One Way to Outsmart Your Eating Disorder: Brain Fuel, Pt. 1

June 17th, 2012

“High achieving, bright, and intelligent.” These commonplace clinical descriptors of individuals with eating disorders are now backed by data, suggesting that what treatment providers have been reporting all along is actually right on point with the research.

"You are far too smart to be the only thing standing in your way."Eating Disorders and Intelligence

After analyzing 30 peer-reviewed articles related to measures of intelligent quotient of those with anorexia, a research team discovered at least average and often higher than average measures of IQ than the normative population (Lopez, Stahl, &Tchanturia, 2010). This meta-analysis included 849 participants receiving treatment at various levels of care.

What astounds me most is that among the studies that provided Body Mass Index (BMI) data, the mean BMI of participants from each study ranged from 13.7-17.9. There were some very critically underweight participants with very high IQ scores. Lower BMI did not necessarily correlate with lower IQ. Just imagine if the participants had been feeding their brains. Their scores might have been off the charts!

Brain Fog from Malnutrition

I remember a hazy brain fog while actively engaged in the eating disorder. I was definitely not up to par with my abilities. Even presenting with a low BMI, therapists always considered “intelligence” as one of my strengths. I did too! Although I maintained some of my cognitive abilities while malnourished, I still noticed an overall decline.

While everyone experiences mental sluggishness from time to time, I experienced prolonged memory loss, difficulty concentrating and making decisions, chronic mood swings, increased anxiety, and even low frustration tolerance the longer I failed to take in needed nutrients.

Fats Nurture Brain Health

Fats are one of three of the major macronutrients the body requires on a daily basis to function optimally. Nearly two thirds of our brain is composed of fatty tissue. Yes, this same brain that accounts for your intellect is highly concentrated with fatty tissue that requires very specialized fats to function properly. Actually, every cell in our body needs healthy fats to function, but especially the 80-120 billion nerve cells, or neurons, in the human brain! The brain is an incredibly hardworking organ. Did you know that even when your body is at rest, the brain expends over 20% of your caloric intake?

Essential Fatty Acids

Brain cells are built from essential fatty acids (EFA’s). They are called essential because you must consume these fats through dietary sources as the body is unable to manufacture them. In particular, omega-3 EFA’s are highly concentrated in the brain and are essential to your cognitive function (Barnard, 2011).

Losing my ability to think clearly and rationally was probably one of the more devastating consequences of having an active eating disorder. I remind myself quite often to “feed my brain” because only when it is nourished can I make any use of the tools and skills I have learned from treatment and therapy. Only when I feed my brain does it have a fighting chance against ED!

Many individuals with anorexia avoid dietary fats for prolonged periods of time. In fact, Holman et al. (1995) discovered that individuals with anorexia tend to have suboptimal levels of polyunsaturated fatty acids, omega-3’s included. Omega-3 deficiency symptoms related to brain health include: fatigue, poor memory, mood swings, anxiety, and depression, all of which can create mental sluggishness. This is because omega-3 EFA’s are crucial for allowing nerve cells to communicate effectively and efficiently, a necessity for sound mental health.

One way to Outsmart ED

Unfortunately, an overwhelming majority of those struggling with eating disorders are avoidant of dietary fats, making it difficult to consume enough EFA’s. Goncalves, Ramos, Suzuki, & Meguid (2005) discovered omega-3 fatty acid supplementation among those with decreased food intake stimulates the production and release of hormones and neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and dopamine.
We are smart, intelligent, and witty people. According to the research, this is truly one of our great strengths. It has been said that ED is “cunning, baffling, and powerful”. Help outsmart your ED by giving your brain the type of fuel it needs to function optimally! Think of healthy fats, especially Omega-3’s, as BRAIN FUEL!

Speak to your healthcare providers and treatment team to discuss whether you may benefit from increasing your omega-3 intake through dietary changes or supplementation. In the next segment of this blog, we will provide you with ideas of how to increase your omega-3 consumption through dietary options.

References

Barnard, S. (2011). Does Omega-3 Clear Brain Fog? (Aug 2, 2011). Retrieved from

http://www.livestrong.com/article/508164-does-omega-3-clear-brain-fog/

Holman, R.T., Adams, C.E., Nelson, R.A., Grater, S.J.E., Jaskiewicz, J.A., Johnson, S.B., & Erdman,
J.W. (1995) Patients with anorexia nervosa demonstrate deficiencies of selected
essential fatty acids, compensatory changes in nonessential fatty acids and decreased
fluidity of plasma lipids. Journal of Nutrition, 125, 901–907.
(URL: http://jn.nutrition.org/content/125/4/901.full.pdf)

Goncalves, C. G., Ramos, E.J., Suzuki, S., & Meguid, M.M. (2005). Omega-3 fatty acids and
anorexia. Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition and Metabolic Care, 8(4), 403-407.

Lopez, C., Stahl, D., & Tchanturia, K. (2010). Estimated intelligence quotient in anorexia nervosa:
A systematic review and meta-analysis of the literature. Annals of General Psychiatry,
9:40, 1-10.
(URL: http://www.annals-general-psychiatry.com/content/pdf/1744-859X-9-40.pdf)

4 Responses to “One Way to Outsmart Your Eating Disorder: Brain Fuel, Pt. 1”

  1. Donna says:

    Please send your wonderful blog via my email?…I truly need the advice!

  2. heather says:

    Donna, I will look into that for you! Thanks, Heather

  3. Syl says:

    How long after you began recovery from your ED did it take until you stopped having spells of brain fog/lightheadedness? I’ve significantly increased calorie intake/reduced exercise to the point where I am definitely at a calorie surplus, and I’m still experiencing it and am wondering if it’s something else…

  4. jrust says:

    Hi, Syl,

    I would definitely check this out with your doctor. Some people continue to be lightheaded for some time. Slow down. Take some time to get your feet firmly planted on the floor, then take some deep breaths! I had the same thing and the slowing down was a positive action for me. I learned to slow down in everything. I was always one of these “do everything fast” kind of people but slowing down, while not coming naturally, was such a positive action for me! Keep in touch and let me know how you do!

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