When in recovery from a restrictive eating disorder such as Anorexia Nervosa or a subset of it, many of us experience something I like to refer to as “recovery binges.” This post is written from the point of view of a person who has recovered from Anorexia, but can be true for any person with any type of restrictive eating disorder.
Recovery Binge? Say What?
If you don’t know what is up with these, and if nobody has ever told you that they are even a “thing,” you will feel … devastated … if it happens.
I was the first time. I thought I was the only person in the entire world who had failed so badly at Anorexia recovery that I had morphed into Binge Eating Disorder in the first couple of weeks. I thought that my penance for even trying to recover was binge eating. I thought that what I had done was so wildly abnormal that it was a sign that I had been doing the right thing indeed by restricting so heavily because — well, look what happened when I tried to eat normally!
So I went back to restriction. And then when I ate, I binged again. And so then I restricted. etc etc. Hey-ho, the good old binge-restrict cycle.
I had to learn the very hard and long-winded way that the only way out of a binge-restrict cycle is to eat one’s way out. Literally.
Anyhow, here is why I think talking about, preparing people for, and not freaking out about recovery binges is a good idea.
What is a “recovery binge?”
I will start with what a recovery binge is not: It is not Binge Eating Disorder.
I was convinced that I had magically shifted from having Anorexia to having Binge Eating Disorder overnight. Recovery binge eating is a natural bodily response to starvation or semi-starvation. I know that you have all heard me harp on about the Minnesota Starvation Study in regards to overshoot, but it also shows us that after periods of starvation binge eating is normal. Because the men on that study binge ate when they were allowed free rein on eating again. And no, they did not go on to develop Binge Eating Disorder either.
Recovery binges are not just a human thing. Animal studies show that animals who have been food restricted consequently increase their intake of food dramatically once allowed to eat again. Laboratory animals deprived of food for as few as two hours will consume significantly more calories upon the return of the food than animals that were not deprived.
In humans, strict dietary restraint and/or abstinence from eating forbidden, highly palatable foods have been shown to contribute to binge eating. However, in my opinion even the scientific research on this confuses recovery binges that follow restriction with binge eating disorder. As this paper here cites some great points, but doesn’t seem to adequately differentiate the too.
The reason that I bring this is up is not just to show that it is a normal response to starvation to binge in recovery, but more to dispels any misconceptions that recovery binges are “emotional eating” or that there is some greater psychological reason for it. I know that we cannot ask the rat; “Are you binge eating because Mrs Rat is mean to you at the weekends or is it because you are just really hungry?” But I’m going to go out on a limb here and assume that Mr. Rat is eating a ton because his body is telling him to make up for the starvation, not due to a deep rooted need for food to make up for the lack of real love and understanding in his life.
Okay look at it this way. My name is Joe Caveman and I haven’t eaten for three weeks. My friend, Jenny Caveman kills a buffalo (mad skills!) and suddenly there is a ton of food that if we don’t eat as much as we can now the wolves will steal from us.
Your body has been deprived of adequate calories (and maybe you have been exercising too much too). It switches into “starvation” mode which is rather like hibernation. It wants to reduce your energy expenditure and because you have not been eating enough maybe it assumes there there is no food to be found (just like hibernation in winter) so it shuts off hunger signals for now.
Then, you start eating a little more (maybe someone put you on a meal plan or you increased your intake or reduced exercise. Your body is like “Hallelujah there is food!” “The famine must be over!” and “We need to eat ALL THE FOOD so that if famine comes again we can survive it.”
And that is all a recovery binge is. Your body being smart and doing what it needs to do to keep you alive. Before Tescos and Whole Foods, there was feast and famine cycles. The body, smart as it is, responds to those by reserving energy (starvation mode) in famine and cranking it up in feast. It also knows that in a famine time there is little point in sending hunger signals as no food is present anyway. This is why most of us once we have restricted food heavily for a while stop feeling hungry.
Then, then we eat a bit, we feel a tremendous (and ravenous) hunger as the body assumes that the famine is over, and it had better hurry up and feast on whatever food is going before the wolves eat it all. Now, I know there are no wolves now, and there is no famine in the 1st world, but your body doesn’t know that, does it? All the body knows is that you weren’t eating and now you are, so it wants to wake the hell up and make the most of the fact you are eating.
The Desert Example
I’m told that when people are dying of thirst in a desert, all they can do is think about and fantasize about water. They hallucinate water they are that obsessed with it. When we are starving our bodies, our brains do the same with food. When the person dying of thirst sees an oasis, she runs and jumps in and guzzles as much water as she can. And she might sit next to that oasis and do nothing but drink water for days and days after. But, after a while, she will spend less of the day drinking water. If that same person returns to a house with water on tap, she’s not going to spend the day obsessing over water any more. She doesn’t need to. She has enough of it.
When I was not eating fatty foods like cheese, butter, whole milk, burgers. I used to obsess over them. When in recovery I started to allow them, I ate them in a binge-like frenzy during recovery binges. But, once I learned that they were always going to be available to me — once I stopped restricting — they can now sit in the fridge and I don’t obsess over them. I can eat a piece of cheese without the urge to cram the whole block in my mouth. These delicious, fatty foods are just part of life for me now. Something I eat whenever I feel like it.
I don’t have to sit next to that oasis anymore.
But when I was restricting them, they literally were in my head all the time. Sleeping and waking. With food and water, the brain will fixate on the things that we don’t have enough of because it needs us to find and consume it. When you are weight restored and not restricting, your brain will move on. It won’t fixate anymore.
Lots of people in recovery think that the fact they are fixating on fatty or forbidden foods is because they have some wild uncontrollable version of Binge Eating Disorder. It really is not that. It is only because you are restricting food that you are obsessed with it. if you stop restricting, allow the recovery binges, and keep eating that food afterwards, your brain will over time, stop obsessing over food.
Here’s where most of us go wrong:
Here is where I went very wrong. And the point of this, as with most things I write about, is that I am going to be very honest about the mistakes I made so hopefully you won’t have to. I stopped eating after a binge because it scared the shit out of me.
When I say I could eat the contents of my fridge in a recovery binge I am not kidding. Other than the fruit and veg. Ironically, a recovery binge tends to have no interest in fruit and veg. It wants the milk and the cheese and the butter and the bread and all the cake. Then it wants all the chocolates in the cupboards, all the cereal (I could eat a box at a time) and all the peanut butter in the jar. Then it continues to scavenge. It wants the fat. It wants to eat fatty and sugary foods. Not the vegetables. This, is probably because my body is deprived of fats and my very intelligent body knew exactly what it needed.
However, my eating disorder was appalled. Horrified. How can you possibly need to eat ever again after you just ate all that food you fat pig it would scream. And then, you cannot eat tomorrow. You cannot. If you eat tomorrow I’ll …
What? What would happen if I ate tomorrow? What would my eating disorder do to me?
Nothing. But I was to scared by the eating disorder’s tantrum to tempt anything. So the mistake I made, was the day after a binge I would restrict and not eat.
Really, really bad idea.
Now, what happens here if you freak out after a binge and stop eating again?
Your poor, confused body thinks that the famine has come back. It then shuts down a bit. Then, as soon as you open the door to food, it goes “YES! We’re off! Better cram in all that is humanly possible before the next famine again …”
And so on and so forth.
I went really wrong here. The recovery binge traumatized me the first time and I restricted. Don’t do that as it will not get you anywhere other than the binge-restrict loop of hell.
Here’s how I sorted myself out
I ate. I binged one night after restricting all day, and I woke up the next morning and I still ate my breakfast. I didn’t want to. I was scared to shit. But that binge-restrict cycle had lasted years for me and it was just not working out. I knew deep down I had to change something, and I knew that I had to stop restricting — no matter what happened.
The binges didn’t stop overnight. But they stopped really fast compared to the years I had spent trying to avoid and control them. I have not binge eaten since. I do not and never did have Binge Eating Disorder. What I had, was a starved body that was desperate for food and needed to eat fatty foods. When I allowed it to eat it’s fill, and continued to do so day in day out, after a while it was satisfied, and my appetite returned to what it is now. A normal, healthy appetite.
What I did after a recovery binge:
- Told myself “its okay, my body needed that food.”
- Resumed my eating plan – i.e. did not skip meals or restrict afterwards. My binge time was always at night, so I would wake up in the morning and eat breakfast.
If you take one thing away from this blog, know this: Just because you binge eat in recovery doe not mean that you have binge eating disorder!
It is important that you understand that. Your eating disorder will try and torment you with that lie. Know it is not true. Know that the only reason you are binging and obsessing with food is because you have been restricting. Know that it will pass if you keep eating.
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: