I can’t eat just yet. I need to clean my apartment first. I need to make sure I’ve responded to all my emails. I need to get in my workout before the tasks of the day start tacking up. Does this sound like the little voice in your head? I know that voice all too well. For years, I procrastinated eating. I constantly felt like I had to deserve my food and could only fully enjoy it once all my to-do’s were checked off. If you resonate with this, keep on reading! In this post, I’ll be sharing what I believe to be the biological reason so many people with eating disorders – especially those who are also neurodivergent – delay mealtimes, the consequences of delaying food, and what strategies you can implement to adopt an eating schedule that works for YOUR unique lifestyle!
Why do you procrastinate mealtimes?
First of all, why do we procrastinate eating? If you are anything like me, I don’t procrastinate much. I’m a huge planner and like to have most things sorted and out of my brain as soon as I know about them. When I was still in school and got an assignment, I would get started ASAP. Unlike my mom and sisters who would wait to start until midnight the day before, I needed the space and time to complete a project or study for an exam without the additional pressure of time. Being a perfectionist and high-performer, I already felt enough pressure! I wanted to get straight As and be the best. So why would I add to that pressure by waiting until the last minute? That’s right, I wouldn’t! My tendency to plan things so far in advance serves a very important purpose, and that purpose is peace of mind.
I believe everything we do serves a purpose. I mean, otherwise, we wouldn’t do it, right? You may be wondering, how on Earth is engaging in disordered eating serving a purpose? How on Earth is torturing myself by distracting myself from mental hunger, or forcing myself to workout through exhaustion serving a purpose? And because we are talking about procrastinating mealtimes, how is delaying food serving a purpose? For starters, you’ve been doing most of these things for quite some time now. This has caused them to become habits, which serve a biological purpose!
Habits and the Brain
Habits are our brain's way of increasing its efficiency. When we don’t have to make as many decisions and our daily habits become automatic, we have more ENERGY left to do other tasks...looking at thousands of years ago, this meant more energy to hunt and seek food and do all the necessary tasks to SURVIVE. Yes, in today’s current day and age we may not have to do all those things, but our brains haven’t changed much since then. You know how hard it is to kick a habit. It’s the reason people have such a hard time quitting an addiction, the reason why the night owls stay night owls and the early birds stay early birds, and the reason why eating disorders and other mental health issues can go on for so long...after consistently conditioning our brain to make a choice, our brain has attached an automatic switch to these routine behaviors so it no longer has to spend extra energy on them.
In contrast, when us humans try to change, our brain has to work overtime to form new neural pathways, which costs energy. I go in depth on this topic of energy expenditure and why mental hunger is often stronger than physical hunger in my completely free guide answering the top 10 question about Extreme Hunger, so feel free to grab that here! To quickly summarize, EVERY task the body executes costs energy. That’s why recovery from an eating disorder can feel SO damn exhausting, because what you’re literally doing, is sawing away the old connections in your brain, and building new ones from the ground up. I know this may sound slightly discouraging, but the good news is that taking consistent steps towards the life you want to live - the life free from an eating disorder - creates a domino effect. To knock that first domino down is the hardest, but once you gain momentum in recovery, you become unstoppable my friend!
What purpose do disordered habits serve?
Understanding how the brain forms and maintains habits allows you to better understand why you so badly want to change and so badly want to recover, but it feels impossible. When you are malnourished and your body is doing everything it can to conserve as much energy as possible, of course it’s not going to prioritize expending energy on changing your habits! All of this is amplified when you’re autistic, because one of the main autistic traits is difficulty with change! So, the purpose that all your disordered eating habits are serving, is that they are providing you with predictability – eating the same foods everyday, following the same workout routine even though you’re tired, working or studying instead of honoring mental hunger – these are all things you’ve conditioned your brain it can consistently rely on, which is why it literally feels safer to engage in the eating disorder than to take recovery-oriented action!
Your Autonomic Nervous System
When it comes to the purpose of procrastinating meal times specifically, I believe this is due to the state of your nervous system. As I explain in my post on How to Overcome Fear Foods, the body is constantly switching between two systems: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. Also known as fight-flight-freeze mode, your sympathetic nervous system is responsible for keeping you safe in dangerous or stressful situations. In these situations, your sympathetic nervous system activates to speed up your heart rate and deliver more blood to areas of the body that need more oxygen to quickly get you out of danger, for example your leg muscles if you are running away from a tiger.
The sympathetic nervous system acts in direct contrast to your parasympathetic nervous system, also known as rest-and-digest mode. This comes back to your body’s energetic balance, as it’s constantly sending energy to where your body needs it most. If you are faced by a tiger in the wild, your body has no time to digest or to think about whether or not you’re hungry, as this would decrease your chances of survival! In contrast, when you are feeling safe and calm, the body activates your parasympathetic nervous system, allowing you to properly digest food.
Anxiety and Interoception
How does this all tie back to delaying food? Well, if you are constantly in a state of anxiety – which is commonly the case among autistic individuals as well as those struggling with disordered eating – your body is constantly in that fight-flight-freeze mode! The overstimulation caused by all the tasks taking up space in your brain (not to mention the overstimulation of just being neurodivergent!) is prohibiting you from being in rest and digest mode. So, biologically, it makes PERFECT SENSE why you feel incapable of eating before getting all of the thoughts out of your head!
Of course, this isn’t a sustainable way to live and more importantly, it’s not how you want to live – because you’re a slave to the tasks rather than feeling free in when you can eat! Moreover, delaying mealtimes doesn’t come without consequences. As I’m sure you’ve experienced, restricting for prolonged periods of time can cause you to feel shaky, irritable, weak, and just overall crappy because our bodies NEED CONSISTENT FUEL TO FUNCTION! If you’re also neurodivergent, I’m sure you resonate with being unable to recognize physical hunger and fullness cues.
As I mentioned in my post How to Recognize + Overcome Extreme Hunger as an Autistic Person in ED Recovery, autistic people can often go for hours without food because they are simply unaware of needing to eat. This can result in bingeing later in the day or in the evening, because your body has a whole day’s worth of calories to make up for! This doesn’t make you an emotional eater or a binge eater, this simply makes you a human that needs calories to survive.
Strategies to stop procrastinating mealtimes
Now that we know the biology behind procrastinating mealtimes and what the consequences are of doing so, it’s time to share some tips on how to stop procrastinating eating! If you want to live in freedom and be able to eat whatever and whenever you want, you need to get out of fight or flight mode and into rest and digest mode. You need to teach your brain that it’s SAFE to eat, even when you have a mountain of to-do lists and a head that’s buzzing with thoughts. So how do you do that?
1. Your to-do-list will be there when you get back
One of the most helpful reminders that has not only worked for me but also for many of my clients, is that your to-do-list will be there when you get back. Even though we may think we will one day have no tasks or chores that need to be done, let’s be realistic: there’s ALWAYS more stuff to do. The to-do list is never ending. And even if the tasks on that list aren't that important, us stimuli-seeking individuals (hello dopamine!) will constantly come up with reasons of why we need to do “just one more thing” before we finally allow ourselves to relax. But again, this causes you to be a slave to external circumstances because the reality is that how you live your life is ALWAYS your choice! So that’s tip #1: when you hear that little tyrant in your brain saying you "can’t eat just yet because there’s stuff you still have to do before", you tell that tyrant: thanks for popping in my brain today, but I don’t need to listen to you right now. You’ll be there when I get back, because right now, I have to take care of myself and eat. Fuel first, function second.
2. Create an ideal eating schedule
My second tip is specifically for autistic individuals, but really works for anyone who prefers structure and routine! That tip is to map out your ideal eating schedule. A lot of the work I do with my 1:1 clients revolves around cultivating the life you want to live rather than focusing on “recovery”. Where attention goes, energy flows. When we stay hyper-focused on “recovery”, we will forever stay stuck in recovery, blocking us from achieving the full potential that comes with being recovered. In contrast, when we focus on how we want to live and take actions that align with that desire, recovery is a natural byproduct!
Why do I share all this? Because the same method works for any goal you want to achieve! If you want to lead a life in which you feel healthy and free around food, yet simultaneously have structure and routine around food, you CAN! I do!
A huge misconception about intuitive eating is that it simply means “eating when you’re hungry and stopping when you’re full”, because this honestly couldn’t be further from the truth – ESPECIALLY if we’re talking about intuitive eating for neurodivergent individuals! As I explain in my post on interoception, autistic people are often unable to recognize physical cues. So how on Earth are we supposed to “honor our hunger and fullness cues” when our body doesn’t have these cues in the first place?
I often eat when I’m not hungry and I consider myself an intuitive eater. I eat what I want when I want, free of rules and restrictions, but within the boundaries of my own body and knowledge of my autistic brain. I know that in order to feel my best, I need to eat specific foods and I need to eat regularly throughout the day. I have created my own individualized eating pattern, and you can do the same if you are brutally honest with yourself and allow yourself to eat what deep down, you know your body needs!
3. Stimulate your Vagus Nerve
My third and final tip is to stimulate your vagus nerve. I do go deep into the science of the vagus nerve and its importance in my course Extremely Hungry to Completely Satisfied so I’m not going to repeat myself here, but in short, the vagus nerve is the main nerve of the parasympathetic nervous system. It’s responsible for carrying signals from the brain to the gut and vice-versa, as certain neurotransmitters such as serotonin are not only found in the brain, but also in the gut! If you are anxious and have a lot on your mind, this can negatively impact your gut health and result in digestive issues. How to heal these digestive issues is yet another topic that’s covered in my course – I mean friend, please do yourself a favor and enroll! – and the vagus nerve also plays a key role in doing so!
How, you may ask? Well, because the vagus nerve is the main nerve of the parasympathetic nervous system, stimulating it activates your rest & digest mode. And as we learned earlier in this episode, it’s NOT being in rest & digest mode that causes you to feel like you have to do all these tasks before allowing yourself to finally eat! To stimulate your vagus nerve, all you have to do is take slow, controlled breaths. In doing so, you are consciously slowing down your heart rate and allowing increased blood flow to the brain, which, in turn, signals to your brain that you are safe.
And there you have it! After reading this post, you now understand the biological reason for why you procrastinate mealtimes and I’ve given you three strategies to biohack that biology so you can finally STOP falling victim to your to-do list and take responsibility over your own life. If you enjoyed this post, please share it with a friend - just taking two minutes to share the love supports me in doing what I love, and that is helping YOU find freedom!
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