Question/Answer: Why is it so difficult for me to eat more?

Here’s a question I got via email today. I will write here my opinion on this question. I would like to remind readers that my opinion is just that, and that we are all unique individuals so it would be impossible for my general opinion on anything at all to be conclusive for all individuals.


I have a topic which I’d love you to write or make a vlog about. For a few years now I have been completely and utterly stuck in a rut of eating just enough to sustain a weight that isn’t quite high enough, and am pretty rigid in what and when I eat. I find it excruciatingly difficult to increase what I eat during the day and it’d be interesting to have your take on why this is and what can be done to help push through. As an example, this morning it took so much of my courage to include an extra xxx calories into my breakfast- I did it but now feel terrible. Logically I know that xxx  calories is basically nothing and yet it is so so hard to do and I feel so bad afterwards. Adding xxx calories into my evening snack is much less difficult, but my balance of eating during the day vs in the evening is already way out and I am trying to address this. If you haven’t already covered this I’d love to hear your take on a) why it is so difficult to eat even a little more than I normally do, b) why it is so much easier to eat in the evening than during the day and c) what can be done to help overcome this!

 

I know this one. I was “trying to gain weight” for years and years. I didn’t even like being underweight, and every week I got off the scale and vowed that I would eat more. Every week I gave myself that pep talk and psyched myself up to actually doing weight gain. Then by the time I had walked into the kitchen for breakfast, it was gone. It was as if outside of a mealtime I could be determined and full of intention, but when I got to making a meal, it followed the exact same protocol that had been keeping me underweight. And part of me knew that, so it was always a case of “next meal, my next meal will be bigger, I’ll just play it safe with this one, and then after this I am going to eat more.”

For me, actually doing recovery was forcing myself to make changes whether I felt like it or not. And dealing with the tantrums in my head that came afterwards. It was forcing my hands to make bigger meals, and making my fingers hold my fork as it delivered these bigger meals to my mouth. Chew. Swallow. Repeat. Of course it wasn’t all bad. I do enjoy eating. I love eating. But I was terrified. A cruel duality.

Anyway. Either way, I got it done.

a) why it is so difficult to eat even a little more than I normally do

Here’s my take on that. And remember, I take a physiological view on all this. I think that when your brain is in malnutrition, it is in a state of stress. I think that your reptilian, survival-brain perceives that you are in a hostile, famine-like environment where food is scarce. I also think that when the brain is stressed out, it tends to form habitual behaviors really quickly. It needs to be able to react and learn fast in order to continue to operate in a way that keeps you safe in a dangerous world.

Okay, so say your brain thinks that you are in a hostile environment. And on top of that, you have the anorexia response that makes your brain think that food is a threat to survival. (See adapt to flee famine) So, eating small amounts feels safer. Your brain starts to associate eating small amounts with your ability to survive this hostile place it is in. And therefore, it gets all habitual about it. It wants you to keep doing the things that it thinks have kept you alive. Now of course, your logical thinking brain knows that you are not in a hostile place, and hopefully knows that food is not a threat, and that you need to gain weight. But your brain-stem reptile brain doesn’t give too hoots for what logical thinking would assume. Your brain stem is fight-or-flight, reactionary protocol only. Your brain stem area deals with, and runs away from, fear.

So this is why someone like me — someone who knows they need to gain weight, and wants to gain weight — can walk into the kitchen determined to have pizza for dinner, and come out with a salad, again.  Logical thinking is being overridden by fear. 

 

b) why it is so much easier to eat in the evening than during the day

For the vast majority of us this is true. I think that there must be an evolutionary reason for it. Maybe in dangerous environments, or in times of famine when humans had to use daylight hours to migrate, it would have been safer to eat at night. Night eating is so common in the people with whom I have worked, that I have a whole section on it in the book I am in the final stages of writing. It’s too much of a coincidence that most of us feel more able to eat at night to ignore.

I say go for it. If that is an easier time for you to eat, allow it. Then focus on getting yourself to eat the food that you are more able to eat at night during the day too.

 

c) what can be done to help overcome this

It will get easier to override these “survival” habits as you gain weight, as your brain will come out of the hostile environment stress as your body physically becomes less stressed. But in order to gain weight, you have to eat more, so that’s a bit of a catch-22. To get there, you are going to have to be bloody brave and force yourself out of this habitual eating even if it doesn’t feel safe or right to do so. Work out what you need to set up in terms of support to follow through with eating more. Set up meal support if you need to. Swallow your pride and ask for help. Do whatever it takes to get yourself out of this mess. It won’t have to be long term, as the more you walk though those mental barriers the softer they will become. Your brain will learn that larger meals are not a threat, and stop having that “hell no!” reaction when you try and eat more. So although you feel terrible after having added to your meals right now, keep doing it and you will start to feel better about it in time. Consistency and determination is key.

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