Keto & Eating Disorders – Biology, Feminism & Junk Food

I’m very excited by the mixture of warm, curious and aggravated responses to my two previous posts on ketogenic eating and eating disorders. The huge interest in the topic has caught me by surprise, and I want to address some concerns and make a few clarifications. My layman hypothesis is that the physiological and psychological effects of mainstream eating in accordance with what is sometimes called Standard American Diet (SAD) may well be part of the cause of clinical eating disorders and subclinical disordered eating patterns. That is, I wonder if eating common, modern, industrialised food high in carbs may in itself set off  – or at least spur on – some of the biochemical processes of eating disorders.

I’m hypothesising that certain food items in themselves may be part of the root cause of disordered eating, because food has a direct and forceful effect on our neurobiology; which, in turn, is a strong component in the development of eating disorders. This is a stray from feminist analysis portraying societal power structures and gendered body ideals as the sole culprits of eating disorders. I, myself a feminist with a master’s degree in gender studies, am convinced that we should be more alert to the interplay between biology and society. To be clear, feminist researchers are deeply invested in understanding this interplay, but it still seems to be controversial to many a feminist layperson, if I may use such a term. Feminist researchers consider a profound understanding of biology, and a full recognition of its role, to be crucial for understanding society – and vice versa: in order to understand biology, we must understand society. This view is of course shared with evolutionary biologists and scholars in other, related and interdisciplinary fields. The “nature versus nurture”-battle is scientifically dead. The “versus” is replaced by an “and”. Nature and nurture, that is.

Over the last fifty years, scientific views on eating disorders have changed. Many would now describe them as biopshycosocial illnesses, which means that they have biological, psychological and social dimensions. The interest in understanding and addressing their biological ground is growing. “[It] is unlikely that predictably effective treatment for anorexia nervosa (and, we believe, also for other eating disorders) will be available until we decipher the reinforcing neurobiological mechanisms sustaining the disorder”, writes Cornell University researcher Katherine Halmi.

So, playing the devil’s advocate, why are women, and young girls especially, so gravely overrepresented in the eating disorder statistics, if it comes down to biology and not only society? The answer, playing myself, is: because there is a complex interplay. In a society of misogynist body ideals, girls and women will be grossly overrepresented amongst those who diet, starve themselves and/or binge eat in the first place. A quota of these girls and women will prove to have a biological vulnerability which makes them prone to develop a clinical eating disorder as a result of the neurochemical processes initiated by the starvation. These mechanisms are discussed in the article I refer to in this, previous post. Put simply, some people have a biological setup that reinforces eating disorders, once they’re triggered.

Biological vulnerability and genetics play a crucial role for the development of eating disorders. If we reach a greater understanding of these mechanisms, isn’t it possible that food regimes enhancing our individual, genetical expressions could be part of the solution – part of finding an effective treatment for eating disorders? I think they could, but this is where the aggravated responses come in: many people are taught that eating freely and unrestricted, from all food items available in a given temporal and cultural context, is the very – and only – definition of being cured from an eating disorder. They are taught that any kind of restricted eating, such as following a ketogenic diet, is a risk factor or an eating disorder in a different size and shape.

I think it’s the other way around, which is what I expand on in this post. (Remember, most people who suffer from eating disorders don’t eat too little; the majority have binge eating syndrome or some combination of diagnoses, causing a vicious circle of malnourishment, obesity and anxiety.) In a capitalist society of abundance and aggressive market warfare, eating is commercialised and mythologised along lines of race, class and gender. There are huge and sophisticated industries who design junk food that kidnap our ancient, biological responses to sugar, flavour, texture and saturation in order to make us buy their goods. I’m practically illiterate when it comes to explaining these processes in detail, but here is an excellent podcast doing just that.

The biggest takeaway from the episode (pun intended) is some insight into the utter sophistication with which junk food is engineered to actually reinforce disordered eating. Through the creation of so called hyperpalatable food items, the industry finds ways to outplay optimum foraging strategy and palette fatigue, which are mechanisms that make us stop eating when we’ve had enough. The human cost of engineering food items that make us overeat is diabetes, cancer, coronary artery disease, obesity, psychiatric illnesses and many related issues. And, which is why this is a highly political question: these effects are distributed very unevenly, targeting poor and racialised communities where knowledge is low and healthcare unavailable.

“Optimum foraging strategy is this notion that you try to obtain as much nutrition as possible doing as little as possible”, Robb Wolf explains. “And then the juxtaposition with that is palette fatigue. We get bored with any given food that we eat because we want to diversify nutrient intake, and also we want to decrease potential toxicant load. So, even if you find a lot of a particular type of food, like blueberries or something, there are toxicants in that food. And so, your body just says ‘Hey, I’m done!’ at some point. But if you can mix and match flavors and palette combinations, you can just almost infinitely keep eating.”

National Donut Day
Picture from

“[T]he hyperpalatable food environment is a bastard to deal with”, he continues. “The processed food manufacturers are arguably more sophisticated in evolutionary biology and evolutionary psychology than we are. […] These guys are like, ‘Hey, we understand evolutionary biology and we understand how to create things to be addictive and we understand optimum foraging strategy and palette fatigue and here’s how we’re going to bypass all that stuff!’ [T]he feedback that I’ve had is that folks who have had eating disorders or challenges with weight for years, they had never heard it couched in those terms.”

That is, people who struggle with eating disorders are told that they have a psychiatric disorder and that they should learn to eat all kinds of food available in society. They’re not told that there is an absurdly influential industry deliberately designing food items that make us lose touch with proportion and saturation.

Instead of proponing free, unrestricted indulgence in sugar and processed foods, feminists – and particularly those of us who are critical towards the exploitation of our biological bodies – should be furious at the food industries. We should question the knee-jerk reaction to discard restricted food regimes simply because they’re restrictive or because they exclude certain types of food. My argument is that eating freely from sweet, carby and hyperpalatable foods is unrealistic for most people. Demanding people who’ve suffered from eating disorders to do so is quite elitist; after all, few people can handle this kind of food.


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