How to Break Habits Related to Eating Disorders

Recognizing dieting, purging, bingeing, and exercise as habits helps

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In This Article

Dieting, purging, binge eating, or excessive exercise can be difficult behaviors to change. The reason these unhealthy actions can be so hard to overcome is that they have become strong habits. As with the formation of any habit, changing these behaviors takes some time and effort. By steadily working toward healthier goals, you can eventually replace bad habits with more positive ones.

How Eating Habits Form

The neuroscience of habit formation is complex. In simplified terms, a habit is a behavior or sequence of behaviors that has shifted from requiring focus and energy to one that requires little to no attention—one that is seemingly automatic. Humans often do things in pursuit of a reward; so we often develop habits through our repeated thoughts and behaviors directed toward the reward.

At some point, the brain seems to choose to conserve energy—kind of like a computer’s hard drive when it shifts to sleep mode—by allowing us to not use extra thinking energy on what has already been well-practiced. As a result, a habit has been formed.

Consider how the habit to brush your teeth twice each day begins. When you were a small child, it took a great deal of focus and concentration to make sure to scrub your molars, your gums, and other teeth. You may have even practiced a particular order of actions or a sequence. The desired reward might have been parental praise, a feeling of accomplishment, or an avoidance of punishment. The initial few acts of brushing your teeth probably required a lot more energy and attention than it does now.

This transition from deliberate intentionality to automatic habit happens without awareness. The same process can help explain what may feel like failed attempts at changing dieting, binge eating, purging, and compulsive exercise behaviors.

Dieting Habits

Dieting means restricting caloric intake below what is required to maintain body weight. When a person repeatedly adheres to specific food rules and behaviors, especially if the rules and behaviors are tied to perceived rewards (e.g., self-esteem, weight loss, health), the repeated choices and actions may become habits.

Once a habit has been formed in the brain’s structure, rewards can disappear or stop and the habit may continue. In the case of dieting, weight loss may slow or plateau. People may feel that they are not reaching the goals they have set, or they might feel that they don't look the way that they think they should look.

This can have both physical and mental health repercussions. These effects of restriction can include:

  • Irritability
  • Decreased sociability
  • Feeling less energetic
  • Physical weakness
  • Malnutrition
  • Refeeding syndrome
  • Concentration difficulties
  • Mood changes

Despite such consequences, the dieting habit may persist because the brain has gotten into a routine.

Groundbreaking research revealed that people with anorexia nervosa, an extreme example of repeated food restriction, seem to make decisions about their food from a specific area of the brain that is associated with habits. Why does this matter? The brain may actually be directing the person with anorexia nervosa to what is habitual (e.g., low calorie and restrictive foods) even if the person wants to eat differently.

Anorexia nervosa is a multi-faceted, serious, and sometimes life-threatening illness; one component of its persistence might be attributed to the brain having adopted habit over a choice.

Binge Eating Habits

Anything repeatedly practiced may become a habit. While bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder are less studied than anorexia nervosa, they both involve binge eating, which can also become automatic or habitual.

A feeling of relief from experiencing emotions or “numbing out,” a dopamine release, and a sense of fullness or comfort are examples of some of the perceived initial rewards of binge eating. Over time, repeated binge eating may develop into a habit without the person’s intention. A binge eating habit can result in psychological struggles and medical consequences related to increased body size.

There can be other psychological consequences as well. Binge eating can involve feelings of embarrassment that can lead to isolation. Feelings of guilt and disgust can also lead to psychological struggles.

It’s important to be aware of food restriction-driven binges, which can feel confusing. Dieting and restricting can actually trigger a binge, and this commonly happens when a person is not eating enough and in regular increments.

Since food is a basic need for survival, chronic dieting (or a dieting habit) can drive binge cycles that can transition into repeated food restricting-then-binge-eating patterns and habits.

Purging Habits

For purging behaviors (those that empty, such as the use of vomiting, enemas, diuretics, and laxatives), if there is repetition, then the choice may shift to habit. Additionally, the perceived rewards that initially drove the purging behavior (e.g., the pursuit of weight loss, a release of dopamine, relieving a feeling of over-fullness, etc.) may become less of a driving force than the automaticity of the habit.

The eventual physiological responses to a purging habit (those behaviors common in bulimia nervosa) can range from subtle or uncomfortable to more serious, including:

  • Swollen parotid glands
  • Sore or hoarse throat
  • Electrolyte imbalances
  • Cardiac arrhythmia
  • Heart attack
  • Dental problems
  • Vital organ damage
  • Sudden death

The overuse of laxatives can also cause the body to become reliant on them in order to produce bowel movements.

Exercise Habits

Exercise can be a compensatory behavior and habit initially reinforced by perceived rewards (such as the hope for increased self-esteem, health, weight loss, strength, and more). Though exercise is often framed as a positive, when adhering to an exercise habit gets rigid or interferes with life, it can be a problem.

For example, there may be a loss of flexibility in schedule, which could be seen as problematic for the person themselves or others. This could look like any of the following:

  • Skipping important social event because the individual feels they must exercise
  • Stopping or being less attentive to other important aspects of life because of an exercise routine
  • Feeling driven to exercise when ill or injured

The consequences of problematic or over-exercise can vary from minor to major and tend to relate to the person’s habits, individual body, frequency, and intensity of the activity and practices.

What to Do

If you are or someone you love is struggling with changing habits of dieting, purging, binge eating, or compelled exercise, there are things that can help break these destructive habits.

Adjust Your Attitude

Habits are hard to break, but any repeated action may become a habit; this applies equally to actions that align with healing and recovery from eating disorders and disordered eating. Instead of viewing attempts to enact desired change as “failed” or “never going to change,” recognize that the habit part of your brain might be really strong.

Keep Trying

Use your ability to form a strong habit as a benefit. Keep practicing new, more desired, potential habits. For ideas about how to change behaviors, learn more about delays and alternatives. Distracting yourself or engaging in alternative activities is one way to start making a change in your habits.

Remember That It Isn't Easy

This doesn't mean that creating new or breaking old habits—especially those related to eating disorders or disordered eating—are simple tasks. Instead, we are looking at the brain’s powerful role when it hijacks choice and shifts something to habit, often without the person’s permission or awareness.

Be Patient

There is no hard and steadfast rule on how long forming a new habit—for example, one that aligns with healing and recovery from eating disorders and disordered eating—can take.

One study found that it took participants between 18 and 254 days for new behaviors to become automatic habits.

So be patient with yourself and understand that this is something that will take time. It won't be a sudden change, but you will start to notice improvements the longer you keep working toward your goal.

Get Help

Anyone who is engaged in eating disorder-related behaviors is strongly encouraged to seek professional guidance for support, techniques, safety, and oversight while trying to break these difficult and sometimes dangerous habits. People’s bodies handle stress differently, and there can be serious mental and physical health consequences from what can seem like benign dieting, purging, binge eating, and exercise habits.

A Word From Verywell

Please note that eating disorders are complex psychological illnesses that often come with physical consequences and cannot be oversimplified as habits. Viewing related behaviors through the lens of habit is a way to better understand the automaticity of some eating disorder-related behaviors that people have a hard time decreasing or stopping.

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