Ready and waiting for the criticism that I may get as a result of writing about this. I don’t care. I don’t believe that shielding adults in recovery from eating disorders from the events that can, and do often, happen along the recovery path helps anyone. When we are taken by surprise by things like overshoot and extreme hunger it causes us to question the recovery path and relapse risk is much higher.
I don’t believe it is true that people are put off of embarking on the path of recovery because they read about things like overshoot and extreme hunger. The might react in the moment. The eating disorder might have a tantrum. But ultimately to fully recover one has to stop listening to the eating disorder’s fears. I think we all get to a point where the thought of recovery terrifies us, but we know we have to do it anyway. The better prepared we are for it the more chance we have in seeing it to the end.
This post contains swear words. Hope you don’t mind. If you have much experience with eating disorders you probably won’t. If anything teaches you the benefit of swearing it is a mental illness that is trying to kill you.
Extreme hunger is a pretty common part of Anorexia (or other eating disorder) recovery. I went though it early on in my recovery. Some go through it at later stages. Granted that some sufferers do not go through it at all. However, if I were to ballpark estimate the number of people whom I have known and worked with who went through it … 75%?
Maybe extreme hunger is more common in adult sufferers as we tend to have been restricting for 5, 10, 20, 30, 40 years? I don’t know. I just know it happens to more of us than is acknowledged.
Certainly more than less. Some resist it. Don’t want to admit it is happening because it is every eating disorder’s worst nightmare. Some embrace it because they, like me, have hit a point where they just don’t care anymore and know that nothing is worse than not eating. I got to the point where I knew that nothing that eating could do to me was going to be worse than what Anorexia was currently doing. Some of us trust that this is a messed up “fuck you” to our eating disorder from our bodies — a response of strength. A response of life.
That is how I saw it. I was done. I was never going to be hungry again. Still, when extreme hunger hit it terrified me. My eating disorder told me it would never wane. My eating disorder told me that I would eat and eat and eat and never be able to stop. But I had stopped listening to my eating disorder the day I committed to recovery. My eating disorder told me lies my whole life. Why would extreme hunger be any different?
The hunger did wane eventually. My weight increased, then slowed, then one day I was back to my “Old Me” weight. My pre-eating disorder weight. I was Tabby again.
The Extreme Hunger Mistakes I Made
I’ll tell you where I went wrong so hopefully you can learn from me and bypass some of the dead ends I went down,
Mental Hunger Counts
There are two types of hunger in recovery. Mental hunger and physical hunger. Neither of them are required in order to eat, by the way. You can and often have to eat in the absence of hunger. Hunger is a bonus.
Even if you do experience extreme hunger you probably won’t get it straight away. Recovery is about eating regardless of hunger, regardless of mood, regardless of stress levels, regardless of whether or not you like what you are eating, regardless of the time of day or night, regardless of what culture tells you about food, regardless of what the person next to you is doing.
You can eat crying. You can eat shaking. You can eat swearing.
But let’s assume you are reading this because extreme hunger has hit. And you have eaten. You have eaten so much that your stomach hurts and your brain is saying “How could you have possibly eaten that much? How is that even physically possible? How can you ever justify eating again? You just ate enough to last you a week!”
But you still want more food. That’s the mental hunger. Mental hunger counts. Even if you just ate 20,000 calories. If you are still wanting more you can and should have more.
I learnt that one the hard way. I was slow on the uptake there. I would eat and eat a lot then still want more. I would let my eating disorder tell me that to keep eating when my stomach was full was ridiculous. It is not ridiculous, it actually makes sense when you consider that the brain is still getting signals from the body that the body is underweight and needs to eat more.
The signals are conflicting. The stomach is saying it is full. The body is saying it is empty. This is where extreme hunger can be a total clusterfuck of mixed feelings.
The mental hunger is distressing. It is like fingernails on a chalkboard. It won’t leave you alone. Is is a clawing, screaming, kicking, poking, thrashing hunger. It is your body awake and freaking out about the years of restriction it has endured.
The mental hunger doesn’t trust your stomach. You stomach has lied to it before. When you filled it up by drinking water before each measly meal. When you shrunk it my not eating for days. When you ignored the knocking of hunger cues for so long that they stopped. The mental hunger does not trust that you have eaten enough regardless of what your eyes and your stomach tell it. The mental hunger is trying to save your life.
I could eat until I felt physically sick, and then half an hour later I was ravenous again. It was as if all that food I had just eaten had been sucked out of me. In a way it has — the body so depleted that it was taking all I could give it and using it then asking for more. I used to feel like my stomach was a furnace and that the food was hitting it and being absorbed so fast that no matter how quickly I shoveled it into my mouth I could never keep up.
I resisted the mental hunger initially. Extreme hunger led me to eat more than I had intended. Surely that was enough? Surely I was doing well to have eaten more today than I had done in 10 years? It felt unfair that the mental hunger was clawing at me still. Hadn’t it just seen what I had eaten? Didn’t it care that I had just eaten a burger for the first time in ten years? Didn’t it know how terrifying and liberating that burger had been? Why wasn’t it satisfied?
The mental hunger smirked at the burger, and the chips, and the crisps, and the chocolate brownie. The mental hunger absorbed and they disappeared without even making a dent.
Mental hunger doesn’t care what you think is a lot of food.
Another way to look at it: The (Almost) Bottomless Pit.
In order to understand the mental hunger, I had to reframe how I saw it. I think a large part of the fear that my eating disorder latched onto and replayed in my head was that I was eating far far more than what a “normal” person would eat in a day. I was able to shut that thought up by telling it “Look, a normal person hasn’t just gone though 10 years of restricting.”
My eating disorder also loves numbers, one day I worked out how to use this against it. The numbers are not important here, it is the intent behind them. The intent here, was to show myself how big the deficit that I need to fill was in a currency I spent a long time thinking about: calories.
How to prove to your doubting self that you need to eat a lot.
Let’s say I need 3000 calories a day (I don’t count calories, but this is just for sake of example). That’s around 1095000 a year.
Let’s say I only ate 1000 calories a day for a year. That comes to 365,000 in a year.
That is a deficit of 730,000 calories a year. (!!)
Let’s say I did that for 10 years.
That is a 7300000 calorie deficit I have to make up for!
Oh wait. I haven’t factored in the ridiculous amount of exercise I was doing in this time!
Lets just say that was a lot of exercise, hours each day. Now. even without the deficit that exercise created, I have 7300000 to make up for. No wonder a 1000 calorie burger didn’t even make a dent on the hunger, right?
In money terms that would be like having an overdraft of $7300000 and wondering why your bank manager wasn’t happy with $1000.
Now, I know that the body doesn’t do math like this. I know this is arbitrary. But looking at it like this did help me to be able to justify the hunger and why it was okay and needed for me to eat a lot lot more than “other people” around me were. Over the years and years of restriction I had created so much deficit that no matter how much I filled my stomach, my body and mind would be hungry.
I had a lot of making up to do. Understanding this allowed me to let go of the “being hungry still isn’t normal” voice in my head. So what. I am not normal. I am not like everyone else. I have anorexia.
Seeing the almost bottomless pit like this motivated me to start shoveling food into it. It also helped me to stop counting calories, as when you have that much to make up, it doesn’t matter. You just have to eat. No time to count or worry or overthink.
Nutrient Density Helps. Don’t fight it!
I learned that there was no point in trying to “fill up” on lower calorie foods anymore. All that they did was make my stomach more uncomfortable as the hunger would cause me to eat more nutrient dense foods on top of them. I put a temporary hold on foods like fruit and veg; rice; and other fillers that were not helping me satisfy the hunger. Instead, I ate cheese, peanut butter, butter, saturated fats. Everything got dolloped with mayo. I was finding the nooks and crevices in my diet, and filling them with nutrients.
My eating disorder hated this. But like I said, I went all in. I didn’t care. I was eating.
All this sounds very reasonable of me. However, the way that I came to this realization was neither reasonable nor dignified.
I was making a sandwich one day. I was feeling very proud of myself because I was making a cheese sandwich. Cheese was a huge fear food of mine. I was shaking as I made it. I was terrified. But I was going to make and eat this fucking cheese sandwich if it killed me.
It occurred to me I wanted to butter the bread. I got the (unopened) packet of butter out of the fridge. Then I baulked. It was too much. Too scary. I could not do it. Not cheese and butter. It was too soon for that. I was not ready. Especially since I had already eaten so much more that day than I thought was possible, surely I had done well enough even getting this much food in? Surely skipping on the butter would not make any difference?
But I wanted it.
But it was so much more! How could I be even thinking of adding butter! I had not eaten butter for years!
I made the sandwich without the butter.
I ate the sandwich with shaking hands, but I ate it, and I was proud!
I got up from the table and went to put my plate in the dishwasher. I noticed the stick of butter was still on the counter where I had forgotten to place it back in the fridge.
You should have had butter on the sandwich. You wanted it. You let your eating disorder win again.
But the cheese was enough. The cheese alone was scary enough.
Evidently not. What happened next was the result of extreme hunger mixed with sheer frustration about the fact that no matter how hard I tried to eat without restriction the eating disorder still won on some level. I grabbed a piece of bread and spread thick butter onto it and ate it. I ate fast in case my eating disorder tried to talk me out of it. Then I grabbed another piece of bread and did it again. Then, I took the butter knife and sliced off a slither of butter and ate that plain. Then another. Then another. Then the slithers turned into inches … .
I ate a whole packet of butter.
My eating disorder was horrified, disgusted. But I knew it was the right thing for me to do. My body needed it.
The moral of this story is that the next time I made a cheese sandwich I spread thick butter on the bread. Why not? Chances were I would eat the whole fucking packet later anyway. So what? My body needed nutrient dense foods and butter is one of the most nutrient dense foods you can get.
Interestingly, I found I only “binge” (I term these recovery binges, but will write more on that next week) ate in the way that I did with that packet of butter as a result of restricting and “not allowing” myself to have something. I learnt that in spreading some butter on my bread I would not feel the desire to eat the whole stick later. Restriction is rooted in many behaviours. Extreme hunger helped me weed it out.
The sooner I gave in and allowed my body nutrient dense foods, the sooner my extreme hunger turned into less-extreme hunger, into just plain old hunger, into a normal appetite.
You cannot counter it with exercise or any other purging
You are just making the whole process last longer. Go back to remembering the millions in deficit that you are and you will realize that exercising is dragging it out.
And if you know me you know where I stand on exercise in recovery anyway. If you are underweight you should not be doing any formal exercise of any kind.
It won’t last forever.
My eating disorder told me extreme hunger would last forever.
I didn’t have anyone to tell me otherwise. I was 100 percent alone in my recovery process — that, by the way, was my biggest mistake. Sure, I was right not to trust the therapists who tried to psychoanalyse me and tell me that my eating disorder was a response to feeling out of control with my life. But I could have and should have recruited my ever-willing family and friends to help me out. Shame on me listening to my eating disorder there, as it told me not to trust anyone.
Extreme hunger lasts merely weeks in some people and much, much longer in others. It will not be dictated to, and you can give up trying to bargain and reason with it. It will run its course. You will end up in the same place at the end of it. You have two choices:
- Eat without restriction and enjoy doing so.
- Fight it. You won’t win. You likely will binge eat if you try to restrict here. Then you will learn the hard way like I did that the only option is option 1 above.
I fought it initially and binge eating came as a result. It took me far too long to learn that if I fought it I only binge ate all the foods I didn’t allow myself to eat a little while later. When I surrendered to it, the whole process became almost enjoyable. Sure, my stomach hurt as it was full the whole time, but I enjoyed eating.
It did not last forever. The hunger subsided when my body and mind were good and ready to allow it to. I had to place my trust in my body 100 percent. I had to trust it would stop with the hunger when it was done. I had to trust I would one day not feel that scratching need to eat all the time. I had to trust that my eating disorder was wrong (well, look where listening to that son of a bitch had got me anyway).
But most of all I had to trust my body. Extreme hunger was a gift in that it gave me no choice. I knew I would rather die than go backwards. The only option was forwards.
The same is true for you if you are in recovery, extreme hunger or not. Going backwards is not an option if you want a life.
Next week I will be focusing on the logistics of working with a meal plan when extreme hunger hits. Shout me if you have any questions, or comment here.