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Craving control: The unknown edges of restrictive eating disorders

Image of fork wrapped in tape measure to signify restrictive eating disorders
Diana Polekhina | Unsplash

Case study by Sofia Daley

Eating disorders are a particularly misunderstood category of mental health issue. Tapping into her own experience with an eating disorder, Sofia Daley examines the reasons for why they manifest.

People often say to those suffering with an eating disorder, “why don’t you just eat more?” or, “why don’t you just eat less?”

The former is a question I’ve heard more times than I can count, and a question that will always have the same effect on me: frustration.

Of course, it can be difficult to comprehend why someone would want to starve themselves to the point of becoming severely ill. You become so weak that you struggle to walk up a few steps, you have to accept that you will never be warm, and laughing tires you out. If you continue for long enough, you lose your period (if you’re female), you lose your friends, and in some cases, you lose your life. But is it all just to look beautiful?

The need for control

Restrictive eating disorders are more than an attempt to fit societal beauty standards. They’re more than just being picky with food. What most people don’t understand, is that restrictive eating disorders revolve around control. When everything is too much to handle and the world feels inescapable, controlling the number of calories you consume or controlling exactly the way your body looks­ – something which many of us struggle with – provides satisfaction. Ironically, soon the need for control becomes uncontrollable, as in the end, an eating disorder will always end up controlling you. In fact, several studies show the link between disordered eating and a need for control. For example, “Dimensions of control and their relation to disordered eating behaviours and obsessive-compulsive symptoms,” published on the Journal of Eating Disorders, states that,

“There may be a similar underlying fear of losing self-control among individuals who engage in disordered eating and obsessive-compulsive behaviours. Thus, ineffectiveness and fear of losing self-control are two dimensions that are important to consider in maintenance and treatment models of disordered eating behaviours.”

The fear of losing self-control is at the core of many eating disorders. It’s not necessarily a fear of gaining weight or of a physical change, but the fear that you might lose the strength and focus that restricting your diet entails, as there is a fear that, once this is lost, the only possible outcome is chaos. In many cases, thinking patterns become extremely binary in this sense, as the possible outcomes to decisions regarding food are often antithetical to each other. An example of a thought like this might be “If I eat this, I will become incredibly overweight. If I don’t eat it, I will stay thin.” There is no middle ground within these thought patterns, which is what makes it so terrifying to lose the discipline that the self-control around food requires.


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Safety amongst disorder: Control is a common desire

Control is an attempt to find safety amongst chaos, as it provides the comfort of security, the security of knowing the exact outcome of an action. It’s being sure that, if you restrict another 300 calories a day, you will lose another kilo in 2 weeks. There’s something comforting about having the power to achieve your desired outcome, and knowing what it will be, as that level of control cannot be done in most areas of life. Life is unpredictable, but the numbers on a scale are not.

Everyone has their own small ways of enjoying control in their day-to-day lives, whether it’s being extremely neat about where things go or bossing your partner around. PsychCentral shares that, “Everyone needs to have some sense of control over their lives. This is a natural human desire. Control gives a feeling of order, stability, and safety.”

This feeling of “order, stability, and safety” is granted in many subconscious ways by an restrictive eating disorder. Identity is one of them. After restricting for so long, your identity becomes somewhat tied to restriction and being thin. You identify as someone who wants to be, for example, incredibly thin, and all your short-term and long-term goals are in relation to maintaining this identity and this view of yourself, as well as maintaining the view in the eyes of others. When you spend so many hours planning what to eat, the restrictive eating disorder almost defines who you are. This grants a certain amount of security and safety, the knowledge that you identify as a ‘thin’ human being, and that this is something that you can maintain.

Control also provides safety by refocusing all your attention to goals that you can realistically achieve. We all have goals, whether they are getting a promotion at work or hoping to grow your social network. But, as I mentioned before, we cannot fully control whether we can achieve them. However, having goals that you know you can achieve and proving to yourself that you can achieve them, brings a sense of safety.

When it comes to restrictive eating disorders, the control on diet, fitness and appearance becomes air-tight; your brain becomes a calorie calculator. You stop seeing an apple as a piece of fruit, but rather it simply becomes “100 calories”. An egg becomes “90 calories”, and a doughnut simply becomes “off-limits”. Limiting your calories and restraint from fueling yourself feels like an achievement, as you’re more than aware of how difficult it was to do, and the more extreme you are with it, the more satisfied you become.

The light at the end of the tunnel

Since having recovered from my eating disorder, I still struggle with those cravings for control that I used to satisfy with restriction. It’s when things become difficult or chaotic in my life that I want that control back, as it numbs the difficulty of what is uncontrollable. Recovery from an eating disorder is possible, but often, they’ve sunk their teeth so deep into your skin that bite marks are inevitable. The key is being aware of them.


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