One of the most fascinating parts of nutrition and the body is the brain.
If you've ever struggled with disordered eating - or just have gone too long without eating - you've felt the side effects in your body. You start to think about food, food cravings pop up, and you probably feel hunger in your body in some way. If this becomes consistent, the food thoughts become constant and obsessive. The food cravings may turn into binges or just eating a lot of food, especially easy to digest food like snack food or desserts.
In any type of disordered eating, the brain is going to be affected. It's also going to react in a protective manner because it wants to survive.
All these obsessive thoughts about food are a protective mechanism for the brain and body! When you're not getting enough nourishment, your blood sugar starts to drop. Since your brain's preferred fuel is glucose (delicious, nutritious carbs!), it starts to signal hunger through hunger hormones. You'll start to think about food or you'll be craving your next meal or snack, and you may feel sensations in your stomach. With increased hunger, you'll feel ravenous, tired, and perhaps lightheaded as your blood sugar really drops.
If you have a meal or snack and refuel your body, you'll fill satisfied and satiety cues will be triggered. Food just won't be as appealing for the next few hours, and your brain will be able to think, focus, and concentrate on other parts of your life like work, relationships, or fun until your next meal or snack.
It's pretty cool how your body can manage this so well on its own.
The brain is such a small organ compared to the rest of your body, but it requires a tremendous amount of energy. It uses more energy than any other organ in the body and 20% of the energy you eat goes up to your brain!
This means that disordered eating patterns directly impact the brain. If you are restricting your diet - or following a diet, which is restrictive by nature - your brain isn't the energy it needs. You may find yourself obsessing about food, not able to focus or concentrate, irritable, lightheaded, or anxious because of lack of nutrients. You'll likely feel more emotional or have mood swings.
Your metabolism is going to slow down as your food thoughts amp up because your brain wants you to seek out food to refuel. You might have intense food cravings for carbs and fats (think ice cream or chips) because it's energy-dense food. You could struggle with "emotional eating" or binges, which are often a sign that your body needs consistent nourishment.
Luckily, recovery from disordered eating or an eating disorder leads to a well-nourished brain. I've heard many clients feel the difference pretty immediately. As you give your body consistent fuel and tune back into your hunger cues, your thinking may clear and food thoughts decrease. You'll have sustainable energy again and won't have to rely on coffee to stay awake during the day. Your moods may stabilize, so you can do the mental and emotional work of healing your relationship with food and your body.
Eating regular meals and snacks and honoring your hunger is one of the best ways to build back trust with your body and brain. It helps your body's cues to normalize over time because your brain starts to trust that there is consistent fuel coming in and that it's not in a "famine" state. It will also allow you to live a life beyond diets. When your body is satisfied, you'll have so much more mental space to be creative, explore other hobbies, and live life outside of food.
Now, I'm signing off for a night-time brain-fuel snack (chocolate, of course!).