In a previous post, I wrote about some of the ways in which restriction can manifest in a person with an eating disorder and how it can still sneakily exist in your recovery, even when you are eating huge amounts more food and facing big food challenges.
In this post, I provide some tips on how to address the lingering restriction in eating disorder recovery.
40 Tips to Address Restriction in Eating Disorder Recovery
1. If you feel hungry... EAT!
Any hunger, you need to eat... If you are thinking about food, you should eat as this is mental hunger... Any hunger, mental and / or physical - if you don't eat then that is restriction!
2. Choose the densest and most scary options
Playing it safe when it comes to what you eat is restrciton and won’t rewire the underlying fears of all those foods that you have avoided for years with the illness.
3. Address any food rules or restrictive urges as soon as you notice them
If in any doubt that the choice you are making is the illness or not then assume it is the illness and choose something less restrictive or more terrifying!
4. Remind yourself that your body needs all the energy it can get!
If you have been restricting for any significant amount of time, then no matter what your weight / BMI, your body is hungry and needs energy and nutrients and fats to heal. Remind yourself of this when doubts set in.
5. Apply the 'what would pre-ED me have eaten?' question
The foods you ate before the illness started or as a child are usually still foods that you will love now if you let yourself eat them. Introduce them again now!
6. Don't save calories for later!
This is textbook eating disorder behaviour and needs to go... so, eat at all times and respond to all your mental and physical hunger in each and every moment.
7. Deliberately eat every half an hour
One tool you can use is to deliberately eat every half an hour or hour to remove any time of day rules you might have or delaying habits when it comes to eating. And when you do eat as regularly as this, ensure each time that what you eat is significant too!
8. Remind yourself that recovery eating will feel very wrong but it is right!
Eating in recovery will rarely feel right and is likely to feel wrong and chaotic in your brain but this is the reason that you need to do it because eating feeling wrong is not a normal human reaction… it’s an eating disordered reaction! Eat despite the feelings of wrong-doing and one day they won’t be there anymore as you will have rewired them and recovered.
9. Label eating disordered thoughts as irrelevant, flick them away and eat
Eating disorder thoughts in your mind will be constant and become louder as you eat with less restriction. Let the thoughts or threats the illness is creating be there but label them as eating disordered and irrelevant and flick them away while grabbing more food.
10. Expect negative emotions, label as inappropriate, flick and keep eating!
Feelings around eating of greed, guilt and self-disgust are also to be expected when eating with less restriction in recovery. Expect these emotions to come up and then as you did with the disordered thoughts, label them as inappropriate and symptoms of the illness and flick them away while continuing to eat with no restrictions at all!
11. Address compensatory behaviours
Exercise, purging, laxatives or diet pills are all a form of restriction too and have no place in recovery. Seek support to overcome these compensatory behaviours as they are not easy to just stop without some help.
12. Avoid keeping busy all the time (mentally and / or physically)
Staying busy is also a form of restriction and way to avoid hunger / eating. Allow space in your life and in your mind for recovery to happen and so you can focus on true unrestricted eating and all that means for you.
13. Repeatedly remind yourself you cannot overcome restriction and a restrictive eating disorder with restriction!
14. Remember that diet food taste like s**t compared to the real deal
No more diet foods. Stop buying them, stop paying money into the diet industry (it is rich enough) and be grateful you don't have to eat that rubbish ever again.
15. Feel rubbish, distressed and emotionally exhausted but do it anyway
Keep reminding yourself on a loop if you have to that recovery should never feel comfortable but you can feel s**t and do it anyway… and the more you do, the sooner it stops feeling horrible, so you can eat without restriction and feel more than ok about it.
16. Eat foods in their least restrictive forms, always erring on the side of caution
Add butter to bread, full fat milk to coffee/tea, cream to anything, choose large wherever possible and always make the least restrictive food choices that are available to you at all times. Just make sure that no restriction is getting in to your choices at all.
17. If you are thinking of food or dreaming of ice cream, then eat food, eat ice cream and do so now and not later.
18. Eaten a huge meal and still hungry? Don't judge it and eat more
Eating more is never wrong but not eating despite hunger is restriction!
19. Don't judge what and how much you want to eat and listen to your body
No matter how much food your body is asking for in recovery or what that food is, don't judge it, just follow it!
20. Delete the trackers, ditch the food scales or other measuring devices
Eating without restriction is not measurable by numbers or a machine. Only your body can decide and tell you what it needs in terms of food quantity!
21. Use some little mind games to change your perception:
Imagine explaining to an alien that you have an illness which left you starved / malnourished and you are treating it by ignoring your hunger... see how mad it truly is!
When doubting a decision or recovery thought, ask yourself what you would advise a friend who was overcoming a restrictive eating disorder in this moment? Detach from yourself and follow the advice you know you would give to someone else.
When faced with food choices apply the question: “If all food was zero calories what would I choose right now?!?” It’s amazing how many times the answer is burger or cake and not lettuce or kale.
And always… aim to live the life you want tomorrow today. Eat today all the things you want to be able to eat in your future life… until you do, that tomorrow won't ever come.
Apply the ‘opposite actions’ mindset and philosophy to recovery. If your brain is telling you not to eat the Mars bar and eat the rice cracker instead, you eat the Mars bar. If your brain is telling you to just have the small fries, you go large!
Stay in the moment... don’t let worry about earlier or later affect what you eat now! We could be hit by a meteor later and all that angst would be over nothing!
22. Use your life values to remember what you really want from life
Do you value diet culture, being thin and super fit according to society’s misguided view above anything else? Or do you have values that are aligned with being happy, loving, free-minded, generous, fun and relaxed…? Values that don’t align with all that the eating disorder will allow you to be? Focus on your values and use them to make the right choices when it comes to eating in recovery.
23. Fast or slow - ensure you make progress
Whether you go fast in recovery.. ‘slam on the gas’ and eat all you crave, blasting through every fear food as you do or whether you go stepwise into addressing restriction, it can all work, but just make sure you do make progress!!
24. Ensure any meal plans are always your minimum!
If you are using a meal plan at this stage of your recovery, then please see it as a MINIMUM and never your maximum. Do not let a plan be a tool to restrict and if it is then it needs reviewing and a new approach for your recovery found.
25. Eat foods prepared by others
Eat out in recovery and eat things that someone else prepares so that it loosens your control on what you eat or how it's prepared… it’s scary but necessary for your recovered future!
26. Buy foods of unknown energy values
If you are a calorie checker then buy foods of unknown energy values. Find the foods without labels!
27. STOP buying diet / low calorie / low fat foods
Ben and Jerry's and NOT Halo Top!
28. Make a list of your fear foods and situations and face as many a day as you can
29. Repeat, repeat, repeat again. Patience and persistence is key
30. Eat more than anyone around you to rewire any tendencies of only eating as much as or less than others
You are in recovery and your body needs are very different to someone who is energy balanced.
31. Make yourself eat more of things than you ever thought you could…
Examples might be ice cream by the tub (not scoops), huge large chocolate bars, family sized bags of crisps, go XL in everything. Show yourself that you don’t have to stop at a small or what is considered a single serving size – abundance is your ticket out of restriction.
32. Big challenge days
Shake up recovery with days where you deliberately aim to eat everything in sight, perhaps even with 10 or 15 or 20,000 calorie challenge days (without getting obsessive over numbers). This can be an excellent way to force yourself out of those restrictive tendencies, show you what eating without any restriction can look like and help you continue eating with much less restriction, knowing that eating that much is possible and safe.
33. Bring games into recovery
Find other ways to make recovery a game. Keep recovery interesting so you stay mentally engaged and not complacent or bored. This might be other challenge days... how many different bakery items can I eat today or eating Chinese or American food all day (I know you can think of many more!). Use others to help you plot and plan for this or ask them to join in to keep it even more engaging and spicy!
34. Accept fear of weight gain won't go anywhere fast
The fear of gaining weight will never go unless it’s faced. So eat, gain weight & learn the world does not end when you do!
35. Remember weight gain alone is not recovery
Just because you have gained weight or your BMI is now 'healthy' or well over 'healthy'… remember that BMI is B.S. and eating disorder recovery is about mental state and not weight on a BMI chart. If you still have fears around food, about eating without some form of restriction or compensation or fears about gaining more weight that are making you still engage in disorderd thoughts or behaviours, then you have to keep pushing against any form of restrictive eating, no matter what. Mental state, not weight in recovery!
36. Reflect each evening on where the restriction showed up that day
Quietly sit each evening and go back over your day in your mind and identify where the eating disorder showed up with any restrictive wins… Once you have identified them, you can address them.
37. Recognise the positives in each day
Each day notice the positives that you have achieved that day too, however small. Find the good sides to recovery… There will be plenty if you look. Recognise the wins and celebrate them!
38. Find and use your recovery team
Recovery in isolation might well be impossible and if not impossible at least 100 times harder. Ask others to help, whoever that is – friends, family, a coach, a professional or ideally a whole team of people who are there to support, cheerlead for you, keep you focused, stop you getting complacent and hold you accountable. Recovery is a long journey; it is easy to burn out and lose momentum and motivation without support.
39. Accept your perceptions of what a lot of food is might be skewed!
People who have been eating restrictively for a significant amount of time often have very skewed ideas about what a lot of food looks like which is understandable because of the level of restriction they have eaten to for so long. This can lead a person to eat just a couple more biscuits or a chocolate bar in the day and suddenly believe they are eating so much food and eating 'recovery amounts'! When this happens, detach from yourself for a moment and consider whether you would think that a lot of food for somebody else and always go back once again to the old mantra that if you are thinking of food then you are hungry and you need to be eating a lot more food no matter how much you believe you have just eaten.
40. Always remember, if you don't fight then the illness stays
Recovery is exhausting, mentally draining and it is easy to become mentally and emotionally burnt out in the process. It is a constant battle to stay on track 24 / 7. There are no days off. But if you don't keep fighting and keep pushing the restrictive urges away and choosing the least restrictive option instead, then the illness won't go anywhere fast. Fight, feel shit but that shitty feeling passes... eventually!
I hope this little list of 40 tips to address restriction in eating disorder recovery has been a tiny bit useful to you. I wish I could give you a magic pill that would make it easier but I can't. All I can do is offer some support and encouragement and practical tactics that might just help a little.
All of you reading this are worth so much more than this illness. Don’t let it take more from you than it has.
This post is also available as a podcast episode on my podcast, 'Feck it, Fun, Fabulous and Free in Eating Disorder Recovery' which you will find a link to in the menu above.