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Animal Mentors Teach Us About Eating Disorders

In my last post, I shared in a broad-brush overview kind of way about a new favorite book find, “Zoobiquity.”

The more I ponder the book, the more I realize that what I find most intriguing about “Zoobiquity” is that it wasn’t written earlier than it was (the book was published in 2012).

It just seems so intuitive – so practical, logical – that we look to those we share this planet with, regardless of species, for insights into health conditions and other phenomena we are struggling to comprehend.

In fact, as with most great ideas, there seems to exist as much ongoing resistance to this concept as there is acceptance. But luckily, some medical professionals are keen to collaborate on an interspecies level, which is where today’s post comes from.

In “Zoobiquity,” co-authors Barbara Natterson-Horowitz, M.D., and Kathryn Bowers highlight many of today’s most prevalent human health crises. Obesity, bulimia and anorexia all make the short list.

But in examining how animals interact with food, we gain access to a deeper dimension of understanding, because we reconnect the human physical organism of body-mind-emotion back with the greater natural world where many species dwell together, and not always in harmony.

In other words, as human beings, we have a strong tendency to forget that we both sit at the top of the food chain and have exempted ourselves from participating in that food chain in any meaningful or personally impactful way.

For example, if we want something to eat, we zip through the closest drive-through window….or occasionally head out into the wilds well-equipped with all the latest heavy artillery, complete with a secure fort in which to hide as we wait for our lunch to wander by.

Animals have no such luxury.

In the non-human interspecies community, when food presents itself for the eating, you a) eat as much of it as you can pack in, and then b) attempt to securely hoard the rest in various locations known only to yourself.

If a voracious predator is lurking near the food source that is most nutritious, you settle for your second choice, even if it is far less sustaining in terms of your long-term nourishment needs.

If that predator decides you look like a good appetizer, you abandon ship if time permits. If time does not permit, you may instead do something called “defensive regurgitation” (basically, vomiting up everything you just consumed) to buy yourself a chance to escape.

When times are lean (or predators are numerous, or both) you have two equally unattractive options: a) starve, or b) take your chances that today’s meal will be your last. Not surprisingly, many prey animals opt for the former, and some eventually develop a syndrome veterinarians call “fear of feeding” as they slowly starve to death.

As it turns out, the fear, anxiety and stressful nature of feeding in the wild can influence everything from what foods are chosen to when or even if those foods are consumed. Research biologists have termed this “the ecology of fear.”

One example of the ecology of fear at work is this: prey animals in the wild have been observed to opt for high-sugar, high-carb food options over high-protein, high-fiber food options when feeding in very dangerous circumstances. They choose the high-sugar/high-carb foods because the body can access their energy nearly instantly, permitting them to make a quick, energetic getaway if need be.

Only when animals are feeling safe and protected are they observed to routinely select high-protein or high-fiber foods, which take longer for the body to break down into energy and require more energy to process.

As I was reading the food chapters in “Zoobiquity,” slowly a new picture began to form in my mind.

The picture was of me, feeding in the wild as an active (if not particularly willing) participant in a very real food chain. What I saw myself doing is as follows: 

  • When threats arise, I pick “quick fix” foods that keep me mobile. If a threat gets too close, I regurgitate defensively in an attempt to escape.
  • When the lean times approach, I busy myself with food hoarding, hoping as I do to store enough fast enough to make it through the winter season alive.
  • In times of plenty, I gorge and store, gorge and store, too focused on getting while the getting is good to worry about my ever-rounder physique.
  • In times when food becomes scarce, I live off my stores, sometimes to the point where my next meal is literally a matter of life or death.
  • When I feel very stressed (about eating or other things) I might even repeatedly throw up and then re-ingest my food as a sort of self-soothing ritual (a behavior pattern that today’s medical specialists – for animals and human beings alike – call “rumination disorder.”)

This is me feeding in the wild world.

These are my food-related survival instincts hard at work on a daily basis. Their goal is to keep me alive and functional and they will do whatever it takes to accomplish this mission.

These coping strategies and behaviors are all stored away in my limbic brain system, that ancient brain I share in common with a great variety of species, many with much older ancestors than my own. As each day of my oh-so-modern life unfolds, it continues to be my limbic brain system’s job to keep me alive. This difficult job includes managing how and when and what and how often I eat and how I then use what I have ingested to stay alive.

Yet just because humans as a species have mostly opted out of participating in the daily “eat or be eaten” food chain of wild life, this doesn’t mean we’ve opted out of feeling stress, anxiety, fear and other threatening-type emotions that activate our ancient limbic brain.

And while I couldn’t begin to guess why some of us homo sapiens seem more prone to (mis) manage our food in certain ways under threatening-feeling conditions, I feel quite certain that, were we to re-enter the wild food chain at any point in time, some of these very odd-seeming behaviors around food might start to make some actual sense again.

Simply because we share so much of our DNA with ancestors of many species, might these now maladaptive food-related behaviors have once served a very critical survival-based purpose?

Perhaps what we call “disordered” behaviors around food might not look so odd should we take the ready and endless supply of food sources out of the equation, but leave all the fear and stress and anxiety of our ongoing daily lives in.

Today’s Takeaway: What do you think? If you or someone you care about suffers from any type of disordered behaviors around food, do you think that viewing these behaviors from a much more ancient and shared interspecies perspective might possibly shed new light on the healing and recovery process?

Bird Mentors image from Shutterstock.

Animal Mentors Teach Us About Eating Disorders


Shannon Cutts

Parrot, tortoise & box turtle mama. Writer. Author. Mentor. Champion of all people (and things) recovered and recovering. http://www.loveandfeathersandshells.com http://www.shannoncutts.com


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APA Reference
Cutts, S. (2016). Animal Mentors Teach Us About Eating Disorders. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 22, 2019, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/mentoring-recovery/2016/03/animal-mentors-teach-us-about-eating-disorders/

 

Last updated: 19 Mar 2016
Statement of review: Psych Central does not review the content that appears in our blog network (blogs.psychcentral.com) prior to publication. All opinions expressed herein are exclusively those of the author alone, and do not reflect the views of the editorial staff or management of Psych Central. Published on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.