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May 9, 2018

The Brain, Binge Eating, and Balance

The Brain, Binge Eating, and Balance

Every day we are faced with “now or later” decisions. Should I buy that piece of clothing I want now so I can wear it right away or should I wait and hopefully get it on sale? These types of decisions involve the concept of immediate or delayed gratification. Brain research is showing that people’s tendencies in this area often end up being expressed in their eating disorder.

Below is a graphic illustrating this concept:

The limbic system is the part of the brain involved in our emotional responses and memory formation, especially when it comes to behaviors we need for survival: feeding, reproduction, and “fight or flight” responses.

Executive function is an area of the brain that engages in the mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully. This is where we develop self-regulation skills that enable us to set priorities and resist impulsive actions or responses.

Researchers are discovering that differences in these two areas of the brain can influence one’s reactions to food. This can be especially consequential when a person is struggling with an eating disorder. For example, a person who is feeling acute distress due to some aspect of their eating disorder might experience immediate relief through binging and/or purging, which might outweigh the long-term consequences of such behavior. However, for other individuals, their drive for order, planning, and long-term goal attainment might override the immediate needs for food, sleep or other basic human needs, resulting in restrictive eating behaviors.

Being aware of our own tendencies and getting better acquainted with how our brain works can help us make sense of why we take the actions we do, and if necessary, what skills, strategies, and coping mechanisms we might need to help eliminate or minimize actions that don’t serve our long-term, recovery goals.


Hilmar Wagner, MPH, RDN, CD

Hilmar Wagner is a Registered Dietitian/Nutritionist (RDN) and Certified Dietitian (CD) in the state of Washington. Hilmar joined the Emily Program in 2006 and currently serves as the Training Coordinator for Nutrition Services and Clinical Outreach Specialist. In this role, he initiates and coordinates training of new dietetic staff, dietetic interns, and continuing education for nutrition services for all Emily Program locations. He has presented on a wide range of nutrition topics at local, regional, and national conferences. Hilmar received his Bachelor’s degree in Nutrition/Dietetics and Master’s in Public Health Nutrition from the University of Minnesota. He has worked in the field of eating disorders for the past 12 years. Hilmar has extensive experience working with clients of all eating disorder diagnoses in both individual and group settings. He has a particular interest in mindfulness and body-centered approaches to eating disorder recovery.


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