When I went through extreme hunger in my recovery from Anorexia, my eating disorder told me that nobody on earth had ever experienced this. Mostly it told me that nobody on earth had eaten as much as I was eating. Ever.
Since working as a recovery coach for lots of adults in the same place I once was, I hear their eating disorders echo those thoughts and fears. One thing that has emerged loud and clear from those with whom I work is that they don’t need censorship from the truth. They don’t need to be told “eating a normal sized portion is good enough.” They need to be told that if they want to eat 20 times the regular portion size in one sitting that they can, and in fact, they must!
This is not something many people write about in detail. But it is the kind of post I wish I could have referenced when I was going through recovery eating. This is a post that you can look at whenever your eating disorder tells you that what you just ate is so much more than is normal or acceptable.
There is no “normal” in restrictive eating disorder recovery. There is never too much food.
I know people in active recovery who have gone to their dietician and asked for an increase in food to be told something like “Whoa, take it easy … let’s not go too crazy.” And come away from the appointment with something stupid like one yoghurt added to their daily intake and even worst a feeling like they were being greedy or gluttonous for even wanting to eat more. It feels like some professionals feel the need to protect us from our own hunger in case …
In case what? In case we eat a lot and suddenly freak out about it? I only ever freaked out about eating a lot when I thought it was food I was not supposed to eat. I actually felt a lot more stable when I just set the upper intake limit of “Eat as much as you can and more.”
Freaking out about food is part of life when you are in recovery. I would just have easily freaked out over an extra spoonful of low-fat yoghurt as I would have a whole family-sized pizza. We are going through hell anyway so telling us that eating as much as we really want to is not a good idea is not going to take that away, only prolong the agony. Most of us are begging for permission to actually eat the quantity that we know we need to in order to not be restricting.
If you need permission to eat. Here is your permission. Not only should you eat as much as you want, it is the only correct choice if you are in recovery from a restrictive eating disorder.
Here are just a couple of the things I did in extreme hunger — all of which were instances that happened alongside the large volume of food I was already eating each day at that point.
There is no such thing as too much food in Anorexia recovery
The butter lesson
I wrote about the packet of butter that I ate in one go after not being able to spread it on the bread in a cheese sandwich I was making. This incident taught me I might as well just have some butter on my sandwich.
The cream lesson
I once drank a pint of double (heavy) cream. This taught me that doing so is okay, a good thing even. That my body needed it.
I was making myself a microwave apple crumble and I had bought some cream to put on top of it. The buying a pint of cream alone was a huge victory for me. I really wanted it but was so scared of it. I carefully measured 2 tbsps of cream onto the top of my piping hot crumble. Ate that. But somewhere inside I know I had cheated myself. Sure I had eaten cream. Whoopie. But I has still restricted. I had eaten while playing carefully within the rules of measuring and calculating. Fuck that.
I returned to the fridge and drank the entire pint of cream. Just to prove that I could. Just to show my eating disorder how dare it dictate to me only 2 tbsps. Just to prove I would not be held hostage to measurements.
The cream incident taught me that I might as well just order a whole milk large latte as I would probably drink a pint of cream later in the day if I didn’t. It taught me that if I wanted cream I should have cream. More importantly, it taught me that if I wanted a pint of cream but I only allowed myself to have 2 tbsps, that I was still actively restricting. This is the most important part. It is step one of recovery to allow myself to move from no cream to some cream. However, the bigger step is to move from some cream to unrestricted cream.
I stopped measuring out tbsps of cream and just free poured it on after this incident.
The peanut butter lesson
I was at the stage in recovery where I would allow myself to eat 2 x crumpets with scant spread peanut butter on them. This was a big step above not allowing myself to eat peanut butter. I was proud of myself about this for a little while. Until I realized that I could do much, much better than that.
One day I was putting peanut butter (scantly) onto crumpets. I started to panic because I loaded too much PB onto the knife and then scraped some of it back off the crumpet into the jar. That would have been too much my eating disorder told me.
Too much? I thought to myself. Really? You are underweight, you are hungry, you could eat the whole fucking jar. YOU WANT to eat the whole fucking jar, Yet, you just put some back because you are scared of too much?
I ate the crumpets and then went back to the jar of PB which was 2/3 full and ate the whole jar with the knife ( I know, such bad manners) then when the jar was finished I opened another jar and started on that. I also finished that jar. These were large jars. I did it because I knew I wanted to eat them and I could eat them and therefore doing anything other than eating them was restriction.
This taught me I might as well just spread that PB thick on crumpets. I then actually ate a jar of peanut butter every day — by the spoonful — for the remainder of my weight restoration phase. It was the perfect addition for me as I love it, and it is very nutrient dense. Plus … well: peanut butter yum!
The Snickers lesson
In recovery I allowed myself chocolate. In a very measured manner. I bought small bars of everything. Snack size bars of Snickers. I bought them in the bumper pack bags because it was more cost effective, but only allowed one a day. I bumper pack could last weeks at that rate.
Once day I ate my snack-size Snickers ration. I wanted more. My eating disorder screamed at me. I started to fight back.
I said out loud “Oh, you don’t want me to eat another one? Watch this!” and I unwrapped and ate another.
My eating disorder screamed at me. I answered back “Keep screaming and I’ll keep eating” as I unwrapped and ate another.
I ate the whole bumper bag of snack-sized Snickers within less than 10 minutes.
After that day I started to buy and eat regular, adult-sized Snickers.
The Birthday cake lesson
I was at a birthday gathering. There was chocolate birthday cake. When offered it, I rejected a slice. Of course. It was not in my “plan.”
Driving home, I was furious with myself. I had wanted a slice. Everyone else had a slice. I realized that if I couldn’t have an unplanned slice of cake while in recovery from a restrictive eating disorder then I would never be able to have one. I wanted to go back. Turn around and drive back and knock on the door and say “I will have some cake after all, in fact, give me the biggest slice that you have.” I fantasized about doing this and being able to eat that cake in front of all the people there. But I didn’t. Because that would have been weird.
Instead, in a bout of fury, I pulled over at the mini-Tesco on the way home and went in and bought a family sized Sara Lee Chocolate Gateaux. I took it home, sat on my living room floor and ate the whole thing. The whole thing.
I ate an entire family-size Sara Lee Chocolate gateaux in one sitting. I didn’t even feel nearly full after that. I could have eaten four. I should have eaten four. But I was scared. I stopped because I thought what I had eaten was totally fucked up. Now I know that what I had eaten was totally normal for a person in recovery from a restrictive eating disorder. After that instance, I went on to do this many times in recovery because this is what I learned: Although eating one slice of cake was an 100 percent improvement on not eating any, if I ate one slice and felt like I wanted to eat a lot more —say 10 —, then I was still actively restricting by not allowing myself to eat 10. If 10 slices of cake was what I wanted, anything less than 10 slices of cake was restriction.
I have not refused a slice of cake at a Birthday party since.
The cereal lesson
Because I was so scared of eating “too much” cereal, I used to buy the pre-portioned catering packs so that I could only eat a portion. One day I was carefully eating my 40g pack of crunchy nut corn flakes and it dawned on me how ridiculous this was. I was not eating portion packs for any reason other than to control and restrict how much I could eat at any one time.
And they were never enough! Who the hell can feel full and satisfied on 40g of cereal? An ant maybe, but not me!
After that I just bought regular sized cereal cartons and stopped worrying about counting how many bowls I went though.
Those are just a couple of the lessons I learned about eating without restriction. You will have your own. I had many more on top of these too.
Find and eliminate restriction
A lot of you are going to read this and think, “tut, tut, that is binge eating, and binge eating is not “normal” and therefore should be discouraged in eating disorder recovery.”
There is nothing normal about an eating disorder. There is nothing normal about eating disorder recovery. Recovery is messy.
I ate a lot in the hunger stage of recovery and the worst aspect of this was neither the eating nor the feeling full. The worst aspect was trying to justify it to myself amidst the voices of my eating disorder telling me that it was not okay. Other than that, every inch of my being and soul knew that it was okay, that is was right, and that it was needed.
I hear from a lot of other sufferers who have been in treatment that they still hear the voices of eating disorder “professionals” telling them that it was not okay. Or telling them that the extra drop of milk that they added to their cereal had to be poured back. And they tell me about the pain those comments caused them because they were desperately hungry and all they wanted was permission to eat! But instead they were told that they could only eat what was on the “meal plan” and no more.
It is okay. If you can eat that much it is because you need to eat that much. You do not have binge eating disorder. You just have a very hungry body that need unrestricted food.
Sometimes, due to being dictated to by well-meaning meal plans, pre-learned expectations of what a “portion” is, or when the right time of day to eat a certain type of food is, etc, etc, we don’t even realize that we are being restrictive in our eating. The key to recovery alongside weight restoration, is to find and eliminate all restrictive eating. Only once you have done this will your brain stop obsessing about food.
You can weight restore while still restricting — trust me you do not want to do this!
If you weight restore while still restricting (which most people do) you will reach a higher weight and still have a very active eating disorder in your head. This means there will still be a lot of work for you to do post weight restoration before you reach full recovery.
If however, you focus on eliminating restriction above anything else, you will reduce the food obsession which occurs as a result of restriction, and will be in a healthier mindset when you reach weight restoration/overshoot/recovery weight. There will still be work to do, but much less.
If you are already weight restored but are still struggling with high volumes of food obsession/ED thoughts, this is a sign that you are still restricting food and you will have to address this. No biggie. You can get the rest of the way there, but you do have to find and eliminate the restriction.
If you are working with a resistant sufferer
You have to encourage them to eat. And you have to make it clear to them that there are no upper limits. There is no such thing as too much food. Many of us restrict because we are terrified of the feeling that comes as soon as we stop restricting heavily. We are scared of that bottomless pit hunger that seems to have no limits. We are scared because if you told us to eat a normal sized portion of food it would never actually feel like enough. It is easier and safer not to even try. Not to go there. So we don’t. We restrict.
When I was restricting, the thought of eating a sandwich, the whole two halves of it, was depressing because I knew I would eat it and still be ravenous. The illogical logic of the eating disorder then says What is the point? It is a tease to eat at all, you can never eat as much as you want because as much as you want is so much more than a normal portion size.
I felt like I had failed at eaten even before I had started because I knew that no amount of eating would ever be enough. I was so scared of allowing my hunger to come through. A normal portion size was simultaneously too much and not enough.
So encourage eating with the constant reminder that they are underweight so their is no limit on what they can and should eat. Be confident for us. You’ll get resistance, but beneath the resistance we listen.
Once recovered (fully) food becomes part of the furniture of life
My eating disorder used to tell me that this bottomless hunger would last forever — until I ate myself to death. My eating disorder told me that I would want to eat a jar of peanut butter every day from now until forever and that this was the greedy fat pig I was if I didn’t restrict.
My eating disorder lied.
I currently do not eat a jar of peanut butter a day. Maybe one a week — because I still love it — but I feel no desire to eat one a day anymore. I don’t need to eat an entire chocolate cake either. I don’t think I would be able to even if I tried. My extreme hunger, the bottomless pit, has long gone.
There is a carrot cake in the fridge right now that Matt and I have been eating. I can have a slice and feel happy, content, satisfied. I know that if I want another slice I can have that too. It’s just not a big deal. It’s just part of life.
The peanut butter jar sits on the counter until I want to put some on some crumpets. It doesn’t scream at me like it used to when I was restricting and underweight. It doesn’t burn a hole in my skull and demand to be eaten all in one go. It is just part of the furniture. I don’t think about it any more than I think about the armchair next to me.
With weight restoration and unrestricted eating, food will gradually become part of life. It will stop dancing around in your thoughts and dreams. It will stop beckoning you during every waking moment. It will just be something that you do on a daily basis. Something wonderful, enjoyable, and unremarkable.
I think that is one of the most blissful parts of full recovery. Food is wonderful, but unremarkable.
Thank you to Mindy for making me press the “publish” button on this blog post.
I wrote it months ago, but published it today for you.
I am excited to announce that this week we launched Active Eating Disorder Recovery for Adults (AEDRA) Meal Support Service.
This is a worldwide service where any person can receive support at a mealtime to help overcome anxiety. We also have post meal support slots available for people who struggle with purging and post-meal anxiety. Binge Eating Disorder is also supported!
You can find out more about AEDRA here, and in the video below: