We have all heard of the dangers of overeating. But not much is said about under-eating.
This post will explain the dangers of undereating, and my experiences as I began my eating disorder recovery including how gaining weight changed my life.
I gained around 22kg (48.5 lbs) after recovering from my eating disorder.
I knew when I decided to commit myself to recovery that weight gain was going to be inevitable. I saw my weight fluctuate over a span of eight years. But nothing in comparison to the weight I gained in the first year of my recovery journey.
Between winter 2008 to summer 2009 I lost over 12kg (26lbs). However, the method of weight loss started off by meticulously counting my calories to a mere 800 calories per day and also exercising in the form of cardio and endless hours using a Nintendo Wii Fit. I would later learn that such behaviour would fall under exercise bulimia. Moreover, the constant undereating meant that I was not getting the relevant nutrients that my body so heavily needed. I would have extreme hunger pangs which led to binge eating episodes followed by the need to purge (binge-purge Bulimia).
My body went through a lot throughout those years. I would often find myself drinking zero-sugar caffeinated beverages as I lacked energy and so the drinks helped me stay relatively hydrated and energised. You could say my body was running on autopilot.
“My experience is a testament to the recovery process. Recovery is possible.”
The binge-purge form of bulimia continued for years right up until I decided to recover (2009-2016). I would eat until I could eat no more and then I would purge everything I ate, whether it was a packet of crisps or just some cereal. The feeling of a full stomach or eating until I felt adequately satiated was scary. The fear completely took over my life.
In 2015, I went through some struggles that really left me at rock bottom. I remember being at the lowest of lows and feeling incredibly helpless at the fact that I had an eating disorder for so many years and that I genuinely felt that I could no longer deal with the torment. That was the year where my eating disorder impacted all aspects of my life including the relationships I had, to my academic performance which began to deteriorate. This was a pivotal moment in my eating disorder recovery as I managed to pluck up the courage to think about recovery. For real this time. All in.
In 2016, I remember revising for my final year university examinations. It was an intense couple of months from March to June 2016 as it was the year that I had to try and get my grades back up from the previous year. So there was a lot of work to do. During my revision breaks, I would search “eating disorder recovery” on Google to find some sort of guide that would really help me understand what my body would exactly go through during my eating disorder recovery. What I wished for was for someone to tell me that recovering from an eating disorder meant that no weight would be gained. But of course, I knew that was never going to be the case.
“a starved brain works very poorly; and excess food intake will be required…to restore weight, health, and ultimately sanity.”
I came across a paper from The Eating Disorder Institute which outlined exactly what the body will go through. It debunked the myths that I had about my eating disorder, and accurately matched the symptoms that I had been suffering for several years and increasingly at present.
The paper discussed a study called the Minnesota Starvation Experiment (1944) which was carried during the aftermath of World War II. Researchers were keen to investigate the impact of starvation and refeeding as a result of the food shortages that occurred throughout Europe. The experiment had three phases:
Phase 1: All participants (36 males) were required to consume 3200 calories per day for 12 weeks. All biological and psychological markers were assessed to ensure the accuracy of results, to ensure that participants had no other underlying health conditions, and used as a way of measuring the outcomes of the experiment as a whole.
Phase 2: The intake was then cut to 1570 calories per day (for 24 weeks) where the participants’ diet was mainly poor in protein and high in carbohydrates. The macronutrients (fats, protein, carbohydrates) in the calorie-reduced diet were set out to reflect the conditions people faced in post-WWII Europe. Participants were also required to go for walks and other activities where they would burn off 1000 calories.
Phase 3: Refeeding was introduced for the next 12 weeks.
Now whilst reading this paper, I could not help to notice the caloric intake of 1570 calories. I found this to still be quite a substantial amount of calories to be eating even though it was for an experiment. I am sure some of you reading may also share that sentiment.
The results were astonishing. Participants were found to be emancipated and gaunt-looking, with swollen ankles, ribs poking through their skin, anaemia as well as psychological aftereffects such as “exhaustion and apathy” and fantasizing about food. It was found that “a starved brain works very poorly; and excess food intake will be required beyond pre-starvation amounts to restore weight, health, and ultimately sanity.” When refeeding, men became subject to binge eating which mirrored the same binge eating that occurs in those with eating disorders.
The paper also explained how my brain and its thoughts were not to be trusted. I was obsessed with the fear of gaining weight and feeling full.
The paragraph below perfectly sums up the psychological impact of starvation:
“There is no point in waiting for the magical moment at which you decide, once and for all, that you want to start eating more again or to regain the weight. Your starved state is making you unable to think flexibly enough to fully comprehend the possibility of eating or living differently…it is making the smallest piece of food feel like too much. For these reasons you will never truly want to recover, but you have to seize all your feelings of despair, desperation, hope, recklessness, and curiosity in order to make yourself plunge into that first day and first meal of recovery. As long as you keep yourself going, keep eating, through the first difficult weeks, it will get easier and easier.”
I want to highlight that the paper has quite a reductionist point of view regarding eating disorder recovery. It suggested that the cause and symptoms of eating disorders are a result of starvation, and fails to explain the impact of childhood trauma, genes, abuse or other causes that can also lead to the development of an eating disorder.
So let’s go back to my weight gain.
“Overcoming the panic when feeling full was the first step in my recovery.”
As you can imagine, gaining weight after maintaining a specific weight for nearly 10 years was terrifying. Over the years my attempts to purge calories shifted from exercising and then took a darker turn to induced vomiting (erks me even just typing that). So it meant that I was still getting some intake of calories and food, just not enough.
Through the research, I carried out I became familiar with the term ‘set weight’. Which simply means the body’s natural weight that it will fight to maintain. It may explain the reasons why those who lose weight when dieting using unhealthy measures regain all the weight lost when their diet ends. Everyone has a different set-point. Someone of the same height as you may weigh 20 pounds more than you, and that would be their normal set weight. The weight their body would naturally have on average with normal caloric intake and exercise routine.
I had some idea of what my set point was but that was based on my weight before I had my eating disorder. At that time I was around 13 years of age and so was it really reliable? I had to push myself over the edge and take the leap to find out.
Now the tough journey began. Refeeding. Yikes…
I also became accustomed to the term ‘intuitive eating’ which basically meant eating when feeling hungry, and stopping when feeling full.
As I began my recovery during the exam season of 2016, it was a little easier than it would have been if I had nothing to pass the time with. I forced myself to stay in one place and try my best not to overeat, or purge the food I had eaten. It was not easy to try and do both. I slipped up several times.
The first thing that I needed to get used to was the feeling of being full. I had forgotten what that feeling felt like or what it felt to be comfortably full/satiated. I felt uncomfortable with the feeling of having a glass of water inside me. That was one of the major things I knew I had to overcome in order to recover.
Over the years of having my eating disorder, I had a bank of what I thought were ‘safe food’. This was just a group of food and drink that I felt that I could eat without feeling guilt. These included certain types of fruit, cottage cheese, nuts, cereal, rice cakes and almond milk. So I remember just having these next to me when I was revising and because I was revising for so long, time would pass by. Over the next couple of weeks, I slowly overcame the panic of feeling full and eventually was able to eat an entire burger without feeling the need to purge by being sick. Overcoming the panic when feeling full was the first step in my recovery.
I really recommend anyone who is refeeding after years of undereating to see a doctor and have an FBC blood test (full blood count). This is to ensure that other health issues you may have developed during the years of malnutrition can be treated.
After that, take the refeeding process slowly. Do not binge eat, no matter how bad you feel as it will only set you back from recovering. Over time you will eat according to the hunger cues, but until then slowly and steadily wins the race. That doesn’t mean that you won’t slip up. You will. I did many, many times. But each time you stop yourself from that binge or sit with a full stomach after a meal, you win. You – 1, Bulimia – 0.
Here are the changes in my body that I noticed:
- I was having to constantly go to the loo and felt as if my bladder was on overdrive
- I began sweating after years of not sweating when partaking in physical exercise
- My stomach would bloat very quickly (even when consuming safe foods), but this went down over time
- Feelings of anxiety (including social anxiety and panic episodes) slowly reduced but feelings of depressed mood increased
- I had lots of mental fog and exhaustion. I felt really tired all the time
- My menstrual cycle became more normalised
- My hair and nails strengthened
- My skin was much healthier and less brittle looking
- I gained fat around areas where I had none and I felt stronger
- I gained around 10-12kg (22-26lbs) over the course of 6 months
I’d like to also mention that during this time, I was also suffering from an autoimmune condition that also meant that my weight was subject to change over the years. I attribute that to the years of starvation followed by constant refeeding.
How did reestablishing new and healthy eating patterns change my life? Well, it has massively. I feel pride in my ability to say that I no longer feel guilty for feeding my body. I don’t calorie count, however, I eat a healthy balance of all macro and micronutrients. I am no longer tied to a number on the weighing scale, and when I do weigh myself it doesn’t get me down as it used to before.
I suffered from severe social anxiety growing up and it worsened as I was completely overcome by bulimia. Recovering from my eating disorder meant that I was no longer eating in isolation and that I could go and eat socially with friends which really helped me feel less guilty. I was just able to live again.
One of my biggest regrets in life was not being able to enjoy poignant moments in life. Weddings, birthdays, and social gatherings would be the occasions that I would dread. I would find any way to avoid them. Or if I did go, I would be obsessed with counting calories of food, or finding a way to burn off the food as fast as I could. If I couldn’t purge in the form of exercise then I would find an alternative way. As I look back at pictures of me at the events that I attended, I see someone sad, there but not there, apathetic.
As you can imagine when reading this, I felt trapped. It wasn’t just a simple case of “just eat it’ll be fine”. It was years and years of unhealthy thoughts and behaviours that changed my cognitive processes to the point of no return. What we have to understand is that undereating can alter your thoughts. No one could have convinced me to recover- it’s something I had to come to terms with on my own. I have not looked back since.
My experience is a testament to the recovery process. Recovery is possible.
Please reach out if you would like more advice and info on the recovery process. It is really important for us to talk openly about weight gain as this is something a lot of people go through in life. Whether it is for the purpose of eating disorder recovery or just wanting to eat better.
I hope this post helped you out. If you feel like it benefited you then please scroll down and hit the + sign to subscribe to my blog so you can be notified whenever I post. You can also comment down below on your experiences or suggestions.
Thanks for all your support so far. Hearing your responses and feedback is essential in making this an open and safe place to discuss important topics.
Sending peace your way.
Links to videos regarding eating disorder recovery that has helped me are below:
Links to the sources of info I have used in this blog are below:
- Keys, A., Brozek, J., Henshel, A., Mickelson, O., & Taylor, H.L. (1950). The biology of human starvation, (Vols. 1–2). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
For more advice on supporting friends and ways to identify the signs of an ED, please visit the sites below: