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  • Helly Barnes

Overcome Restrictive Eating by Deliberately Eating To Gain

When you have eaten restrictively for years with an eating disorder and even when you desperately want to break restrictive eating habits, it can feel complicated and overwhelming to work out how much to eat, what and when.

- What is the eating disorder still driving you to eat restrictively and what isn't?

- Do you just add a bit more to your intake here and there or do you dive in to eating with abundance?

This blog post discusses an approach to overcome restrictive eating habits more effectively than any other method I have witnessed and that is to deliberately and determinedly eat to gain. By this I mean to take on the mindset that you are eating to gain weight and ultimately eating to gain your control and your life back from the grips of an eating disorder that otherwise keeps you captive in an invisible prison, very much under its control in every waking moment.

In previous posts I have covered my theory of restrictive eating disorders being an addiction to the state of energy deficit, by which the brain becomes addicted to any behaviours that will deepen or maintain an energy deficit state. In this way, with a restrictive eating disorder, restrictive eating becomes an addictive habit that brings a sense of calmness or numbing when you engage in just eating foods in restrictive and 'safe feeling' ways. And on the flip side, if you do attempt to change your eating patterns and eat more, eat different food types, eat outside usual routines or rituals, then you can quickly feel agitated, anxious and experience a deep seated sense of fear or 'wrongness'. Of course the only way to overcome the eating disorder is to face the emotional challenges and difficult to tolerate feelings that come from changing eating patterns and breaking restrictive eating habits and I recommend the best way to do this is to use an abstinence approach, although moderation can also be somewhat effective.

This post goes into more depth about what abstaining from restrictive eating can involve and how to adopt a helpful mindset that can then make you that bit more able to make the necessary changes to your eating behaviours.

The two books I have published about restrictive eating disorders and how to overcome one cover why I recommend taking on an 'aiming for overshoot' mindset when you are overcoming a restrictive eating disorder. This is because, not only is fat overshoot a very necessary physiological component to the body being able to fully heal and emerge from energy deficit but also because taking on the mindset of deliberately aiming to gain weight and aiming for overshoot can help your brain to grasp something that can otherwise feel very complicated and messy.

When you can step back and rationally consider what someone who is deliberately and determinedly eating to gain weight would do—someone aiming to abstain from restriction and who is eating to gain their life back—then you will come to the answers that will take you as far from eating disordered eating patterns as is necessary, so that you not only give your body a chance to heal and repair, but you really allow your brain to reprogram as well because that's ultimately where your free life really lies.

And when you do think about what someone eating to gain and to overshoot their weight and ultimately shoot towards their life freedom would do, you might reach some of the following conclusions:

  • Eating most of the time, particularly any time you are thinking about food, have the opportunity to eat, or are wondering if you might want to eat right now

  • Choose predominantly high calorie, high fat, dense foods (the foods the eating disorder side of your brain hates but that your body needs and will help reprogram all those fears of these less restrictive foods types)

  • Eat at least three big, multi-course meals a day and large, dense snacks between meals as frequently and abundantly as you can manage

  • Not avoid processed foods or fast foods

  • Not count calories or have intake limits

  • Not compensate for the foods eaten

  • Push aside any thoughts about what has already been eaten that day (or that week!) or what foods are coming later and just eat for the present moment, embracing the foods available now, trusting that later can be more of the same

  • Eat beyond physical fullness and focus on mental hunger and satiation

  • Not delay eating

  • Feel proud of your eating to gain because it's not easy to break addictive habits and patterns—it takes willpower and courage and that is something you should only ever feel proud of

  • If you habitually body check before or during eating then turn the thoughts around as you do to a 'bigger body, bigger life' mindset!

Deliberately eating to gain brings many advantages as it pushes out more rituals and behavioural patterns around the restrictive eating than other approaches do. This means that the eating disorder habits are more likely to become unwired while wiring in unrestricted eating habits, helping you achieve meaningful results faster and more effectively in terms of brain reprogramming and rewiring, as well as getting your body out of energy deficit.

This mindset also overcomes the difficulties you might have in trying to understand how much you 'should' be eating or what the right amounts to eat are. If you aim to eat like a person pursuing weight gain and not attempting to control the rate of gain, then you can begin to understand what abstaining from all restriction really means. The only right amounts to eat are as much as you could be.

It’s also a faster way to overcome your other rules around eating, for example rules about how much you are allowed at each meal or limits you have set on fat or carbs. All these rules and restrictions are pushed out through the abstinence approach. Get into the aim to gain mindset, and it will lead you to the exact things you need to do to abstain from all restriction and restrictive behaviours.

A Few More Tips to Help Overcome Restrictive Eating By Deliberately Eating to Gain...

If you are struggling to get into the 'eating to gain' mindset then it might help to establish a few more ground rules for yourself. Below are a few suggestions for some additional black-and-white rules that you might implement in your pursuit of abstinence from all restriction:

  • Set yourself a high baseline amount of food that you will eat every day no matter what. This is the minimum that you eat, even if your head is convincing you that you aren't hungry or that you don’t 'need' it or if you have people dieting around you making you feel 'greedy'. Your baseline intake needs to be HIGH. To give your brain the chance to undertake the necessary deep learning when it comes to unrestricted eating, it can be helpful to go to the other extreme for a while. And for many, aiming high really is easier to understand than trying to eat in more moderated amounts. It’s also beneficial because when your body is malnourished, it needs the food and you will be ruddy hungry whether you are able to acknowledge that yet or not. Eating high amounts tells your brain that any famine situation it perceived is now over. It will then feel safe enough to create the extreme hunger signals that it always wanted to send. Once this hunger kicks in, allow it to drive you onwards.

  • Meal plans aren't necessary, even in establishing your 'baseline' minimum food amounts. Meal plans frequently provide too much structure and become fixed, rigid and hard to break. To set a high baseline amount, simply establish a mental image or vague outline of what your intake should be. You might work with a coach or a good dietician (someone who supports full, unrestricted eating) to establish this. This baseline amount of food doesn’t need to be written out in a planned way or overly structured and it has to be recognised as the bare minimum that you eat every day. Remember, the idea is to abstain from all restriction. More is only going to help your brain reprogram more effectively and efficiently, so go for it!

  • Eat to any hunger above your established baseline, always aiming to exceed that baseline level in all ways that you can. If you recognise any signs of hunger, whether they are physical, mental, emotional or behavioural, then eat. Not eating when your body is sending you hunger signals is restriction, which you are abstaining from, so you eat to all of the hunger that is there.

  • If you are questioning if you have hunger or not, then you probably do—people who aren't hungry don’t question it as they just know. Either way, you are abstaining from restriction to overcome the addiction your brain has to energy deficit, so it’s always safer to eat when you are questioning your hunger level than not eat.

  • When extreme hunger hits, let it take you as high as it needs to.

  • Recognise the habitual ways in which you use restrictive behaviours in your day-to-day life, beyond the obvious. In this post, I cover many of the ways that restriction can manifest, so please refer to this and identify what is true for you. Write out your restrictive habits and then create black-and-white rules for each to help you address them. An example of this might be that you have started to eat toast with peanut butter, but you will only allow yourself one spoonful of peanut butter on each slice of toast, even though you would like more. Make a new rule for this: 'when making toast and peanut butter, I will slather the peanut butter on abundantly, making it at least an inch thick'.

  • Develop skills in being honest with yourself and with those supporting you. Whenever you finish eating something, ask yourself, 'Could I eat more right now?' . If you could still be putting food in your mouth and physically eating, then the answer is yes. You will have to be very honest with yourself on this. Your brain is automatically wired to eat restrictively and go down the automatic thought pathways of, 'I'm done; I’m not hungry; it’s not time to eat' or 'No one else is eating more'. Ignore these thoughts and be black and white. 'I could be eating more right now, so I will'. And be honest with those supporting you so they can reassure you and help you through the process, encouraging you to keep eating despite the automatic restrictive thoughts and urges.

Overcome restrictive eating by deliberately eating to gain...

Most people who have been eating restrictively for a long time are unable to connect to their hunger signals immediately. After years of ignoring hunger signals, it isn't easy to recognise and interpret them correctly. Therefore being told to eat to your hunger is often not something people can make sense of when they are first embarking on the process to overcome a restrictive eating disorder. This is when using an approach of deliberately eating in a way that is eating to gain—not just weight but your life back too—and to abstain from all restriction can be a little easier to comprehend. Yes, it might also be terrifying but when you do it and realise the liberation it can bring and the exhilaration then you can let the fear response go and instead wallow in pride in yourself and excitement for your free future as you sit enjoying cakes and delicious big pasta meals or other good things in ways that you very likely haven't for years.

And in time, this approach will also help you to begin to understand your body's signals. The natural intuition of what hunger feels like, mentally and physically, is more comprehensible when you have experienced what true mental and physical satiety and fullness feel like. Then it’s possible to continue the process of fully abstaining from any restriction by beginning to experiment with eating to hunger and appetite, using the signals your brain and body are sending. This means still eating all the good foods in completely non-restrictive ways but now with an increased ability to respond to mental and physical hunger signals, so that you relearn these skills too. In no time, as you proceed forward and gain in all kinds of magical ways, aiming for overshoot and finding that state in which you emerge from energy deficit and have a beautifully reprogrammed brain, you will realise how much life you have gained and be so grateful you did go through this hard but worthwhile process.

I know it's easy to say, 'just do this' and it's not so easy to 'just do it' when you have an incredibly powerful and strong addiction to energy deficit and to restrictive eating habits that feel impossible to break at times. This is also why I always advise you seek support when going through this process and make as much space in your life as you can too while you are facing the intense mental energy, focus and emotional challenges that learning this whole new way of eating and living demands.

You can do it but it's not easy and everyone deserves all the help they can get to get through. Now, please, go eat something and as you do, make sure that what you eat is based on you eating to gain your life and freedom back!!

**For more information on eating disorders and how to overcome one, please don't miss my newly available books,


If you like to listen, as well as (or instead of read!) then this blog post is the transcript of a podcast episode which you will find on my podcast series,

available on this website, all mainstream podcast platforms and on YouTube.


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