Email question from a reader this week:
I would appreciate your advice concerning the difficulty to stop comparing with others when it comes to exercise and the amount of food they eat. I know that my worries are not reasonable and that I have to care only for myself but it is so difficult to not be influenced.
What could help me to fight these stupid thoughts?
I used to be able to tell you not only exactly what everyone else at the table was eating, but exactly how much they ate of what over the course of a meal. When I had active anorexia I was hyper-aware of what others were eating.
I was a crappy dinner guest because I spent more time clocking other people’s food intake than I did engaging in conversation.
Nowadays, not only am I usually oblivious to what other people are eating, I couldn’t even tell you what I ate myself for breakfast without some degree of effort. That is because I am no longer in energy deficit, so my brain doesn’t have to hyper-focus on food. It’s nice.
Energy deficit leads to a hyper-focus on food
Have you ever been really thirsty and not had anywhere you can get a drink? All you can think about is water.
If you hold your breath, after a couple of seconds, all you can think about is wanting to breathe.
When you are in energy deficit, you’ll be hyper-focused on food.
Food. Water. Oxygen. These are the three substances your body needs in order to live. If one of these there substances is in deficit then your brain will use thought patterns and emotion to try and get you to find and consume whatever it is you are low on. Your hyper-focus on food is like the fuel gauge on your car screaming at you. And thank goodness! If our brains weren’t so great at making us focus on the things that keep us alive, the human race would have been long extinct.
Because some of us are in energy deficit for so long — years — the hyper-focus on food can become exhausting. Your’ll feel as if there will never be a day when you won’t be thinking about food. The good news is, that once you are out of energy deficit your brain will no longer have to motivate you to look for food the whole time. One of the best parts of fully recovery is that you get your brain back and can think of much more interesting things, like your career, your family … and Game of Thrones.
Why anorexia makes us compare what we eat with what others eat
If we take the adapt to flee famine perspective as the most plausible explanation for the existence of anorexia genetics, then looking at anorexia as a migration response can help explain why along with the general hyper-awareness of food, you have a tendency to watch what and how much others eat.
Migrating animals can’t spend too much time taken out of moving — so their brains disincentivize feeding behaviour in favor of movement.
If say, you were in a famine and were migrating with a tribe, then the person who stopped to “feed” the longest and therefore ate the most would be the person who got left behind. If you get left behind your chances of survival are lower. Your brain stem — the part that interprets your energy deficit state as due to famine — doesn’t want you to “feed” more than anyone else. It feels threatening and scary to do so.
But if others eat more, then it is safe for you to eat more also, because you are still with the pack — especially if you eat more, but still slightly less than they are. You may feel that if someone else at the table reaches for a second helping of dessert that you have “permission” to do so also. I often used to feel really pissed off with people who didn’t eat more, as it felt like they were preventing me from eating more as a result.
Additionally, because anorexia and recovery are complicated, you may find that you compare what you are eating with what others are eating even more when you start to try to eat recovery amounts of food. When you are restricting heavily, there is usually not as much comparison because you are eating nowhere near what most other people are. However, when you start to eat more, it can turn into a bit of a mindfuck. You want to eat more. You know you have to eat more, But you are terrified of eating more than other people. So you wind up doing this dance where you are eating more than before but not nearly as much as your mental hunger is asking you to eat.
If you ate to mental hunger, you would likely be eating vastly higher amounts of food than “normal” people. And so you should, because you are making up for energy deficit and this requires eating abnormally large amounts of food. But that scares you, right?
Get used to being scared. That’s an emotion that will be present to some degree throughout your recovery. Being scared won’t harm you unless you allow it to — and you won’t. Of course it’ll feel all sorts of wrong to eat more than other people — that’s anorexia! You will have to do it anyway. Don’t expect your brain to be on board with this. Your thoughts will likely scream blue murder when you allow yourself to eat the amount that you really have to. Your brain will get on board at some point — but it won’t be until you get out of energy deficit.
In the meantime, you will have to eat the amounts of food that your mental hunger desires regardless of how “wrong” doing so feels.
How to do make the comparing stop?
You get out of energy deficit. 🙂
I don’t think that there is much point in focusing on trying to stop yourself comparing what you eat to what others eat because your brain is doing that for a reason (you are malnourished). Focus on getting out of energy deficit instead.
When your brain is out of energy deficit you should naturally cease to give a shit about what anyone else is eating. While it is in energy deficit you’re going to be hyper-focused on food. Rather than trying to fight it, use this to your advantage. While you are in weight restoration (and remember, you don’t have to be at a low weight to be under-weight) use that lazer focus to push yourself to make sure that you eat more than anyone else.
Great post Tabitha!
Could you please explain me the exact meaning of “energy deficit”? I’m still underweight, but I lost weight about 15 years ago and since then maintained by eating 3000-3500 calories and exercising (while online tools tell me I need around 2300 for that amount of activity), never feel deprived, quite the opposite: I had to force myself to eat if I didn’t want to lose, as I was and am rarely hungry. Since I stopped exercising I’ve been eating the same amount and I’m barely gaining any weight. I need 6 kilos to be at a minimum healthy weight, so I think I may be in energy deficit, but at the same time makes no sense as I feel stuffed all the time and not gain.
Thanks a lot for this blog!!
There are a couple of posts in this blog explaining both energy deficit and energy debt if you search the blog xx
Tabitha, this blog really shows off your intelligence and talent, in that you have written something that truly resonates with what I feel innately about eating A LOT more but still worrying about what others are eating, especially what other anorexics are eating while weight restoring. After many years in this, that, or the other treatment centers, where the “meal plan” has always been a ceiling never to go over, I have always been fearful of becoming an “overeater” because I wanted always simply to eat to my heart’s desire. Your words, research, and personal experience have finally brought me such solace: I SHOULD eat others out of the house, though it would be best not to give a flying flip that I am doing so. And now, that’s what I am doing. Yes, I am scared out of my gourd. But you are right: I need to ger used to fear but eat up anyway and enjoy it. Because I am finally out of famine!!
Do you have any articles explaining the length of the process? It has been almost six months since I have been recovering, and I have gained the weight back. However I am constantly feeling stomach pain, the fear of getting out of control and overweight, and the natural instinct to restrict and eat less than most people, and eat mostly healthy, and guilt for eating what I consider to be unhealthy (which is a lot). I feel like I should be completely recovered by now, especially since my weight has restored. I fear continuing to gain weight that extends my healthy weight, and confusion as to why Im physically healthier but still feel so much constant discomfort mentally and physically.
Everyone is different. I have observed that with most people it takes over 12 months POST weight restoration
In my experience it is usually more than 12 months post weight restoration. With the first 6 months being the hardest.
Thanks for this very helpful explanation. As a parents this is hugely insightful in allowing me to understand why my anorexic daughter is obsessed with how much/little my other children eat.