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  • Writer's pictureCatherine Lott


Updated: Aug 4, 2023

Having an eating disorder is far more complicated than feelings about food. Eating disorders are difficult to understand for those around us, and often even more difficult for us to understand ourselves

The still widely held 'SWAG' stereotype (single , white, affluent, girl) is often used in the media meaning those of us struggling with the illness rarely see our reality reflected back at us.

It is so easy to think of eating disorders as a 'healthy' lifestyle gone awry, and to think that everything can be fixed if they "just eat more"

but that won't 'fix' that person in tears, slumped over in a restaurant booth wearing an oversized sweatshirt, watching as a patient friend cuts up their food in front of them— thinking if they make it seem smaller, maybe that will entice them into eating.


If they were, nobody would choose them.

But to understand why anyone with an eating disorder — can’t “just eat,” there are some things you need to know

1. An eating disorder is how we learn to survive

Once upon a time, my eating disorder was an important coping tool.

It gave me a sense of mastery when my life felt out of control. It numbed me emotionally when I was enduring trauma. It gave me something to obsess about, like a mental fidget spinner, so that I didn’t have to face a troubling reality.

It helped me feel smaller when I was ashamed of the space I took up in the world. It even gave me a sense of accomplishment when my self-esteem was at its lowest.

In order to “just eat," you may be asking people to give up a fundamental coping tool that has helped them to survive That’s an enormous thing to ask of anyone. Eating disorders aren’t just diets we can pick up and stop at any time — they’re deeply ingrained coping mechanisms that have turned against us.

2. Our hunger signals don't work properly

After periods of prolonged restriction, the brains of people with eating disorders are neurologically altered, according to multiple research studies.

The brain circuits that are in charge of hunger and fullness become less and less activated, which erodes our ability to interpret, understand, and even experience normal hunger cues.

“Just eat” is a pretty simple directive to someone with normal hunger cues : if you’re hungry, you eat, If you’re full, you don’t.

But how do you decide to eat when you don’t feel hungry (or feel hungry at erratic or unpredictable intervals), you don’t feel full (or even remember how it feels to be full), and at the same time, you have a phobic response to food?

Without those regular and consistent cues, and all the fear that can interfere with them, you’re left completely in the dark. “Just eat” is not helpful advice when you’re neurologically impaired.

3. We can’t start eating if we don’t know how to

Eating may feel natural for healthy people, but for people with an eating disorder this gets lost. We struggle to define a 'normal' amount of food, and how much is 'too much' or 'too little'? How do we know how to start eating and feel confident about when to stop if our hunger cues aren't working? What does 'being full' even feel like?

So many clients need the constant reassurance of reaching out to me , needing 'permission' to eat and to try and understand what it means to eat "like 'normal' people do".

When you’ve engaged in disordered eating for a long time, your barometer for what constitutes an acceptable meal is completely broken.

“Just eat” is simple if you know how to, but for many in recovery, it's a case of start of starting right at the beginning..

4. Reintroducing food can (initially) make things worse

Many people with restrictive eating disorders limit their food intake as a way of 'numbing' themselves. It’s often an unconscious attempt to reduce feelings of depression, anxiety, fear, abandonment, loneliness or even anger.

So when we have been refeeding for some time ( increasing food intake during eating disorder recovery) it can be jarring and overwhelming to experience our emotions at their full intensity, especially if we haven’t in a while.

And for those of us with a trauma history (and trauma is very commonly associated with eating disorders) , it can bring a lot to the surface that we weren’t necessarily prepared for.

Many people with eating disorders can't cope with 'big' feelings, so when you take away the coping mechanism that has helped to numb emotions, “just eating” again can be an incredibly triggering (and downright unpleasant) experience.

That’s what makes recovery such a brave but terrifying process. We’re relearning (or sometimes, just learning for the first time) how to experience feelings, and thus how to be vulnerable again

5. Eating disorders damage our brains — and they need time to repair

Beyond hunger cues, eating disorders can do damage to our brains in a number of ways. Neurotransmitters, brain structures, reward circuitry, grey and white matter, emotional centres, and much more are all impacted by disordered eating.

In the depths of restriction, I found it hard sometimes to speak in complete sentences, move my body without feeling faint, or make basic decisions because my brain simply didn’t have the fuel it needed to do so..

“Just eat” sounds simple when you say it, but you can't assume that our brains are functioning at the same rate. People struggling with eating disorders are not firing anywhere near full capacity, and with limited functioning, even basic self-care is an enormous challenge physically, cognitively, and emotionally.

6. Our diet culture doesn’t exactly help in recovery either

We live in a culture that applauds dieting and exercise, pathologizes bigger bodies, and only seems to view food in a very binary way: good or bad, healthy or junk food, clean or dirty, low or high, light or dense.

So often we are praised for being underweight or for losing weight, the dangerous assumptions and praise we are met with can reinforce disordered behaviours and trigger our eating disorders.

In our culture, disordered eating — at least on the surface — is lauded as an accomplishment. It’s an act of impressive 'discipline' and misconstrued as being healthy. This is part of what can make eating disorders so enticing.

That means if your eating disorder is looking for a justification to skip a meal, you’re guaranteed to find one in any magazine you read, any show you come across, or on your favourite celeb's Instagram account.

If you’re terrified of food, and you live in a culture that gives you a myriad of reasons every day why you should be, let’s be honest: Recovery is not going to be as simple as “just eating” something.

7. Very often an eating disorder feels safer than recovery does

As humans we are wired to stick to what feels safe. It’s a survival instinct that usually serves us pretty well — until it doesn’t, that is.

We can be acutely aware that our eating disorders aren’t working for us. But the nature of the eating disorder means challenging a deeply entrenched coping mechanism involves , among other things, fighting against a lot of unconscious conditioning in order to be able to eat again.

Our eating disorder was a coping mechanism that worked at one point. That’s why our brains cling to them, with the misguided (and often unconscious) belief that we need them to be okay.

So when we begin our recoveries, we are wrestling with a brain that has primed us to experience food as, quite literally, dangerous.

That’s why avoiding food is experienced as being safer. It’s physiological. And that’s what makes recovery such a challenge — you’re asking us to go against what our (maladapted) brains are telling us to do.

You’re asking us to do the psychological equivalent of putting our hands on an open flame. It’s going to take time to get to a place where we can actually do that. "Just eat" implies that eating is a simple, uncomplicated thing. But for someone with an eating disorder, it isn’t

There’s a reason why acceptance is a vital step of any recovery journey, but it's only the beginning.

Simply accepting that something is a problem doesn’t magically resolve all the trauma that led you to that point, nor does it address the damage that was done — both psychologically and physiologically — by an eating disorder.

The goal is that ultimately day food will become as simple as “just eating,” but it takes so much time, support, and work to get there. It takes commitment and courage, and it really helps if every one around us can see how much strength and determination even starting the recovery process can take.

So the next time you see someone struggling with food? Remember the solution isn’t so obvious. Instead of giving advice, try validating their (very real) feelings, offering an encouraging word, or simply asking, “How can I support you?”

Because chances are, what they need most in those moments isn’t just food — they need to know that someone cares, especially when they're struggling to care for themselves.


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