Does your enjoyment of food change when you get treatment for an eating disorder? – A breakdown of the research I presented at the 2017 ANZAED Conference
A few days ago I presented some research I’ve been working on – looking at taste preference changes in treatment-seeking people with eating disorders – at the ANZAED Conference in Sydney. (In case you’re wondering, “ANZAED” stands for the Australia and New Zealand Academy for Eating Disorders.)
For those who enjoy scientific research (admittedly, it can be pretty dry stuff at times), please feel free to email me and I’ll send you a copy of the Abstract from the conference. For everyone else, I’ll summarise very, very briefly in this blog post:
Do people’s taste preferences change while they’re getting treatment for an eating disorder?
Yes… and no.
What it comes down to is whether or not people genuinely dislike the taste of certain foods, or whether they avoid them because they fear them – because the food breaks one of their eating disorder “food rules”. What my research showed is that some people had incredibly stable food dislikes which didn’t budge at all in intensity over the course of around 8 weeks of inpatient treatment. Take note: it was inpatient treatment (ie, in a hospital unit specially run to treat eating disorders. I collected all this data over the years I was working at Wesley Hospital Eating Disorders Unit). It’s important that these people were in an eating disorders unit because people get exposed to a much wider range of foods much more quickly through inpatient treatment than they do at home (so this same effect at home would likely take longer than 8 weeks to achieve).
On average, people attended treatment for 8 weeks. They rated a number of foods as being disliked when they first arrived at the unit, and then again when they left the unit at the end of 8 weeks or so. Almost everyone involved said they had strong food dislikes (around an 8 out of 10, with 10 being the highest level of dislike) at the beginning of treatment, and almost everyone said they felt their eating disorder was only a little bit involved in how much they disliked the foods (around a 4 out of 10, with 10 being the highest rating). As I said earlier, some people’s food dislikes were very stable and the ratings at intake and discharge were almost identical… but then quite a few other people dropped some of their disliked foods entirely by the end of treatment.
What’s most likely happening for this second group of people is that they thought they didn’t like a particular food, but in reality their eating disorder had convinced them they didn’t like it.
The key thing to bear in mind here is that everyone was convinced they had a genuine dislike to begin with, and it wasn’t until they had to try some of their feared foods – repeatedly – through treatment, that they realised they were actually ok with eating some of those foods.
So… how does this help people trying to recover from an eating disorder?
For those people who are ready to recover from their eating disorder, what this tells us is that it can be genuinely hard to tell how much your food preferences are being influenced by your eating disorder. For this reason, it’s really important to eat as many different types of foods each week as possible – regardless of whether you love those foods or not. This will give you a real sense of where your eating disorder food rules are, and whether or not they actually form part of your authentic self’s food preferences. Remember, recovery from an eating disorder means not having to follow food rules set by your “inner critic”, and instead, being able to eat according to your genuine wants and needs.
Why not start today? Set a goal to try a food you don’t normally eat, and observe how it makes you feel, and the emotions and thoughts you experience. Then, try it again in a few days’ time and try to notice if your emotions are still quite as strong – remember, you’ll only be able to identify changes here if you repeat the process a few times because anxiety levels will probably be too high to check in with your authentic self while the food still feels too unfamiliar.
All the best with your endeavours!
Claire Marnane – eating disorders and mindful eating dietitian, Newtown Nutrition