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Study Finds Bulimia Link to Negative Thoughts

pitta bread sandwich with a measure on it to see how thick it is

A study has discovered that those suffering from bulimia have a different reaction to foods than others.

When under stress, it appears that the brain will use food to avoid negative thoughts, which is not the effect seen in brains of those not suffering from bulimia.

Eating disorder link

Psychologists in a small study in the US discovered that brains of women react differently depending on whether or not they are bulimic.

Tape measure around a ladies waste

For those who suffer from the eating disorder, there was a decreased blood flow to a part of the brain which is involved in negative and self-critical thinking. This lends support to a long-standing theory that they are using food to prevent negative thoughts from taking over their minds.

Bulimia is characterised by periods of binge-eating followed by purging – normally done through vomiting. The mental health condition gives sufferers an abnormal body image and attitude to food, known as body dysmorphia. It can be difficult to break out of the cycle, as weight gain leads to negative self-thoughts and then triggers another binging session.

Psychologists had previously theorised that binge-eating was caused by stress, which led to women focusing on food rather than the criticism of themselves which followed stressful situations. This is the first study which has actually looked at what happens in the brain while eating.

It’s unclear if there could be any new product development as a result of these findings, but certainly there may be implications for psychiatric methods.

Study used food pictures

20 women were involved in this study, which was published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology. 10 of them had bulimia and 10 did not, and their brains were all scanned during the tests. All of them ate the same meal, before watching a series of pictures. The first few were neutral, then they were followed by high-sugar or high-fat foods. These included ice cream, pizza, and brownies.

The participants were also given an impossible maths problem to solve, which would raise their stress levels. Afterwards they were shown more food photos, before being asked about how stressed they felt or how much they craved food.

Stress levels were reported as going up and down at similar times across both groups, but the brain scans revealed a different picture. Blood flow to the precuneus area of the brain decreased when looking at food pictures for bulimic women, but increased in women who did not have bulimia.

Sarah Fischer, co-author of the study and associate professor at George Mason University, said: "We would expect to see increased blood flow in this region when someone is engaged in self-reflection, rumination or self-criticism."

A second study looked at 17 bulimic women and found the same results. There is hope that these findings would enable women to control their food cravings a times of stress.

"I would love to see if teaching basic emotion-regulation behavioural skills works for some women,” said Fischer. "For others, they may need medication or trans-cranial stimulation to stop the rise in stress before they binge."

If you or someone you know is suffering from bulimia, your first action would be to visit your GP and ask for help. They can then recommend various treatment options, such as online support, CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy), or medication.

If you are looking for food jobs for yourself, be sure to check out our job listings. There are plenty of opportunities for those who love and have a great relationship with food, and there is no reason why a recovering bulimic could not have a successful food career.