The Problem of Probability Overestimation

What happens in our body when we eat is very complex. The simple version is: we take a bite, we chew, we swallow, enzymes start breaking foods down into various nutrients which our body absorbs and utilizes for the purposes that it sees fit.

It should be understood that a bite of food, or even any one meal, has a negligible effect on body weight and overall health status.

With the presence of an eating disorder, however, one bite of the wrong food may lead to anxiety, distress, and panic.

This reaction can be attributed to the problem of probability overestimation. Generally speaking, this is the anxiety-driven overestimation of the likelihood that something bad will happen – like avoiding flying in a plane due to overestimating the chances it will crash. In an eating disorder, it’s the disordered belief that food consumption will impact one’s own body differently and more significantly than someone else’s. This usually relates to the fear of weight gain, but could extend to other health measures like blood sugar levels.

An example of probability overestimation may look something like this. When most people take a bite from an apple, they logically understand that this bite has a negligible number of calories (maybe five) and will not meaningfully impact their body or their weight. For someone with anorexia, however, they may believe that one bite from an apple will significantly impact their body and may even believe that this bite of food will increase their body weight by more than the weight of the food eaten. For this reason, the sufferer may avoid eating the rest of the apple, or refuse to eat the foods that would normally accompany a piece of fruit to create a balanced meal.

A person suffering from a severe eating disorder often believes that their body is “different” than the average person and that gaining weight or body fat happens much more easily for them, even if others would not gain weight from the same food consumption.

It’s vital to understand, identify, and challenge these disordered thought patterns in eating disorder recovery. A therapist or dietitian may utilize strategies like thought challenging to try to actively disrupt automatic assumptions about the impact a food may have on body weight. If appropriate, tests may be carried out to prove the negligible impact of eating any one food on body weight. With enough evidence, the process of challenging disordered beliefs about food and weight may become easier. As always, individual approaches to recovery will vary and any given strategy may be helpful for one person but not the next.

If you would like to inquire about virtual nutrition counseling for eating disorders, please check out our First Bite Nutrition page.

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