The Cognitive Switch

Trigger warning: this piece discusses themes of anorexia and disordered eating behaviours. 

Living with an eating disorder for over a decade brought its fair share of struggles. While everyone’s eating disorder journey is comprised of different challenges, one of the most common struggles I hear from others, and certainly one of the biggest challenges for myself, was constantly thinking about food.

My first thought each morning was, “I’m starving. What am I going to eat today? How can I eat less than I did yesterday? I am so disgusting for eating X last night.” After my sun salutation of self-loathing and setting extremely unrealistic expectations for myself (worst morning routine ever), I’d spend my day carefully counting every morsel prior to eating, recounting after, and thinking about food every moment in between. I’d think about the food I was eating, the food people around me were eating, the lowest-calorie foods I could eat, the highest-calorie foods I could eat, cooking shows, restaurant menus, and recipes all day long. As I fell asleep at night, I’d recount my day. But not my experiences, joys, failures, or successes. I’d recount every last calorie I’d eaten that day. I’d try my best to fall asleep while thinking, “I’m starving. What am I going to eat tomorrow?” And the seemingly never-ending cycle repeated.

As frustrating as it is to think about food constantly, it’s somewhat adaptive. When the body isn’t getting enough food, the mind wants to help save the body by reminding and urging the body to eat. Once you’re giving your body enough food, consistently, your mind begins to trust the body will get enough and can let go of unrelenting food thoughts. That’s what various therapists and dietitians told me. I didn’t believe them.

I’d eat enough, or what I thought was enough, for days at a time yet my thoughts wouldn’t change. I tried it for weeks at a time, no change. I tried it for a whole month, no change. My cognitive world remained food-centric. I didn’t expect that to ever change, especially after 10+ years of relentlessly thinking about food. Regardless, I kept eating enough every day and not letting myself restrict food because at least I felt better physically, even if my mind wouldn’t shut up.

Months passed, and slowly, I began to see changes in my thinking. I noticed myself getting fully consumed in my work or with the people around me, not checking the clock to see when I could allow myself to eat again, or doing calorie math in my head while half-listening to a conversation. I noticed I could have a piece of chocolate cake and not crave or even think about another. I noticed I fell asleep to thoughts about my relationships, my goals, and my experiences of the day. I noticed when friends asked which restaurant we should meet at, I hadn’t researched and obsessed over menus ahead of time. I noticed I stopped paying attention to what others were eating and no longer felt the need to compare myself to or eat less than those around me.

While many factors contributed to this cognitive switch, like doing the hard work on my underlying emotions and building resilience to past trauma, I think the primary mechanism for my switch was biological. It is because I committed fully to eating enough every day for a long period of time that my mind could trust my body again and not think of food constantly. For me, 'eating enough,’ didn’t mean a particular number of calories or following a meal plan to a T. It meant listening to my hunger which often far surpassed the number of calories or meal plan requirements that were supposed to be sufficient. In eating disorder recovery, this is sometimes referred to as ‘extreme hunger.’ At the time, it felt like giving in or being gluttonous, but now I recognise it as the helpful listening that it was.

I know I was right to listen to my extreme hunger because the more I listened to it, the less extreme hunger I felt. Sometimes this meant eating two desserts when no one else was having any dessert. Or it meant having large snacks at random times of day or night. As someone who grew up with anorexia, this was HARD. But, I began feeling hungry less and less often because my body knew it would get what it needed when it needed it. And, I began feeling full at more appropriate times rather than finishing a meal and craving more. One of the main fears I had during this time was that I would gain a lot of weight while trying to restore this equilibrium. Other than fluctuations from time to time, my weight remained mostly the same, and actually got a bit lower as my extreme hunger faded despite me eating much more***. Listening to my hunger cues took me to a true set point for my metabolic, hormonal, and overall health. It really did restore my biological equilibrium so my body released my mind from being centred around food (those darn therapists and dieticians were right!).

As someone who spent more than half their life deep in an eating disorder and totally obsessed with food, and as someone who never believed that cognitive switch could happen, I assure you, it can. It will likely take more time and more food than you think it will, but it’s worth every minute and every bite to free your mind.

***It is not uncommon for people with histories of eating disorders to eat more and lose some weight or stay the same weight. I share this not because weight is the important part in all of this (and by the way, gaining weight can happen too and is not a bad thing!), but because I know the fear of eating more leading to weight gain is a primary reason those in recovery can be reluctant to honour their extreme hunger. I want you to know that fear never came to fruition for me. Also note: when I started this process, I had already gained weight for my physical recovery.


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