How to Overcome Anorexia

Overcoming anorexia is a difficult task. Often talked about as a “bad habit,” there are often assumptions that simple willpower should be enough for one to overcome this potentially deadly disorder.

Typically treated mainly through behavior modification methods, the occurrence of relapse is very high with some reports estimating the relapse rate to be 50 percent or higher. A study, “Neural Mechanisms Supporting Maladaptive Food Choices in Anorexia Nervosa,” was conducted to investigate the issue of treatment methods for anorexia and to understand why they are not more successful.

How to Overcome Anorexia

The study, published in Nature Neuroscience, shows what researchers consider to be a further complication for those suffering from anorexia. According to one of the authors, Dr. Joanna Steinglass of New York State Psychiatric Institute (NYSPI), the study addressed the question as to why people with anorexia struggle to integrate new, healthier eating behaviors into their lives. The study recruited a group of women who had been recently hospitalized for anorexia in order to observe how they made decisions about what to eat. Males, who also can have anorexia, were excluded to prevent gender difference influences on the results. The women were asked to rate a series of 76 foods based on their perception of tastiness and level of healthiness. After reviewing the results, one item from each person’s list that was deemed to be neutral for both qualities was selected. This neutral option was then selected as a baseline for the next stage of the project. Using that item, each participant was asked to choose between that food and two others – one that was low in fat and one that was high in fat. While subjects made their decision, researchers scanned their brain activity in an MRI machine. Finally, in order to ensure that the decisions were authentic for each woman, the subjects were required to eat the selected food item. Based on this experiment, researchers found that there was increased activity in the dorsal striatum, the area of the brain that plays a crucial role in decision-making, reward, and habitual behaviors, when the subjects were deciding.

This information confirmed the researchers’ hypothesis that anorexia is a condition which is greatly affected by physical processes in the brain and is not simply a matter of willpower.

Dr. Steinglass has seen positive, long-term results in anorexia patients at NYSPI, particularly when patients work to change something tiny -such as eating in a different place or using different cutlery. These changes cause them to learn to make and become comfortable with different choices. Over time, the goal is to encourage the new, healthier choices to replace the old habitual behaviors. This form of behavior modification can help; however, other methods are also encouraged to assist in recovery to give anorexia patients a better chance at recovering.

Patients should receive medical attention from a physician in order to ensure that the body is functioning properly, and if it not, then remediation options should be discussed and deployed. Working with a nutritionist can also help patients to gain appropriate weight.

Counseling to help the patient work on any underlying psychological issues is also very important. Often, support groups related to those issues are considered to be helpful and effective.

Treatment programs that combine all of these options can be a good place to start for someone with anorexia.

How to Overcome Anorexia
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