Part one of this two part series on the experience of no or low appetite in eating disorder recovery was about why appetite can be low at various stages in eating disorder recovery and yet why you need to push on and keep eating despite this... Have a read of the earlier post if you have not yet and then jump back to this one!
This second part to the series, provides 11 tips to help you to keep eating in your eating disorder recovery, even if you do have no or only a small appetite (or perceived appetite!).
Before moving on to the 11 tips to help you keep eating in recovery despite low (perceived) appetite, just a couple of things to note...
A Note On Mental Hunger
Mental hunger was touched on in the first post and you will find information elsewhere in my content on what mental hunger is and how to recognise it if you are not familiar with the concept. My next post is also about all the ways in which hunger can manifest in recovery so keep an eye out for that one!
At this point though, I just want to mention that when thinking about hunger in your recovery, you might try to convince yourself and those around you that you are just 'not hungry' because you are physically full but in recovery it is vital to recognise and respond to mental hunger (and other signs your body is sending of hunger) just as much as any physical hunger cues.
In recovery if you only respond to physical hunger then you won't be eating unrestrictively, meaning you won't rewire those restrictive eating pathways in your brain and ultimately you won't recover, even if you are eating a bit more than you were.
Recovery means eating to all hunger - mental and physical, being honest about what your body wants and is asking for and when it is asking for it, no matter how high it takes your intake.
You might decide in your recovery that you are not hungry because you don't have a stomach that feels empty or is growling but it is vital you recognise and respond to all your hunger signals that are perhaps less obvious.
Also Important to Know...
Three things to also be aware of when it comes to your appetite in recovery are:
Anxiety reduces your natural appetite
Stress reduces your natural appetite
Exercise (as it puts the body under stress) reduces your natural appetite
Therefore, to allow your appetite to really come through as it should, you also need to find tools to reduce your anxiety and stress levels, relax as much as possible and as is always recommended in recovery, avoid all unnecessary exercise!
Eating Despite Having a Low Appetite
Below are some tips on how to keep eating despite having a low appetite (or low perceived appetite) in your eating disorder recovery, so that you stay on track:
1. Remind yourself that your body is hungry, whether you feel it or not. A body that has been given insufficient fuel, creating an energy deficit, is hungry and needs food. Eating without an appetite might create mental and physical discomfort but at the end of the day you need that food to heal both on mental and physical levels.
2. Recognise the mental hunger even if the physical hunger is absent or even if you do feel physically stuffed or unwell. The thoughts of food, the food seeking behaviours (shopping, recipe checking, meal planning etc), keeping busy to avoid eating, noticing what others are eating, wondering if it is ‘time’ to eat… all of these are signs of mental hunger and that your body does need food, even if your physical hunger is low. Remind yourself that a brain that is satiated does not guide you to food thoughts because it finds other more interesting things to think and do, so if your brain is guiding you to food, it is for a reason... EAT!
3. Have a baseline minimum that you eat every single day no matter what your appetite is but that you are always striving to exceed by a long way. And I don’t mean by this that you need a meal plan or a calorie amount (don’t start counting calories!)… I mean a baseline high amount of food that you know you need in order to keep well and to keep yourself in recovery. This usually looks like very dense foods at least every 2-3 hours no matter what.
4. When you do have any inkling of hunger, be that physical or mental, eat as soon as it hits... no matter what time of day or night it is. The more you can do this, the sooner your body will trust that sending you hunger signals is a worthwhile exercise because finally you are responding and it will then allow your appetite to come through to the level it always should have been.
5. When your hunger is low, aim for energy dense foods (and yes they will be the ones that are terrifying but that is kind of the point too for the sake of recovery and rewiring!). Eat good highly dense but low volume foods, such as ice creams, proper chocolate, chips, donuts, cheese and add butter, oil and creams to things. Do all you can to add energy to what you are eating without adding bulk so that your body still gets the energy it so desperately needs. This will also then help to stimulate your appetite (and help your digestion).
6. Avoid the filler, bulky, fibrous foods that your eating disorder probably loves but your belly doesn’t, especially as you need to be consuming so much more in terms of energy, fat and other good things in recovery. Here I mean avoid the fruit, veggies, cereals etc that are all bulky, harder to digest and have very little true energy value to them.
7. Recognise that anxiety, exercise and stress all cause low physical appetite because they put the body into stress response mode, releasing more adrenaline which is an appetite suppressant. This is a basic survival response because a stressed person needs to prioritise escaping the danger that is causing the stress and escape it, not sit down and eat. Unfortunately in eating disorder recovery, if your stress and anxiety is triggered by food, then sitting down to eat is exactly what you have to do despite the blunted appetite so that food becomes less terrifying and reduces the risk of a future stress response when you look at a donut.
8. Exercise kills your appetite for the same reasons stress and anxiety do. To the caveman brain, the reason a person would be running or engaging in significant exercise is to escape danger, so exercise puts the body back into adrenaline pumping, stress response mode, blunting your appetite. You shouldn’t be exercising in recovery anyway, and you will find that if you allow yourself to sit down, rest and relax and find methods to help you feel less anxious when you do so, that your appetite is likely to be much higher.
9. Use hot water bottles, belly massages and wear elasticated waists. Deploy all the good old tools to help you when you are feeling physically stuffed, bloated or have stomach cramps... and then keep eating!
10. As I spoke about in part one of this two part series, the body will switch off hunger signals if intake remains low even when it was trying to send you messages to eat more and sometimes you need to eat more in order to get the hunger signals back... Therefore, if your appetite remains low, eat more and eat more energy dense foods to give your body and brain the message that the famine is over and food is available once again. You sometimes need to fuel the hunger fire with food to get it ignited! During recovery, if your hunger drops, also take a step back and reflect on whether your intake has dropped and become restrictive again, causing your body to go back into a survival starvation mode of switching off the true hunger signals. It can never hurt to eat more and eat more in a consistent way in recovery and just see what it does to your appetite!
11. If food has become less exciting or enticing in recovery it is probably because you have allowed yourself to fall into a rut of what you eat and when you eat, even if it is much more than before. Make sure that your recovery is constantly evolving (see previous post) and take the time to reflect on what you are eating now, where the fear and avoidance still arises and shake your recovery up again so that you are constantly facing new challenges, new foods, keeping recovery moving forward and I know that then it will be a lot more interesting to your brain once again!
BONUS TIP... Just grab hold of that 'feck it' attitude and decide, "I might not think I am hungry, my belly might be sore, but I'm going to blast this illness out my life with more food anyway!".
At the end of the day, eating disorder recovery means forcing yourself to eat when you don't feel like eating and even when you feel physically unwell.
If you want to get recovered and sustain recovery long term, this is a skill you need to acquire and become an expert in.
Hunger in recovery can be a luxury and if you have it, let it take you as far as it will….
But when the hunger isn’t there, you don’t get to eat less or not eat. You have to eat as much as you possibly can no matter what or the eating disorder will use that low appetite as a powerful weapon against you recovering and you will still be reading posts like this in another couple of years.
Recovery can’t go wrong if you eat a lot of food, no matter what!
**This post is a transcript of a podcast episode on my series,
'Feck it, Fun, Fabulous and Free in Eating Disorder Recovery',
which you can access for free here or wherever you usually listen to podcasts!**