating disorder where there wasn’t one before.
So how can you reach a healthy weight without harming your serotonin levels?
Focus on abundance, not restriction. Instead of reducing the amount of food you’re eating, focus on adding in nutrient- and fibre-rich foods like fruits and vegetables. When you’re getting all the micronutrients you need, you’ll naturally be less hungry.
Don’t restrict your food intake at the expense of nutrition. Make sure you’re eating enough tryptophan-rich foods like chicken, pumpkin seeds and lentils. 3
Make your goal health, not weight loss. The primary purpose of eating healthy shouldn’t be to lose weight – the ultimate goal should always be to nourish your body. When you are following your hunger cues and eating healthy, whole, natural foods, your body will naturally arrive at the weight it’s meant to be at.
Often when people have eating disorders there are specific biochemical imbalances that can be contributing factors. An integrative health care practitioner can be an important part of your team in determining those chemical imbalances and restoring them.
- Anderson IM, Parry-Billings M, Newsholme EA, Fairburn CG, Cowen PJ. Dieting reduces plasma tryptophan and alters brain 5-HT function in women. Psychol Med. 1990 Nov;20(4):785-91. PubMed PMID: 2284387. ↩
- Haleem DJ. Serotonin neurotransmission in anorexia nervosa. Behav Pharmacol. 2012 Sep;23(5-6):478-95. doi: 10.1097/FBP.0b013e328357440d. Review. PubMed PMID: 22854305. ↩
- “Tryptophan.” The World’s Healthiest Foods. The George Mateljan Foundation, n.d. Web. 04 Sept. 2013. < http://www.whfoods.com/genpage.php?tname=nutrient&dbid=103#factorswhichaffect> – See more at: http://joshgitalis.com/good-mood-food-can-diet-impact-serotonin-levels/#sthash.1IasMtKA.dpuf ↩
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