Eating Disorder Behaviors: Tips for Difficult-to-Break Habits
Mar 29, 2018

Timothy Goodman
Core Spirit member since Dec 24, 2020
Reading time 6 min.

Are you having a hard time stopping or decreasing dieting, purging, bingeing or exercise? Have you ever thought that maybe you’re not “failing” or “weak.” Instead, the habit part of your brain may be really strong!

The neuroscience of habit formation is complex, so let me oversimplify: a habit is a behavior or sequence of behaviors that has shifted from requiring focus and energy to one that requires little to no attention—seemingly automatic.

Humans often do things in pursuit of a reward; so we often plant a seed that can grow into a habit through our repeated thoughts and behaviors directed toward the reward. Make sense? At some point, the brain seems to choose to conserve energy—kind of like a computer’s hard drive when it shifts to sleep mode—by allowing us to not use extra thinking energy on what has already been well practiced. Voila, a habit has been formed!

Think about when you first started brushing your teeth. Remember the focus and concentration of making sure to scrub your molars, your gums, etc.? You may have even practiced a particular order of actions—a sequence. The desired reward might have been parental praise, a feeling of accomplishment, or an avoidance of punishment. The initial few acts of brushing your teeth probably required a lot more energy and attention than it does now! This transition from choice or intentionality to automatic habit, which happens without awareness, can be helpful to understanding what can feel like failed attempts at changing dieting, bingeing, purging, and compulsive exercise behaviors.

Dieting Habits

Let’s look at dieting, meaning restricting, or attempts at cutting caloric intake below what is required to maintain body weight. When a person repeatedly adheres to specific food rules and behaviors, especially if the rules and behaviors are tied to perceived rewards (e.g., self-esteem, weight loss, health), the repeated choices and actions may shift to habits.

According to research, once a habit has been formed in the brain’s structure, rewards can disappear or stop and the habit may continue. In the case of dieting, weight loss may slow or plateau and appearance compliments may decrease. Physical and mental health even may become jeopardized; physiological effects of restriction can range from seemingly minor (e.g., crankiness, decreased sociability, feeling less energetic) to potentially dangerous (e.g., physical weakness, malnutrition, refeeding syndrome). Yet the dieting habit may persist because the brain has gotten into a routine.

Groundbreaking research recently revealed that people with anorexia nervosa, an extreme example of repeated food restriction, seem to make decisions about their food from a specific area of the brain that is associated with habits. Why does this matter? The brain may actually be directing the person with anorexia nervosa to what is habitual (e.g., low calorie and restrictive foods) even if the person wants to eat differently.

Anorexia nervosa is a multi-faceted, serious, sometimes life-threatening illness; one component of its persistence might be attributed to the brain having adopted habit over choice.

For those of you who are “always on a diet,” have you ever considered that some of your dieting behaviors may actually be automatic habits that aren’t serving you or might be keeping you stuck? If so, here’s a thought: Maybe change is difficult because the habit part of your brain may be really strong!

Binge Eating Habits

Anything repeatedly practiced may become a habit. While bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder are less well studied than anorexia nervosa, they both involve bingeing, which can also become automatic or habitual. A feeling of relief from experiencing emotions or “numbing out,” a dopamine release, and a sense of fullness or comfort are examples of some of the perceived initial rewards of bingeing. Over time, repeated binge eating may shift to a habit without the person’s intention. A bingeing habit can result in psychological struggles and medical consequences related to those of obesity.

It’s important to be aware of food restriction-driven binges, which can feel confusing to a person. Dieting can actually trigger a binge, and this commonly happens when a person is not eating enough and in regular increments. Since food is a basic need for survival, chronic dieting (or a dieting habit) can drive binge cycles that can transition into repeated food restricting-then-bingeing patterns and habits.

For those of you who find yourself repeatedly bingeing, have you ever considered that what was once deliberate bingeing may have shifted into an automatic habit? If so, here’s some inspiration: Maybe the negative things you might sometimes believe about yourself (e.g., “I’m weak,” “I have no willpower,” etc.) are NOT true; instead, the habit part of your brain may be really strong!

Purging Habits

For purging behaviors (those that empty, such as use of vomiting, enemas, diuretics, and laxatives), if there is repetition, then choice may shift to habit. Additionally, the perceived reward(s) that initially drove the purging behavior (e.g., the pursuit of weight loss, a release of dopamine, relieving a feeling of over-fullness, etc.) may become less of a driving force than the automaticity of the habit. No problem, right? Wrong. The eventual physiological responses to a purging habit (AKA those behaviors common in bulimia nervosa) can range from subtle or uncomfortable (e.g., swollen parotid glands, sore or hoarse throat, etc.) to potentially dangerous (e.g., electrolyte imbalances, cardiac arrhythmia, heart attack, sudden death).

If you find yourself in a routine of purging, have you ever considered that what was once done by choice may have transitioned into an automatic habit? If so, here’s some hope: Maybe it doesn’t have to stay like this, and the negative things you might sometimes think about yourself (e.g., “I’m disgusting,” “I’m weak,” etc.) are NOT true. Instead, the habit part of your brain may be really strong!

Exercise Habits

Finally, let’s address exercise, which can be a compensatory behavior—and habit—initially reinforced by perceived rewards (e.g., hope for increased self-esteem, health, weight loss, strength, and more). Though exercise is often framed as positive by many in our society, when adhering to an exercise habit gets rigid or interferes with life, it can be a problem. For example, there may be a loss of flexibility in schedule, which could be seen as problematic for self or others. This could look like any of the following: someone who can’t go to a loved one’s social event because the person must exercise; the person stops, or is less attentive to, other important aspects of life because of the person’s exercise routine; or the person seems driven to exercise when ill or injured. Consequences of problematic or over-exercise can vary from minor to major and tend to relate to the person’s habits, individual body, frequency, and severity of activity and practices.

If you find yourself feeling locked into certain exercise routines, have you ever considered that your repeated choices about exercise might have shifted your behaviors into automatic habits? If so, here’s some encouragement: Life can have more choice in it. You may be stuck right now because the habit part of your brain is really strong!


If you are (or someone you love is) struggling with changing habits of dieting, purging, bingeing, or compelled exercise, consider the following. We all know that a habit is hard to break. However, a repeated action may become a habit; this applies equally to actions that align with healing and recovery from eating disorders and disordered eating. Instead of viewing attempts to enact desired change as “failed” or “never going to change,” recognize that the habit part of the brain might be really strong. So, keep trying! Use your ability to form a strong habit as a benefit! Keep practicing new, more desired, potential habits! For ideas about how to change behaviors, learn more about delays and alternatives.

I am not implying that creating new or breaking old habits—especially those related to eating disorders or disordered eating—are simple tasks. No, no. Not at all. Instead, we are looking at the brain’s powerful role when it hijacks choice and shifts something to habit, often without the person’s permission or awareness.

There is no hard and steadfast rule on how long forming a new habit—for example, one that aligns with healing and recovery from eating disorders and disordered eating—can take, so why not try?

Anyone who is engaged in eating disorder-related behaviors is strongly encouraged to seek professional guidance for support, techniques, safety and oversight while trying to break these difficult and sometimes dangerous habits. People’s bodies handle stress differently, and there can be serious mental and physical health consequences from what can seem like benign dieting, purging, bingeing, and exercise habits.

Please note that eating disorders are complex psychological illnesses that often come with physical consequences and cannot be oversimplified as habits. This is a way to better understand the automaticity of some eating disorder-related behaviors that people have a hard time decreasing and/or stopping.

by Alli Spotts-De Lazzer For Very Well

Leave your comments / questions for this practitioner

To write a comment please
Category filter
Concern filter
Type filter

All categories

Wellness Coaching
$20 USD
50 & Beyond Health & Wellbeing Discovery Session

Join me for a comprehensive look into what it will take to stay physically and mentally strong as you move through the second half of your life.

We all want to age without the fear of suffering from a chronic illness and still have the energy and strength to live the life we want.

The number one reason people fail to stay healthy as they age is the inability to consistently follow the right habits and behaviours for health transformation.

Through working with 1000's of clients over the last 20 years, I have been able to develop a coaching program that not only looks at nutrition, exercise, sleep and stress management but also how to develop the right mindset needed to succeed.

Having a plan is not as important as having the ability to implement it.

If you are someone who struggles to follow healthy habits consistently. Or you are someone who wants to learn more about what they need to do personally to avoid chronic illness. Then my 30-minute Discovery Session is ideal for you.

From the 30 minutes we spend together, we will go through in specific detail what it is you can do today when it comes to what to eat, how to get the most from exercise, how to develop a powerful sleep routine and how to build a healthy environment needed to live a healthy life.

And with over 20 years of coaching experience in the health & wellness industry, I have witnessed firsthand what it takes to consistently follow the right habits and behaviours for lasting change.

Expect to hear things that will challenge what you have always been told about nutrition, exercise, sleep and stress management. As someone who is over 50 and is stronger, fitter and healthier than I was in my 20s, 30s, & 40s, I am well-placed to know what works and doesn't as we move through this period of our lives.

Chris Deavin
Cognitive Psychology
$99 USD
Check Your Vibes! Find out how much Positive and Negative energy you have!

The Energy Leadership™ Index (ELI) assessment is the proprietary, research-backed assessment tool, created by iPEC, that takes something abstract, like the way a person views the world, and turns it into something tangible—a metric that you can see and feel and even reevaluate in the future.

You’ve probably taken personality tests, like Myers Briggs, DiSC, and Enneagram, but this is different. And transformational.

The ELI is an attitudinal assessment tool that captures how an individual currently perceives and approaches work and life. This means that you learn to make change happen in real-time when you encounter a moment of self-doubt, fear, or frustration.

With the awareness and insights gained through the Energy Leadership Index debrief, you have the opportunity to reshape your attitudes and worldview and transform your life into the one you envision.

Our worldview is the result of a combination of many different aspects: our past experiences, level of consciousness, perception of situations. Each of us has a unique combination of all seven levels of energy which, in turn, creates your typical viewpoints, perceptions, and beliefs about life.

Learning about your energetic makeup can help you to reframe your perspective, shift your consciousness, and increase your energy level as a result. Discover your unique energetic makeup by taking an ELI Assessment!

This comes with an hour debrief - As an FYI the price is what it is because there is a price to me- I have to pay the institution for the assessment and the scoring. Then I'll walk you thorugh your results.

David Jacks
Life Coaching
$75 USD
mentorship session
Ignite the Light Within


Powerful! Find your recipe for happiness! Love the skin you're in. We will go deep right away to discover your inner passion, chart a course that aligns with your highest heart power.

Target audience

Adults who are ready to be happy and enjoy their lives. Adults who are depressed, feeling hopeless or lost.


You will feel energized and empowered to make the changes you want in your life.


I will use my intuitive skills as we talk and hone in on your desires. I will place high frequency sigils in your energy field to expand your future and encourage your inner power to come forth.

Other comments

Dr. Michele S. Zirkle
Life Coaching
$60 USD
coaching session
Design Your Life- Personal Development Session

When you aren't sure which way to turn or who to turn to for help in making decisions, I will help you come home to yourself and forge a plan to manifest your desires.
Whether it's everyday details that have you confused or it's major decisions you need to make, I will teach you how to make the decisions that are best for you.

Dr. Michele S. Zirkle

Related Articles

View All
Social Psychology
Mar 26 2021
People structure gatherings

People structure gatherings. They live in gatherings. They move in gatherings. They work in gatherings. Gatherings are significant. The impact of work and work conduct. They can’t be disregarded. They apply the critical effect on the association. They are…

Noah Allford
Personality Psychology
Nov 6 2019
What It Might Mean If You Get Deja Vu A Lot

In 1999, a 42-year-old woman went to the doctor for what she described as a popping noise in both her ears. The noise was so loud it had started to keep her up at night. The woman was diagnosed with Palatal Tremor, a movement disorder of some of the muscl…

Demi Powell
Personality Psychology
Mar 29 2018
Magic Mushroom Drug Lifts Depression in Human Trial

A hallucinogenic drug derived from magic mushrooms could be useful in treating depression, the first safety study of this approach has concluded.

Researchers from Imperial College London gave 12 people psilocybin, the active component in magic mushrooms.…

Paula Montgomery
Relationship Coaching
Sep 18 2021
Soulmate Versus Twin Flame—What does it mean?

When I hear the term “twin flame,” I often cringe because I feel it gets tossed about as the end-all and be-all of romantic connections. Soulmate often gets used in a similar way, but it’s the twin flame connection I feel is most misunderstood. My first p…

Shari, the Soulmate Seekers Love Coach
Registered individuals enjoy all the possibilities of Core Spirit.