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  • Helly Barnes

What Makes Energy Deficit & Associated Behaviours Initially So Rewarding?

What makes energy deficit initially so rewarding to someone with the susceptibility to develop a restrictive eating disorder? If you have read my earlier blog posts, listened to recent podcasts or even bought my book (which is now available through many good online book retailers) then you will know that I now consider restrictive eating disorders to be a powerful brain-based addiction to the body being in a state of energy deficit. In this way, any behaviours or forms of eating that lead to energy deficit can be instantly alluring to a brain craving this end result.

But what factors contribute to the initial high rewards the brain receives from energy deficit that then make it so driven to pursue more of it? This post explores the answer to this question.

What Makes Energy Deficit Initially So Rewarding to the Brain of Someone with a Restrictive Eating Disorder?


Dopamine is the key neurotransmitter (brain chemical) that drives any addiction. Dopamine is released into the brain when we pursue any goal and when the goal is achieved it's released in a greater surge, creating feelings of pleasure and reward. This makes us more likely to repeat the experience for the same rewards. Dopamine also promotes the necessary changes in the brain's wiring that make it easier to follow this pleasurable pathway again and ultimately will then form these behaviours into habits.

With an addiction, a person will experience a much greater surge in dopamine from engagement in the addictive drug (in this case energy deficit) than that experienced from other pleasurable experiences. This surge in feel good pleasure results in their brain recognising what caused this dopamine release, labelling it as worthy of repetition and wiring it in to become a hard-wired habit very quickly.

Dopamine release makes us feel great. When you experience a high in life, a large contributor to those feelings is dopamine. When you first engaged in behaviours that created energy deficit and led onto the development of the eating disorder, dopamine will have been released in your brain in response to that energy deficit you were creating and that will have made you feel incredible (at least in the early days).

Ultimately then, dopamine is a key factor in what made those first experiences of energy deficit so rewarding but dopamine is not the only brain chemical to blame.

Natural Opioids

Opioids are commonly considered to be substances that people take either in the form of a medication, such as morphine for pain or diazepam as a relaxant, or in the form of drugs of abuse, such as heroin. However, our bodies also create their own natural opioids, which are called endorphins or enkephalins. These are released to help alleviate pain, but they also have the same effects as the drug forms, stimulating feelings of pleasure, even euphoria, and reducing stress. Opioids create these effects by increasing the release of dopamine which, as stated above, has a rewarding and reinforcing effect, driving habit formation and can result in addiction.

There has long been a theory that both self-starvation (restriction) and bingeing, as well as excessive exercising and vomiting, cause the body to release its own natural endogenous opioids. It's also been found that people with eating disorders have higher levels of natural opioids than those without. Therefore, it's possible that people with restrictive eating disorders become addicted to the significant opioid release that is triggered by energy deficit-creating behaviours.

So, there are high levels of dopamine and natural opioids being released in the brain in response to energy deficit that create initial feelings of high pleasure and reward from the energy deficit state and any behaviours that lead to it. Perhaps one of the most compelling theories as to why a person's brain would have the capacity to develop this reward response and resulting addiction to energy deficit and self-starvation is the evolutionary Flee-from-Famine theory to eating disorders which I will write more about in future posts (if you want to know more now then it's all covered in the book).

There are also two more factors that are likely to have added even greater feelings of reward from the initial dabble into energy deficit experienced by someone with a restrictive eating disorder, which also then led their brain to seek more of this reward response. And these additional factors can be present and reinforce the development of any addiction, increasing the likelihood of its full entrenchment. These factors are:

  • When engagement in the drug solves a problem the person has, adding to the pleasurable response from it.

As a restrictive eating disorder is an overall addiction to energy deficit, it means some degree of weight loss has triggered the addiction. You could be forgiven for thinking then that people who develop restrictive eating disorders do so because they wanted to lose weight and when they achieved that goal, their brain released a surge of feel-good chemicals that led to the ongoing, addictive nature of the behaviours. This might well be the case for some people but it's not for everyone.

It might be that someone unintentionally loses weight and because weight loss is valued in our culture, felt good about it. This might have been further reinforced by compliments from people around them.

For some, the achievement of goals relating to sports or expectations to look or behave a certain way from an employer or partner is highly rewarding, creating a desire for more.

  • When the brain perceives that the behaviour or substance protects the person from harm.

Some eating disorders arise when someone has a problem not at all related to weight or shape. An example is someone with a true phobia of vomiting. They learn that avoiding food intake prevents vomiting. With a vomiting phobia, the brain perceives vomiting to be a direct threat, and so it will highly reward behaviours (through dopamine release) that ensure they avoid the perceived danger.

And in the case of someone who is highly anxious or self-critical or who has a trauma history can find that as they enter a state of energy deficit through eating restrictively or other weight control behaviours, the addictive nature has a powerful self-soothing effect, enabling them to feel normal.

There are any number of things that can reinforce the initial surge in dopamine release when someone first engages in behaviours leading to energy deficit. In all cases, the person’s brain will have noticed what caused the reward response and latched onto it. As they repeated the behaviours, they became entrenched habits that were incredibly hard to stop, even after they had ceased to bring many positive effects and had even become detrimental to their life.

It can help to reflect on any additional contributing factors that were present to make the eating disorder so rewarding to your brain when it started. For many, these factors will no longer be valid but for others, they may still be very present and have developed into factors that now maintain the eating disorder making it harder for you to overcome until you address them.

In the next post, the power of rituals around the eating disorder and addictive drive to pursue energy deficit will be covered before a deeper dive into how to overcome an addiction to energy deficit and what's involved.

**The information here is taken from my newly available book, 'Addicted to Energy Deficit - A Neuroscience Based Guide to Restrictive Eating Disorders' which you can buy now!**

If you like to listen, as well as (or instead of read!) then this blog post is the transcript of a podcast episode which you will find on my podcast series,

available on this website, all mainstream podcast platforms and on YouTube

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