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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, LN, CD

Hilmar Wagner (he/him), MPH, RDN, LN, CD, is a Clinical Outreach Specialist for Accanto Health, the parent company of The Emily Program and Gather Behavioral Health. In this role, Hilmar has presented on a wide range of eating disorder topics and related nutrition topics at local, regional, and national conferences. In addition to his deep understanding of evidence-based eating disorder care, he has a particular interest in the application of mindfulness and body-centered, somatic approaches to the nutritional treatment of eating disorders.

Hilmar received his bachelor’s degree in Nutrition/Dietetics and master’s in Public Health Nutrition from the University of Minnesota. Prior to joining The Emily Program in 2006, Hilmar worked as a Registered Dietitian in a variety of clinical, outpatient, community, and supervisory settings. In his over 15 years of experience, Hilmar has worked directly with clients of all eating disorder diagnoses in a variety of clinical settings. He has also served in management roles at the site, regional, and organization-wide levels.

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