Ask an Expert: I have anorexia; how can I stop food consuming my thoughts?

I’m 17 and have anorexia. I’ve had anorexia and EDNOS [eating disorder not otherwise specified] for about a year. I was emailing for advice on how to get though each day without letting food thoughts consume my whole day. Each day my thoughts revolve around food and it’s all I ever think about. Also I haven’t had my periods for a while now as I’m underweight, do you know if they come back once I gain some weight?

Thank you for your questions, and sharing your difficulties and concerns.

In regards to your first question, it sounds as though those thoughts around food are overwhelming for you at the moment as they seem to take up quite a bit of mental energy and time. Your preoccupation with food-related thoughts may perhaps seem confusing to you, but it is quite likely the result of the food deprivation mentality and malnutrition typically seen in anorexia. Paradoxically, restricting or depriving ourselves of something often tends to increase our preoccupation with it – the more we forbid ourselves from having something, the more we want it! Also, the harder we try not to think of something, the more the thoughts about it are going to pop into our heads (as an experiment, try as hard as you can now, NOT to think of a pink elephant … and see what happens!). In addition, studies have shown that food obsession is a symptom of semi-starvation and malnutrition (if you’re interested in finding out more, you may want to check out Ancel Keys’ Minnesota Starvation Experiment from the 1950s).

In the short-term, there are strategies that may help if you are experiencing distress. For example, relaxation/deep breathing and mindfulness exercises may help to focus your attention on another aspect, such as your breathing. Distraction techniques (such as engaging in mental activities) and self-soothing strategies (that is, making use of your five senses to ‘soothe’ yourself – such as looking at a calming scene, listening to uplifting music, using aromatherapy oils, or taking a bubble bath) may also help to divert your attention momentarily.

In the long-term however, as challenging and frightening as it may sound, the key to reducing food preoccupation is to start listening to your body’s needs and to feed it what it wants. By allowing yourself to eat intuitively and freeing yourself from unhelpful food rules you are less likely to be caught up with constant food thoughts, and will have more mental space to devote to other things that are meaningful to you in life. Essentially, just like a car requires fuel in its tank to run, your body needs food to function effectively and efficiently. Understandably, the thought of this may possibly evoke some anxiety. Working together with a trained professional who can provide the necessary support can often be very useful in helping you to navigate this journey.

Secondly, amenorrhea (absence of period for three months or more in females of childbearing years) is typically a symptom of anorexia (although not in all cases). This happens when hormonal balance and production are disrupted due to low body weight/fat and/or excessive exercise. As such, with time, this condition is usually reversible with weight restoration. However, it can sometimes be more complex than this. I would encourage you to consult your GP, who would probably be in a better position to advise you on this.

I hope this helps and all the best to you.

Dr Ameerah Mattar, Clinical Psychologist, BodyMatters Australasia

Our Ask an Expert Week panelists are all qualified professionals in their field. However, advice given on The Kids Are All Right website is not a substitute for direct, personal, professional counselling or psychological care, medical care and diagnosis.

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