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Comfort by Eating (or by Starving)

Abstract: There is a difference between people with an eating disorder an those without. Normally people are in with their physical feelings of hunger and satisfaction. In contrast, people with eating disorders don't feel the body signals for hunger and satisfaction, or they don't listen to these signals.

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Comfort by Eating (or by Starving)

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Written by: Gunborg Palme, certified psychologist and certified psychotherapist, teacher and tutor in psychotherapy.
First version: 22 Jul 2008.
Latest revision: 28 Nov 2015.

In what way are people with eating disorders different from other people? Are these differences the causes of eating disorders? Do they get comfort by eating, even when they do not need more nutrition?


People with eating disorders experience that they are not in control of their needs and impulses. Rather they feel controlled by forces outside themselves. If you look at the story of their lives, certain phenomena recur. When they were children, the surrounding people have not responded in an adequate way to the signals which expresses needs or feelings. If the surrounding environment does not understand the child's true needs and take proper action, the child is inhibited in learning to be more conscious of its needs.

Either people with eating disorders don't feel the body signals for hunger and satisfaction, or they don't listen to these signals. They eat for reasons other than physical hunger, for example, they are tired, stressed or feel melancholy. Their relation to food makes them unhappy and they are not being able to cope with food in a proper way.

People without eating disorders are in with their physical feelings of hunger and satisfaction, and use those feelings when they decide when and how much to eat. They generally eat for no other reasons than hunger, and need food to be satisfied. Eating is satisfying and works smoothly like breathing and sleeping.

Disturbed Eating

Normal Eating

What controls eating?

Eating is separated from its normal control by hunger, appetite and satisfaction. It can be controlled by the will, planned diet, counting of calories, feelings, appearance and food odour.

Eating is controlled by hunger, appetite and satisfaction. A person eats when in need of nutrition and stops when satisfied; is usually hungry at mealtimes.

Why a person eats:

Often for other reasons than nutritional needs: to alter the body shape, to reduce pain, stress, anguish, anger, loneliness and melancholy.

There are unpleasant physical feelings after excessive eating together with remorse, guilt and shame.

For nutrition, health and energy. Also for pleasure and as a part of social company. Normal eating gives a feeling of satisfaction.

When a person eats:

Eating is irregular and chaotic - often too much or too little.

Regular habits: Usually three meals a day and small snacks between them if needed.

What controls eating?

For a healthy person, eating is controlled by feelings of true hunger, appetite and satisfaction. You eat when you need nourishment and stop eating when you are satisfied.

A person with eating disorders lacks the normal connection between the nutritional need of the body and the hunger signals. Eating is determined by will, planned diet, counting calories and if you are tempted by delicious food.

Why a person eats?

A healthy person eats for nourishment, health and energy, but sometimes also for pleasure or as an part of a social event. You feel content when you eat.

For people with eating disorders, eating is governed by the will to change the appearance of the body, or to reduce pain, stress, anxiety, loneliness, monotony, etc. After completing the meal, they feel discomfort and remorse, guilt and shame.

When a person eats?

The healthy person eats regularly, for example, three main courses and snacks according to what the body craves.

A person with an eating disorder eats irregularly and chaotic - sometimes too much, sometimes too little. Sometimes you skip a meal, sometimes you fast, sometimes you overeat and sometimes you diet. It's common to either eat too much or too little.

Normal eating: You have with your body's physical sensations of hunger and satisfaction, and use it to decide when and how much to eat. You normally do not eat for other reasons than that you are hungry and need nourishment. You get satisfied with eating and eating works by itself like breathing and sleeping.

Disturbed eating: Either you cannot feel your body's signals for hunger and satisfaction, or you can feel them, but you disregard them. In both cases, you eat for other reasons than need of nourishment, such as stress or sadness. You are unhappy with your relation to food and cannot resolve it in a sensible way.

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