Two years later though, things started getting out of control. I had lost so much weight that my advising dean wanted me to take time off of school. When I started trying to recover and eat more I found myself in a nightmarish spiral of binging and purging that I couldn't get out of. If I couldn’t trust myself with food before, I was actually scared of food now.
New research may give a clue to how things spiraled out of my control, at least in part.
Researchers from the Netherlands published a study in the January 2015 issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology that suggested that focusing on appearance could affect a person's sensitivity to their internal satiety cues.
"We found that focusing on how you look may hinder how you listen to your body’s hunger fullness cues and how you adjust your food intake," said Evelien van de Veer, the paper’s lead author.
Van de Veer and her team recruited 113 participants and conducted two experiments for their study. In the first experiment, researchers told participants they were participating in a milkshake taste test. They divided the participants into two groups. Both groups were given a milkshake to drink but only one group of participants had a mirror placed on their desk. Within each of these groups, half of the participants drank a high-calorie milkshake while the other half drank a low-calorie milkshake, but they were not told which one they were drinking. Fifteen minutes after the milkshake, the participants were asked to go into a room to watch a movie on a computer. There was a bowl of M&M's placed next to the computer. The researchers found that the participants who drank the high-calorie milkshake while looking at the mirror consistently ate more M&M's than the participants who drank the milkshake without looking into a mirror.
In the second experiment, researchers tested two groups of female participants. One group came before lunch (the “hungry condition”) and the other half came after eating a filling lunch (the “satiety condition”). Half of the participants in each condition were asked to look at advertisements depicting thin models. They then participated in a cracker taste test, did 15 minutes of a filler task, and then the experimenter told the participants that she would leave the crackers on the table so that they could help themselves if they wanted to. While people in the "hungry condition" ate about the same amount of crackers whether they saw the models or not, research found that those who were in the "satiety condition" tended to eat more crackers if they had looked at the advertisements beforehand.
Researchers drew upon past research on self-objectification and distracted eating to explain why people in the experiments were less likely to sense fullness if they were focused on appearance. In a study from 2006, women who were preoccupied with how others perceived their bodies (a state psychologists call self-objectification) were more likely to be distracted and unable to focus on cognitively challenging tasks. Previous studies also found that people who were distracted while eating were less likely to sense their body's internal satiety cues. Thus, researchers suggested in the study that people did not adjust their intake according to fullness cues if they were focused on appearance because they were distracted from sensing those cues.