A much feared scenario that many people worry about in their journey to overcome a restrictive eating disorder is not just gaining weight but doing so while still restricting or continuing to engage in compensatory behaviours.
A lot of people start the process to overcome a restrictive eating disorder by eating a bit more and as they do so, find that their hunger also starts to increase. They perhaps add a bit more food into their intake but the amounts their brain and body begin to scream out for can become overwhelming. They develop a powerful and often frightening urge to eat huge amounts but this is coupled with an even stronger pull to continue to restrict and hold onto some level of energy deficit.
Simultaneously, people might begin to reduce the amount of exercise or movement they engage in which in itself feels alien and wrong to them. Yet when they do slow down, the pull to stop and rest completely can become stronger than ever but still so hard to give into.
It is at this point, where food intake has increased but still not to the level the body and brain are screaming for and when the movement compulsions are reduced but the ability to give in completely and really rest has not yet been found, that weight gain can first be noted and this can also be emotionally unsettling.
When you feel that you only have half a foot into what needs to happen to fully mentally and not just physically overcome the eating disorder and yet find that your body is gaining weight, it feels unjustified and frustrating.
At this point you will very likely experience thoughts that you cannot now justify eating even more and enough to meet your high hunger. You will also very likely feel that you can't rest more, even though that is all you want to do. Your head will become filled with future tripping thoughts about what might happen to your weight and body if you did eat even more or rest fully now when you are already gaining on what you have been doing?!? All those fears that you will spiral into a never ending morbidly obese future play out move vividly before your eyes and become even more credible to your anxious and eating disordered mind!
Of course we know why the body can start to gain weight on just a small amount of increased intake. When you are still in a semi-starved state within the restrictive eating disorder, your body metabolism is markedly lower than it should be for it to function optimally. This is a life and energy saving mechanism the body uses to survive on limited energy levels. When some extra energy does come in (as you tentatively begin to eat a bit more), the body initially holds onto that extra energy rather than using it straight away on non essential functions in case this is just a short lived additional burst of energy that it will need for essential function in the future. Therefore, it stores these small amounts of extra energy coming in and stays in starvation mode. This is when some initial weight gain can be seen. It is only when the energy intake remains consistently higher than the energy being expended each day and when there are a few emergency reserves in the tank (so to speak) that some non vital bodily functions will begin to switch back on. This is when the body metabolism starts to rev up slightly. When this does happen, it will take increasing amounts of food to continue to gain weight. Of course, none of this knowledge will stop your. brain from using the fact that you are already gaining weight on an intake that is lower than you really want to be eating, to persuade you that you should not even munch on one extra tiny cookie in a day, let alone anything more!
What then can you do about this?
For anyone reading this who is not in this situation but who is contemplating starting the process to overcome a restrictive eating disorder, you are in the fortunate position of being able to prevent this scenario from becoming your reality. The best way to do this is to dive into huge eats and a lot of rest, stopping all other forms of purging or compensatory behaviours from day one. In this way, when you do gain weight, no matter the rate, it will feel justified because you are actually giving your body all that it is asking for and therefore needs. In turn, your body will respond by using the extra fuel and rest you give it to ensure that you fully restore and heal. This will enable your body to escape the energy deficit state you are currently in and as this happens, your metabolism and your body's vital functions will begin to switch on and up again.
For those of you however who are in the unhappy situation of having gained weight in the way described above, perhaps even to a level that you feel is already at your set weight point or above, yet you are also still eating restrictively in terms of food amounts or types or with a lot of rules then things need to change. If you are fully aware that you have gained weight but you are still engaging in compulsive movement, exercise or other behaviours that you feel powerless to stop and which are making your life miserable, it is time to address it. If you still engage in purging behaviours or other means of compensating for your intake then these still have to be addressed. What then do you do?
The answer to this is NOT to lose weight again so that you can do 'recovery right' next time... I know a lot of eating disorder brains will be jumping to that conclusion but please, don't go there!
Instead, focus on pushing ahead from where you are now. You are going to need to find every ounce of courage but do this and you will be bulletproof when you do fully overcome this eating disorder.
And, for some people gaining weight initially in this disordered, still restricting or compensating but less so way, though not ideal, is perhaps the only way to get to the point of their being able to fully let go. In some cases, initial weight gain and a slight reduction in restriction and compensatory behaviours seems to be necessary for the person to be able to comprehend what is needed to take that deeper dive. Or perhaps they are not yet fully in a space of being frustrated enough by the illness to do all it takes to overcome it until later when they have experienced an initial greater taste of freedom and it sparks a desire for more...
So, if you have gained some weight (or a lot of weight) in a disordered way, it is ok and you can still fix this and fully overcome the eating disorder.
The reality is that you might have to accept more weight gain to get to the end point of this process... or your body might not gain much more. This is not something either one of us can know until it happens and attempting to control it will never allow the mental rewiring work that is so necessary for this process.
What do you do from here?
You do the same as the person who is at the start of their journey... From now you begin to eat everything that your brain and body are asking you for, no matter how much that is, what it is or how crazy it might look to an onlooker... You cannot allow what others think or what your eating disordered self thinks to hold you back. This is your life and future health at stake!
Begin to eat all your brain and body crave, rest fully, stop all the other compensatory behaviours. Allow your body to trust you to feed it and take it well and truly out of the energy deficit state you have kept it in for far too long. Let your body feel safe enough to switch up all those internal functions that it is still keeping suppressed because it didn't have enough energy reliably coming in. Importantly too, allow your brain to unwire all those old eating disordered networks and wire in new networks that automatically guide you in future to follow behaviours that are unrestricted and free of the eating disorder's influence.
At the end of the day, no one gains weight forever more. Everyone who goes through this and trusts the process, sticking with it even when it gets tough, will eventually develop hunger cues, energy levels and a functioning brain that are suited to a free, happy, independent and non-eating disordered future life.
To get there though, act like a person who wants to and is determined to gain weight so that when any weight gain does happen, it feels justified. Not only that, it is the best way to heal your body and to most comprehensively rewire your brain too.
If you like to listen, as well as (or instead of read!) then this blog post is a transcript of 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!