Should eating disorder patients be introduced to “junk food” or “hyper-palatable” foods during treatment? A few days ago, I stumbled across a blog post where Dr. Julie O’Toole, Founder and Director of the Kartini Clinic for Disordered Eating, argues against introducing “junk food” during ED treatment. The crux of the argument is that “hyperpalatable foods”—e.g., chips and Cheetos—are not real food and should never be forced or encouraged for anyone, regardless of the presence of an eating disorder:
A lot of ink has been spilled on teaching Americans in general and children in particular to make good food choices. Just because you have anorexia nervosa as a child, and desperately need to gain and maintain adequate weight, does not mean that you will be immune from the health effects of bad eating as you get older. This is true whether or not you get fat later on. You can be
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What is different about anorexia nervosa sufferers that, in contrast to most dieters, enables them to maintain a persistent calorie deficit? Although no one can truthfully claim they know the full answer to that question, we do know that part of the answer most likely lies with serotonin (5-HT), a molecule that neurons use to communicate with each other.
I’ve written about serotonin in the context of anorexia nervosa before, so I’ll just do a brief summary of the important points here:
- Serotonin has a lot of functions in the body; it plays a role in regulating appetite (satiety), sleep, mood, behaviour, learning and memory, and a variety of other things
- Serotonin has been implicated in obsessionality, harm avoidance, and behavioural inhibition
- Alterations in serotonin function have been linked to many disorders, including depression, OCD, anxiety, and eating disorders
- Serotonin is made from tryptophan, an essential amino acid
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Excessive exercise played a big role in my eating disorder and, predictably, I am drawn to studies that look at the role excessive exercise plays in eating disorder symptomatology, course and outcome. This topic has captured the interest of many eating disorder researchers, with studies revealing that up to 80% of individuals with anorexia nervosa may exercise excessively (Davis et al., 1997), though others suggest more modest statistics, around 39% (Shroff et al., 2006; Tetyana wrote a post about this article here).
Scholars have also noted the potentially obsessive and compulsive nature of exercise among some individuals with eating disorders and have made the natural transition toward examining whether links exist between excessive exercise and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and/or obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (OCPD) traits (If you are confused about the difference between OCD and OCPD, click here). Young, Rhode, Touyz & Hay (… Continue reading →
Anxiety disorders (ADs) are common among patients with eating disorders. In one study of female inpatients, around 50-65% had a comorbid anxiety disorder (see my post here). Anxiety disorders in patients with anorexia nervosa (AN) typically begin before the eating disorder and often persist after weight restoration and recovery (Bulik et al., 1997; Casper, 1990). Moreover, previous twin studies have suggested that there’s a “correlation between eating disorders and certain anxiety and depressive disorders, suggesting they comprise a spectrum of inherited phenotypes” (Hudson et al., 2003; Mangweth et al., 2003).
In this paper, Michael Strober and colleagues hypothesized that anxiety disorders and anorexia nervosa share common genetic, neural, and/or behavioural mechanisms. As such, they sought to investigate the association of AN with ADs by studying the prevalence of ADs in first-degree relatives of AN patients and comparing it to the prevalence of ADs in first-degree relatives of healthy … Continue reading →
Excessive exercise (EE) is common among eating disorder patients. Indeed, in the study I’ll write about today, 39% of patients engaged in EE. Previous studies have tried to find psychopathological and personality correlates of EE but the results have been inconsistent. Some studies have suggested that impulsivity and addictiveness are highly correlated with EE whereas others found that anxious and depressive traits were more closely associated.
In a retrospective case series study involving outpatients with AN and BN, Penas-Lledo et al. found higher levels of anxiety and depression… among those who were identified as exercising excessively. The authors claimed that exercise might serve to reduce anxiety and stress in individuals with AN. In a similar study with adolescent inpatients with AN, Holtkamp et al. found that anxiety significantly predicted variance in exercise levels. These investigators proposed that anxiety symptoms in combination with food restriction contributed to increased levels of physical activity and that physical activity served an anxiolytic [anxiety reducing] function.
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This post continues the discussion of the chapter on eating disorders by Carolina Lopez, Marion Roberts, and Janet Treasure from The Handbook of Neuropsychiatric Biomarkers, Endophenotypes and Genes (2009). Part 1 focused on neurotransmitter biomarkers, and this second part will focus on the neuropsychological biomarkers.
Attentional bias is the tendency for individuals to attend to or be distracted by emotionally relevant stimuli over neutral stimuli. Attentional biases have been observed in several studies:
- Current AN and BN individuals showed bias towards food, body-related stimuli.
- Past AN but not past BN showed bias towards body shape concerns.
- Both current and “long-term recovered” AN showed “abnormally higher activation in the medial prefrontal and anterior cingulate cortices in response to food stimuli using fMRI [brain imaging]” (232)
These biases can be minimal but annoying: waiting in line at the pharmacy, staring into space and finding your focus automatically … Continue reading →
Symptom fluctuation and diagnostic crossover are common in eating disorder patients. A study by Eddy et al. (2008) – who followed patients over an average of 7 years – showed that crossover between subtypes and full-syndrome diagnoses is very common : of those initially diagnosed with anorexia nervosa, almost 73% crossed over to another diagnosis (between symptoms and to bulimia nervosa). More specifically, roughly 50% experienced fluctuation between subtypes (restricting, AN-R, and binge/purge type, AN-BP) and roughly 35% crossed over to bulimia nervosa (a subset experienced both). Of those initially diagnosed with bulimia, roughly 14% crossed over to AN-BP and of those, 3.91% crossed over to AN-R.
This finding (though, well-known to ED specialists and even more well-known to patients) has important implications for treatment. For example, CBT and anti-depressants seem to have positive results in bulimic patients, but not so much in anorexics. What then, about those that … Continue reading →