Eating disorders disrupt the innate, trusting relationship between an individual and his or her body.
For example, it is common to experience a disconnect between true hunger and fullness cues after engaging in eating disorder behaviors such as restricting, binging, and/or purging. In addition, individuals often experience digestive discomfort in the form of abdominal cramping, gas, bloating, and diarrhea, among other symptoms, during the nutrition rehabilitation process.
Restoring this relationship often calls for things feel counter-intuitive such as follow a set-meal plan, adjusting your level of physical activity, or try new foods you fear. But all of these things build a foundation of trust and are completely necessary.
But can you really trust your body? Here are three ways your body is working with you in recovery-even when it feels like it’s betraying you.
3 things eating disorder recovery teaches us about body knowledge:
1. Your body doesn’t want to be manipulated
Individuals with restrictive eating disorders typically experience fatigue, low energy, premature fullness, bradycardia, and report always feeling cold. When the body is deprived of the food it so desperately needs, it begins to adapt.
Its metabolism slows down, along with other physiological processes, such as heart rate, rate of digestion, and body temperature, in order to maintain every bit of strength and energy that the body can afford.
It’s the body’s way of saying, “I refuse to starve, I will survive this famine.”
As Dr.Gaudiani points out in her new book, Sick Enough, when the body is malnourished, it does not like to waste energy on things it can survive without.1
Likewise, purging behavior can cause physical damaged such as dental decay, Barrett’s Esophagus, and even severe, life-threatening electrolyte disturbances.
In addition to the physical consequences of eating disorders, there are also severe psychological consequences. Anxiety, depression, irritability, extreme mood swings, lack of concentration, and feelings of guilt and shame can cloud your life. Our bodies were not designed to function optimally on restrictive or manipulative diets.
The good news? Many of these symptoms can be resolved with proper nourishment.
2. Your body is smarter than you think
When someone looses weight and falls below their natural set point range (the range in which our body maintains automatically and effortlessly through the process of homeostasis), hormones start to influence appetite, drive to eat, and cravings.
It isn’t uncommon for individuals who need to weight restore to crave higher-fat foods—that’s just the body’s way of tangibly meeting a need.
Likewise, individuals also may experience changes in taste and preference—craving carbohydrates and sweets due to chronic restriction. Leptin’s main role appears to be protecting against weight loss in times of scarcity: when fat stores in the body shrink, so does leptin production.
In response, your appetite increases and your metabolism decreases and you gain the weight back.2 It’s very common for individuals in eating disorder recovery to go through a “honeymoon” period with the foods they start to re-introduce back into their diets that they didn’t allow themselves to have for so long. He or she may feel as though they “only eat carbohydrates” or seem to always be craving sugar.
As previously mentioned, this is completely normal. It’s the body’s way of bringing itself back to baseline. Through the process of habituation, cravings will eventually level out and the once forbidden foods will lose their power.
What’s most important is to accept whatever phase your body is in and honor those preferences. The body knows what it needs more than any eating disorder ever will.
3. Good nutritions leads to fuller life
In eating disorder recovery, food is—and will always be—the best form of medicine.
When I first began recovery, I remember my idea of “adequate nutrition” being so skewed by diet culture and my eating disorder.
I actually believed that starving myself was better than the risk of eating “too much.”
How could there be any negative consequences of dieting? I had grown to believe was that dieting was always good, weight loss was always to celebrated, and that any part of me that resisted this idea was lazy and out of control.
This is a common belief I see in most of my clients today – whether they struggle with anorexia nervosa or binge-eating disorder. I am a firm believer that ALL eating disorders are rooted in restriction. And restriction, as we know, comes with a host of health consequences.
Perhaps one of the most detrimental effects of malnutrition is its effect on brain chemistry. When I first began to follow the meal plan created by my dietitian, I remember sitting at my kitchen table in awe of how much easier it was to study. With each bite I took, I gained more and more confidence in my ability to concentrate. The amount of time I took to study for tests became less and less, while my grades continued to improve over time.
I also became less irritable and more present. Suddenly, I able to engage in conversations with friends and family that I hadn’t been able to in years. There is nothing that a well-nourished brain isn’t capable of.
Over time, with many months of practicing “good” (but not perfect) recovery, all of my physical complications resolved. My period came back and body temperature rose. My heartbeat reached a normal baseline and my digestion sped up too.
Recovery is hard, but eating disorders are harder
When I started to see my body respond to adequate nutrition in such a positive way, there was nothing in the world (not even my eating disorder) that could convince me to go back to restricting food.
It was too miserable, too exhausting and too hard to live with an eating disorder. Recovery is hard, but living a lifetime with an eating disorder is unbearable.
So I chose recovery. I chose nutrition. And I chose to live a life where I consistently nourish my body each day so that I can help others learn how to do the same thing.
Gaudiani JL. 30,000 Foot View: What Happens When You Starve Yourself? In: Sick Enough: A Guide to the Medical Complications of Eating Disorders. New York, NY: Routledge; 2019:12-18.
Bacon L. We Resist Weight Loss. In: Health at Every Size: The Surprising Truth about Your Weight. Dallas, TX: BenBella Books; 2010:43-66.