Eat to Extreme Hunger to Overcome an Eating Disorder
I have recently been asked if I would write about my experiences of eating when I had the 'extreme hunger' that we speak about in eating disorder recovery and that so many people going through recovery struggle with when it inevitably hits.
For any person coming out of a state of having under-eaten for a period of time, for whatever reason, they are likely to experience much higher hunger levels than what could be considered 'normal' hunger for a while. This is because their brain and body will drive them to eat more to make up for the deficit in energy they have created.
Assuming they do respond to this higher level of hunger by eating more for as long as needed, their body will establish a state of energy balance and switch hunger cues back to a natural level.
It has to be said though, that the hunger that comes when a person is in a state of energy deficit (through under-eating) can be very high. For someone who has not been used to eating much food for a lengthy amount of time (as is the case for a lot of people with restrictive eating disorders), the extreme hunger that can arise as they tentatively start to eat more, can be alarming and overwhelming.
Extreme Hunger Comes in Many Forms!
In an earlier post, I wrote about all the ways hunger can manifest. This can be through symptoms that are physical, mental, emotional or behavioural (please have a read of that post if you have not yet).
When a person first starts to eat more in attempting to overcome an eating disorder, it is often the non-physical signs of hunger that are be the most powerful and intense. This is often true when the physical hunger is not as strong or even when they feel physically stuffed!
It can often be the case that extreme hunger manifests purely as mental, behavioural or emotional signs of hunger, with only little or no physical hunger. The symptoms experienced with this are to be always thinking about food, wondering if you are hungry, considering whether you should eat something now, looking at food, shopping for food (without eating as much of it as you want to), looking up recipes or watching others eat...
All these hunger symptoms are a brain trying desperately to guide someone to eat food. The brain constantly creating food thoughts or food ideas is a brain that is starving and wants to be fed!!
This hunger is a form of extreme hunger and as I said, at the start, this can be all that the person has, with only low or no physical hunger as physically their stomach is still struggling to process all the food that their body needs (rest assured, the belly does catch up!).
When extreme hunger hits though at its most extreme, it is mental, behavioural, emotional AND physical. This is when you can't switch off food thoughts for love nor money (and they are driving you insane!). You can't sleep for thinking about food and at the same time, no amount of food that you consume feels enough for your stomach or your mind.
At its most extreme, the stomach and belly can feel like a little furnace that just immediately grabs hold of and engulfs any food you put in it. You can keep adding more and more and more but it never feels enough. And if you do reach a point, having consumed amounts that an olympic eater would be proud of, of finally feeling not just physically but also mentally satiated and you think to yourself, "I'll go to bed now as I can't imagine being hungry again at all for days".... Just as you fall into that happy, contented, satiated food coma... within an hour or two, your brain and body have woken you up again, to say, "feed me, feed me, feed me!!".
And so it goes on... and on, and on.
The hunger in recovery can be very extreme but unless you follow it and respond, you are effectively still restricting as you are not eating to your hunger, which also means that you are inevitably just dragging out the process of overcoming the eating disorder.
Coming back to the whole point of this post in the first place(!). I was asked to write more about my experiences of recovery eating / extreme hunger eating and although I have described something of how I experienced extreme hunger, I have not yet said anything about my experience of managing it and responding to it.
To be honest with you, I hesitate to provide detailed information about my 'recovery eating' and exactly what that looked like. The reason for this is that although I am aware some people would find it helpful and inspiring, for others it can be unhelpful and can lead to comparisons (which are never appropriate because all our bodies are different, just as all recoveries are different!).
Therefore, in an attempt to be helpful but not encourage comparison, I will provide some more generalised truths about the recovery eating I went through as I navigated extreme hunger (no numbers are mentioned!).
My Extreme Hunger Eating Experiences...
Eating huge meals several times a day and lots more huge snacks between those meals than the traditional 'three' that are too often misguidedly prescribed in treatment.
Eating a huge and terrifying meal after a day of non stop eating, knowing that even the enormity of this meal still wouldn't touch the sides, while others present would eat a fraction of it and say that 'they could not eat another thing'...
Crying with frustration over what to eat because of a certain knowledge that no matter what it was or how much, it just would never be enough, while also knowing that for recovery I had to keep eating and keep going until I did find that point of being satisfied (even if just for a short while).
Eating a whole giant size tube of Smarties immediately after having a large whole pizza, huge ice cream sundaes and quarter of a tub of quality street, feeling increasingly sick while I pushed these Smarties down but somehow still compelled to finish them all.
Eating large coffee shop buttered bacon crusty rolls with milky lattes after a big breakfast, before lunch and between other morning snacks of big blueberry muffins and pains au raisin.
Always having large chocolate bars and other dense snacks in my bag, in the car, so able to grab them and eat them wherever I was and no matter what I was doing (not because they were 'part of a meal' or a specific snack but just because my body needed food most of the time and I was responding).
Eating giant size baked cookies by the multi-pack as just part of the afternoon's eating.
Having a large dinner in the evening with three large desserts, big bowls of cereal, donuts, waffles and full fat greek yoghurt and then lots of chocolate before bed.... and then waking up a couple of hours later hungry again!
When I went to coffee shops for 'morning snacks' or 'afternoon snacks', ending up doing a coffee shop crawl as the hunger would be intense after the big bakery item and Frappuccino in the first coffee shop, so I would need to move on immediately to the coffee shop next door for more... paninis, cakes, muffins, cookies etc. ( I liked to spread my custom around!).
Almost feeling afraid to leave the house at times because of my hunger and not wanting to be away from food access for any length of time. During those times of extreme hunger, there were days I wanted to be out and eating every food in every coffee shop and restaurant but also days when I felt quite depressed and definitely exhausted and drained by recovery and the hunger.. This left me wanting to curl up in the house with loads of food, often needing a good cry while I ate copious amounts, felt the confusion it was all causing and yet force myself to keep going with eating and also rest.
When really in extreme hunger eating, meals became almost a laughable notion, particularly if they were to be labelled as 'breakfast', 'lunch' and 'dinner' because there were more meals in the day and evening than just three and social eating norms would have been restrictive and constricting if they really were to be kept to!
After years of restriction when supermarket trips were sacred experiences of looking at lots of the foods but then either leaving with nothing or only buying my usual restrictive and safe options, suddenly everything was an option but nothing felt that it would be enough. With extreme hunger, the world of opportunity in the supermarket immediately becomes immense and yet even though I now filled my trolley with dense and yummy foods that I would never usually let myself buy, I found that I would have to return again the next day because I'd have already eaten all the food I bought yesterday!
And yes... like others report, extreme hunger eating does look like eating cereal by big bowl after big bowl, biscuits and cookies by the pack, family size bags of crisps, more bread in a day than you might ever think a human could consume, more chocolate in an hour than you might ever think a human could consume, as well as energy dense drinks on top of the eating just because you can now (because what the feck quite frankly!), all while having a belly that is like an internal furnace that will take all this food in and burn it up in seconds, demanding more.
But Isn't This Binging?!?!
All of the above might sound to you like it is eating that has become completely out of control...
You might be thinking that this is a person who is binging and has flipped from one type of eating disorder into binge eating disorder.
Well, there is a complicated answer to that which we won't go into here but ultimately, the truth is that nope. This is eating disorder recovery eating and finally letting yourself eat to the extreme hunger you are going through at this stage of your recovery process.
You won't have this hunger level forever.
Your body does not want or need you to consume this level of food for the rest of your days, but it does at the point in time in which it is coming out of what is very likely years of a malnourished state left by a restrictive eating disorder.
Will you end up 'obese' if you follow this hunger?
Well, if you do end up in a larger body that is considered 'obese' by BMI chart, then it will be because that is the body shape and size that is right for your body and your set point weight... This is where embracing body diversity is key.
Ultimately, respond to all your mental and physical hunger, no matter how out of control or extreme it feels or how high and whacky it takes you with your eating and your body will learn to trust you to feed it when it asks for food. Then, when your body is at the weight it is happiest at to function well and for you to live your life with the most mental freedom you can have, your body will just stop gaining. It will stop sending these crazy hunger signals and you will tick along in your life, without the eating disordered driven mind games and compulsions and with a body that still needs a really good amount of food to sustain you and your day to day living, but not a completely crazy amount of food!
Will This Extreme Level of Hunger Last Forever?
The short answer to this is no, extreme hunger won't last forever, especially if you manage to stay true to honouring it. Go with it and it will eventually settle down.
When extreme hunger does settle down, you are continuing to eat completely free of restriction. You might not be driven to eat extreme amounts any longer but that does not mean you feel like you have gone back to depriving yourself. If you do feel like you are depriving yourself when extreme hunger levels settle, then you are restricting and the idea of overcoming an eating disorder is to fully remove restrictive eating from your life!
For a lot of people, the thought of extreme hunger and eating to match it is terrifying. However, a lot of people also fear that when their extreme hunger subsides or when they are no longer 'in recovery' because they are considered 'recovered', that they will lose the permission to eat all the good foods that their brain is currently craving. This is where it is important to remember that the reason their brains are currently obsessing over all this food and craving high amounts of it is because it is coming from the hunger they have now. Once energy balanced again, hunger levels will subside and the fear about not being allowed to eat in extreme ways any longer will also go because the desire to eat in extreme ways is no longer present! If that desire is still there then the hunger is still high and intake needs to continue to meet it.
Extreme Hunger is A Golden Ticket!
Embrace the extreme hunger when it kicks in in your recovery as when you can, it will not only nutritionally help you to heal faster but also allow your brain to rewire more rapidly and ultimately push you into whole new recovery positive brain networks and non-disorder driven habits.
I always say that extreme hunger can be your golden ticket to recovery, if you are super brave and decide to follow it...
This is where you learn what food your body needs, to give it those foods and to understand that no amount of food (no matter how much that is) is going to kill you... Not like the eating disorder would if it is allowed to fester in your life.
If you like to listen, as well as (or instead of read!) then I have also made this blog post into a podcast episode which you will find on my podcast series, Feck it, Fun, Fabulous and Free in Eating Disorder Recovery... available on this website, on all mainstream podcast platforms and on YouTube!