Meal plans can be very helpful in recovery. For those of us who have been restricting heavily, we need a meal plan as without one we simply do not know how or when to eat. In the absence of hunger, meal plans can be a huge plus. Eating disorders also make decisions around what to eat and what quantity very difficult so the meal plan can remove a lot of that.
But what happens if extreme hunger hits? Do you stick to the meal plan? Can you go above it? Lots of unanswered questions came up for me here. Here is how it all worked out for me, and how I have witnessed things work out for other adults in eating disorder recovery too.
This is another post that will likely get me on the lynch list for some people. How dare I suggest that the sacred meal plan will sometimes only get us so far. This post is my opinion; please feel free to give me yours in the comments section.
But the truth is that meal plans do not address extreme hunger. And extreme hunger exists. So with both those things in mind …
The meal plan is a minimum
I had to learn that extreme hunger or not, the meal plan should be seen as a minimum intake. I should aim to go over this minimum as much as possible each day. The problem with meal plans, is that they can quickly become a form of restriction in themselves.
For many of us, a meal plan turns into a maximum. If this is true for you, then you have to turn this around in your head pronto. There is no maximum in recovery. You can and should eat all that you want. If you don’t want, then you can and should challenge yourself to eat above what was planned.
Here’s how a meal plan can be restrictive:
What if the meal plan says have a sandwich but what I really want is a cheeseburger? You can bet my eating disorder will tell me not to deviate from the meal plan, right?
What if my meal plan says that I have quiche a lunch and I decide I want a dollop of mayo with it? Sure, my eating disorder will pitch a fit. My eating disorder will tell me to stick to the meal plan and that because mayo is not on the plan I am being a greedy pig to even consider it.
Well, in that instance, not deviating is restriction. I am not having additional food that my body and mind want.
On the flip side, my eating disorder would tell me that deviating from the meal plan is a fabulous idea if I undercut it. Nope. The rule that the meal plan is a minimum was very helpful for in sorting out the ED deviations from the pro-recovery ones.
Positively challenge your meal plan
(This next point is true with or without extreme hunger)
I’m eating to my meal plan. That’s good enough, right?
Your responsibility as an adult in recovery is to be always challenging your eating disorder and this means positively challenging your meal plan too. The meal plan says 2 crumpet — why not see if you can manage 3? The meal plan says a latte? Why not make it a hot chocolate?
I know that challenging is incredibly mind-blowingly anxiety provoking. But if you keep doing it the anxiety around doing so decreases at a more rapid rate than if you doggedly allow your eating disorder to dictate that you are not to eat a pinch of salt more than your meal plan says.
Additionally, this can turn it into more of a fun game where you are winning points over your eating disorder with every choice you make. This is how I learned to look at it. Each meal was a me vs my eating disorder game and all I had to do to score points was to eat more than I had intended or pre-planned to. This could be a dollop of mayonaise, but the more confident I became the more I would find myself making a second sandwich, or going back for another slice of cake. Doing so became rewarding. I could get almost giddy with the adrenaline of doing something that terrified me such as having double the amount of ice cream as I had had the day before. Frankly, it turned into a bit of a power trip — one I was winning.
When you positively challenge your meal plan, you are not just complying to a meal plan because you have been told you have to — you are crushing it!
When I initially started recovery and wrote myself up a meal plan (note: it is a much better idea to get someone else — someone who doesn’t have an eating disorder — to write your meal plan for you) it seemed like a never ending mountain of food to plough through. It wasn’t, by the way, but it seemed like that compared to the rations that I had been having previously.
Extreme hunger hit me early on, and suddenly when it did, the meal plan didn’t even make a dent. I could have eaten the whole day’s food before breakfast and still be starving. This was a dilemma for me. I didn’t know what extreme hunger was. I didn’t know it is common in Anorexia recovery. I had been told by everything that I had read that a meal plan was the way to go. Nobody had ever said anything about what to do if suddenly I wanted to eat the entire contents of my fridge and freezer in one sitting.
Sticking to my meal plan now felt maddeningly painful. I wanted to much more. I felt like I must be the greediest pig in the world. My eating disorder screamed at me that if I allowed myself to eat more than my meal plan I would balloon into obesity by tomorrow morning. My eating disorder yelled that I would never stop eating if I let myself eat freely. My eating disorder told me I would develop Binge Eating Disorder overnight. My eating disorder told me this was what I got when I didn’t restrict and that the only way to control this insatiable hunger would be to restrict.
My eating disorder told me too many lies over my lifetime. I was learning (slowly) not to pay attention. I was also curious. What would happen if I ate more?
I ate more. And what happened is that I ate even more than I felt was humanly possible for what seemed like forever. And them slowly the urge to eat reduced. Waned. Normalized.
Extreme hunger meant I had to ditch my meal plan. Well, actually I still ate all the meals and snacks on it, but they were buried underneath all the rest of the additional foods I was eating.
Not many people like to talk about these but the majority of us go through them at some stage — we just prefer not to tell anyone about them due to the unnecessary shame. Let’s not keep it a secret. These are a normal part of recovery for many of us and if you know that and know it is okay they do not derail you if they happen.
Recovery binges can feel wildly out of control and you eating disorder will do everything to try and make you feel guilty afterwards. No matter how bad your eating disorder tries to make you feel about what you have eaten know this:
Whatever you ate you needed. This is a normal part of recovery for some people. Everything you just ate will help your body recover. This will not happen forever. Only until your body has decided it has enough reserves to repair and recover. Trust your body it knows what it is doing.
Then know this:
Whatever you do you cannot restrict or purge in an attempt to undo some of what you ate.
Your body ate all that food because it needed all that food. If you try and restrict you are not helping it do what it needs to do in order to recover. Trust your body. Do not use this as an excuse or reason to restrict. Now would be the time to revert to your meal plan if your head is totally spinning and you don’t know what to do. Just pick up on the meal plan whatever the time of day is and go from there.
I’ll be writing more about recovery binges later!
I think is it healthy and wise to see your meal plan is a minimum. There is no maximum. The sooner and more you can let go of restriction the better. Eating disorders live in restriction, so even if your meal plan is relatively high intake-wise, if you want to and could eat more you are restricting if you do not. The urge to eat an incredible amount of food in recovery is normal if that happens to you. If it happens it happens and it is nothing to be afraid of — it can be like a bit of a golden ticket actually. It will not last forever so long as you respond to it without restriction.
And yes. It is scary as shit. But that is okay. You can and will get to the other side.
New Online (Global) Meal Support Service
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: