Bulimia Nervosa is an eating disorder that is characterized by a cycle of binging and compensatory behaviors such as self-induced vomiting designed to undo or compensate for the effects of binge eating. Binging is strongly linked with feelings of a loss of control immediately followed by feelings of guilt and shame. The compensatory behaviors known as purging are unhealthy ways to eliminate any feelings of guilt. This vicious cycle of the loss of self-control followed by feelings of guilt and shame that are relieved through purging is what drives the cycle of binge eating disorder. In general, all eating disorders are directly tied to emotions, in one way or another. Eating disorder behaviors are often used to escape from reality and to mask the deep emotional roots. For example, individuals may engage in binging episodes as an escape from feeling painful feelings or avoid any feeling at all. They may restrict to pursue numbness, suppress difficult memories or decisions before these thoughts and memories even reach their consciousness. Social withdrawal, apathy, and emotional avoidance are all red flags that are concerning for an eating disorder, and bulimia nervosa is no different.

The Evolution of Binging and Starvation

Many individuals use binging as a coping mechanism to deal with their negative surroundings and use starvation (a form of purging) as a way to be in control of their bodies and environment. Starvation is seen in the restricting subtype of bulimia nervosa where individuals do not engage in self-induced vomiting but rather use laxatives, extreme dieting or excessive exercise to rid their bodies of the calories they consumed from their binge. Physical starvation and food deprivation is a key component to the binging cycle as dieting, and food restriction naturally leads to binging or emotional overeating. From an evolutionary standpoint, it makes sense that starvation or the threat of future starvation would trigger individuals to instinctively binge eat as our history and evolution began with our bodies not having adequate food sources. Our bodies evolved in an environment in which food was relatively scarce. To survive in such an environment, our bodies had to prioritize the consumption of food above other activities. If our food supply was less secure, we learned to stock up on food when we could.

The Minnesota Starvation Study

The Minnesota Starvation Study involved a sample of 36 young, healthy, men whose caloric intake was restricted for six months. More than 100 men volunteered for the study as an alternative to military service; the 36 selected had the highest levels of physical and psychological health. During the first three months of the semi-starvation experiment, the volunteers usually ate while their behavior, personality, and eating patterns were studied in detail. During the next six months, the men were restricted to approximately half of their former food intake. After the six months, there was also three months of rehabilitation, during which the men were gradually refed.

Interestingly, many of the symptoms that are associated with clinical eating disorders became apparent in the men who participated in the study. Many of the men in the study became obsessed with food, collected recipes, hoarded kitchen utensils, daydreamed about food, and engaged in strange food rituals. Further, despite little interest in culinary matters before the experiment, almost 40% of the men mentioned cooking as part of their post-experiment plans. For some, the fascination was so great that they changed occupations after the experiment; three became chefs, and one went into agriculture. During the restrictive dieting phase of the research, all of the volunteers reported increased hunger. Some appeared able to tolerate the experience fairly well, but for others, it created intense concern and led to a complete breakdown in control.”

A few of the men broke the rules of the study and binged on large quantities of food. One study participant binged and purged. Additionally, the men experienced psychological changes, such as a decrease in sex drive, and an increase in depression and anxiety.

The Minnesota Starvation Study helps to explain some of the behavioral and cognitive symptoms that individuals with bulimia nervosa may experience as a direct result of their attempts to restrict food.

Binge Eating Disorder and Emotional Deprivation

Emotional deprivation is the concept of allowing oneself to eat a particular food, but continuing to feel shame and guilt around your food choices. Emotional deprivation can perpetuate the binge-purge cycle, as the thought behind it is often, “I am eating this now, but I won’t allow myself to eat it tomorrow.” This mindset may trigger binge eating, as it is the perceived threat of starvation or deprivation.