It's Time To Stop Praising Extreme Dieters For Their Self-Control

Because it's got nothing to do with self-control, studies say.

Women who go through extreme dieting that's characteristic of anorexia (that is, hardly ever eating) have been thought to have remarkable self-control over their appetites, maybe even determination or discipline to stay pin thin. But a new study suggests that the intense dieting has more to do with habit than actual, conscious choice.

How? The study looked into the brain activity of 21 women with anorexia and 21 women without while they picked which foods to eat. The anorexic women were more likely to pick the low-fat, low-calorie foods than the healthy women. Their brain activities showed that the brain's reward center was activated in all of them, but only the anorexic women had more activity in that part of the brain that deals with habitual behavior. This then suggested that their choices were out of habit.

That could then explain why it's so hard to treat people with anorexia. Talk therapies were not very successful, because patients relapsed to their extreme dieting ways a year after seeking help, even when they themselves know they're making self-destructive choices.

What do the findings then imply for the rest of us? For one, we should stop complimenting those who are anorexic for having great discipline, because those "rewards" are what drove them in the first place to starve themselves and will keep them dieting. And as the study found, that kind of dieting doesn't even have anything to do with exceptional self-control. Would that make us admire anorexic women or the unhealthily skinny body less?

Another is about the best treatment for anorexia. Antidepressants and cognitive therapy won't effectively do the trick. What will? Some doctors say that a habit can be broken by being replaced by another. Others still speculate on the roots of the disorder or what else it's associated with (is it anxiety?). So far doctors are on the right track about looking into the eating disorder instead of easily dismissing it. After all, it's reportedly the mental illness with the highest mortality rate.

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Source: The New York Times

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