For many people struggling with an eating disorder, weight gain is an essential part of their recovery. However, dealing with weight restoration during eating disorder treatment can be a major source of anxiety. It could be a contributing factor to why the eating disorder developed in the first place. If you or someone you love is in this position, you are not alone.
In this article, we will discuss:
- Reasons why you may need to gain weight
- Myths about weight gain
- How to deal with the discomfort of weight gain
Reasons you may need to gain weight in recovery
You are Purposefully Manipulating Your Weight
Many people believe they need to be a smaller size in order to be healthy, happy and accepted.
This is related to both the neurobiology of eating disorders and unrealistic body standards set by society.
There is a specific area in the brain that misfires in those who have eating disorders. This part of the brain is called the parietal lobe and it is in charge of processing sensory information from the world around us. This misfiring can create a distorted view of our own body.
As a result of this discomfort with body image and efforts to fit society’s standards some individuals may turn to destructive habits to try to lose weight or avoid weight gain. Harmful behaviors could include (but are not limited to) restrictive eating, over exercise, excluding certain foods/food groups and compensatory behaviors (purging, diet pills, laxatives, etc).
This artificial suppression of body weight via extreme measures is not medically indicated and is not likely sustainable.
When someone is below their natural resting weight (called set point), a host of medical complications arise. Some complications include a slowed metabolic rate, increased risk for heart problems, digestive issues, and hormonal disturbances. When malnourished, our brains undergo cognitive changes that can lead to irritability, “brain fog”, and makes us think about food more!
For more information on the medical complications of eating disorders visit the National Eating Disorders Association.
You Are Still Growing and Developing
Sometimes eating disorders start early on in life. As a result, growth (including height and weight) may be stunted from malnourishment. Weight changes throughout recovery should be expected as younger clients develop into their adult bodies.
Even if our disorder was not active as a teenager it is still important to understand that our body is meant to change throughout life.
We can easily fall into a space of romanticizing our youth and what our bodies looked like back then. However, if we shed some perspective on this it would be unrealistic to expect our 50 year old body to look exactly like it did at 16 years old.
Life changes such as ageing, pregnancy, injury or illness, and new jobs that impact our activities of daily living can all alter the trajectory of our weight over time.
Myths about weight gain
“Weight Gain is Unhealthy”
We live in a society that idealizes thinness and recoils at the idea of weight gain. Unfortunately, health care professionals are not immune to this cultural weight stigma and there is a lot of misinformation about weight and health.
Yes, gaining an excessive amount of weight can be unhealthy, however, there are multiple factors that go into health and disease states. Most importantly habits, lifestyle and genetics.
If you are engaging in dangerous behaviors in an effort to avoid weight gain, that likely means your body would be healthier at a higher weight. In fact, research shows individuals with a higher BMI can live just as long, or longer, than those with a “normal” BMI.
“I’m Already at a Normal/High BMI”
Most people are taught to treat Body Mass Index (BMI) as the gold standard of health. However, there are many flaws to the BMI and its widespread use.
Although we learn much about BMI, we rarely learn how it was developed. It was created in 1850 by Lambert Adolphe Jacques Quetelet. He was not interested in health risks, nor was he a physician.
He based his calculations on white males only, excluding a majority of the population. As such, BMI is an outdated tool that does not consider diversity. In contrast, Health at Every Size (HAES) honors and celebrates different body shapes and sizes.
“I Will Keep Gaining Weight”
One of the biggest fears of weight gain during eating disorder recovery, is the belief that it will never stop. Eating disorders like control, so when there is a lack of control or uncertainty, it’s scary!
Thankfully, our bodies are extremely smart and have built in mechanisms to prevent this from happening. This is called set point, and refers to a weight range our bodies naturally work to maintain.
For example, if we restrict caloric intake, the body will slow down it’s metabolic rate in an effort to conserve energy. Hormone levels would change to make us hungrier, encouraging us to eat more. In contrast, if we were to go over our energy needs, our metabolism would actually speed up to burn the excess energy we did not use.
Trust your body to do what it needs to. We promise, you have a settling point you will, well, settle into.
Dealing with the discomfort of weight gain in eating disorder recovery
Wear Comfortable Clothing
Avoid tight fitting, uncomfortable clothing as it may make you more aware of your changing body. This may mean you need to go shopping for clothes to fit. Avoid hanging onto “sick” clothes and allow yourself to purchase clothes that fit.
Use supports to help sift through and donate clothes that no longer serve you. Make sure to plan some self-care before/after such as taking a bath or talking with a friend. If you are nervous about spending money on new clothes, consider shopping at a consignment store locally or online.
Avoid Body Checking
Body checking behaviors include anything that focuses on the body’s weight, shape, size or appearance. This can range from completely avoiding looking at one’s body to compulsively looking at one’s appearance in the mirror, store front, etc. Other examples include self-weighing; pinching, poking or touching certain areas or self-measuring.
Work with your treatment team to figure out specific steps that work for you. Possible ideas include hiding or getting rid of your scale, covering mirrors and showering in dim light.
Manage Physical Discomfort
Unfortunately, weight gain restoration in recovery is oftentimes accompanied by physical discomfort. Fortunately, there are many things you can do to help reduce it.
Work with your dietitian to find lower volume foods that meet your nutritional needs/meal plan. Examples include choosing juice or dried fruit instead of fresh fruit and nutrient dense options like trail mix, granola, and certain snack bars like Clif, Perfect or KIND.
A hot compress helps relax stomach muscles and promotes GI motility. Similarly, sipping on peppermint, ginger or lemon tea can reduce bloating. Try to avoid carbonated beverages and using straws as these can increase stomach discomfort.
We get it, weight gain during eating disorder recovery is hard! It takes time for our bodies to adjust. Trust that your body knows how to heal. Remember, your treatment team has your best interest at heart.
Weight gain is oftentimes a necessary component of recovering from an eating disorder. Unfortunately, there is a lot of misinformation about weight gain and BMI.
Remember why you need to gain weight: it keeps multiple medical complications at bay and allows the body to settle into a healthy place. Try to lessen the discomfort of weight gain by wearing what makes you feel comfortable, reducing body checking habits, and working with your dietitian and other mental health providers.
If you’re interested in learning more about nutrition from a dietitian or in learning new skills to reduce guilt after eating follow us on Instagram or Facebook or fill out our contact form on our website to be added to our newsletter to learn about upcoming offerings!
Stay well and say buh bye to diet culture
Taylor & Jessi