National Eating Disorders Association

New Study Explains How Those With Eating Disorders Can Override Hunger Cues

Diana Denza and Victoria James

Eating disorders research often focuses on social aspects of the disorder, treatment, and mortality rates. However, new research has started to explore the psychological factors that contribute to eating disorders. 

Dr. Guido Frank from the University of Colorado, Denver was the lead author on a study published in Translational Psychiatry, which indicates that the brains of those with eating disorders display “widespread alterations.” These alterations enable the brain to override hunger signals, which explains how those living with eating disorders are able to significantly restrict their eating.

Dr. Frank presented with Dr. Walter Kaye on neurobiology at the 2015 NEDA Conference. During a recent phone call with NEDA, Dr. Frank described these brain alterations as a “mind over matter mechanism.” Put simply, brains of those with anorexia and bulimia function differently in order to restrict eating. 

The study tested brain structure and function using brain activation data while people with and without eating disorders tasted certain sugars meant to activate hunger cues in the brain. Ultimately, the sugar consumption had a reverse effect for those with anorexia and bulimia. 

According to Medical Daily, “In an average brain, the hypothalamus motivates people to eat. The brains of women with eating disorders send signals from other regions that override the hypothalamus.” Anorexia and bulimia causes sufferers to fear eating certain foods – and this study suggests that can ultimately condition the brain to reject signals from the hypothalamus, including taste-reward and hunger itself. This explains how brains of those with eating disorders can override hunger cues. They have “fewer wires,” so to speak. 

Although the study is very new, the ability to override hunger signals has evidently always been very strong. According to Dr. Frank, this type of research can potentially indicate whether eating disorders are genetically-driven or learned behaviors.

Perhaps the largest clinical implication of this study suggests that if someone in treatment becomes weight-recovered, they have not necessarily recovered from the psychological effects of an eating disorder. Recovering from an eating disorder takes a lot more than just recovering in weight; there is also the aspect of recovering from the cognitive and emotional perspective. A healthy body weight does not mean recovery – a healthy brain does, and that is why treatment providers and carers must focus on restoring healthy bodies and minds in those struggling with eating disorders. 

Diana Denza is NEDA's communications associate and Victoria James is a communications intern.