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Restriction in Eating Disorder Recovery and How it can Manifest

Updated: Nov 23, 2022

We often talk about restriction as a key symptom with eating disorders which then leads onto a lot of the other symptoms so common with the illness and the fact that in recovery it is necessary to break all the restriction in the how, what, when you eat and with whom.

But very often we don’t stop and unpick what restriction in eating looks like and all the ways it can manifest.

When you have had an eating disorder for any significant length of time, a lot of the smaller ways in which you might restrict how you eat or what you eat can be so habitual and ingrained that you don’t even realise they are there or that they are a part of the illness. People around you are also unlikely to know that you have some of these restrictive tendencies or they might have accepted them as part of what you do and not challenged them as you go through recovery because they don’t consider them significant to the bigger picture.

In reality though, in eating disorder recovery, you could be eating thousands more calories a day, you could be eating 10 or 20 thousand calories a day and to the world look like you are doing incredibly at this recovery game.

But, you might still be restricting.

And that restriction can manifest in so many of the decisions you make in the day… even decisions that seem on the surface less food related.

Eating disorders are very sneaky and they will try to negotiate every last thing in recovery, down to the smallest little detail. It is so important that you recognise where these negotiations and sneaky attempts of the illness to keep you restricting are coming in, so that you can address them.

In this post, I cover some of the ways in which the eating disorder can still push you into restriction in recovery, even when you think you are doing amazingly because you are eating huge volumes and facing fear foods like never before.

How Restriction Can Manifest in Eating Disorder Recovery

Eating to any limits

This could be eating to a set number of calories in the day or to a meal plan that you won’t allow yourself to go above, even if you are hungry to.

It could also be limits to how much you will allow yourself to eat at each meal / snack and you won’t let yourself eat more than this, even if your brain and body are screaming at you for it (or even if they are just gently nudging you for more)…

Only eating foods in certain amounts and never more

This could be the number of scoops of an item, weighing it to a certain limit you won’t allow more of, portion sizes etc!

Rules of how many of something you will let yourself eat in a certain timeframe

Common things here are how many times people will let themselves have chocolate or white bread or ice cream or other sugary foods in a day or week. It can also be meal rules such as only having a certain meal no more than once a week (e.g. I have already had pizza this week so can’t again!). These rules are meaningless and a means of restriction which needs to be broken!

Only eating certain types of foods at certain times of day

Having 'rules' about what time of day you can eat certain food types and not allowing yourself to have these foods at other times are also a common form of restriction and a way the illness will stop you eating what you might really want when you actualy want to eat it.

Comparing to what you ate yesterday or the same day a week ago and not exceeding this

This is another common eating disorder mindset, where you compare to yesterday's intake and not allow yourself to exceed what you ate then, no matter how much you want to. This is another fear generated thought pattern and way in which the brain keeps you in that restrictive mindset.

Time of day eating… only letting yourself eat at certain times of day.

In recovery you might think this is ok if you are eating huge amounts more than you ever used to and even facing big fears at the times of day you will let yourself eat but if you can’t let yourself eat at other times then that is a problem and if you are hungry between your time of day rules and won’t let yourself eat until the next permitted time then that can be torturous… Waiting to eat because of some arbitrary whim of your brain when you are hungry is unnecessary and a form of restriction!

Only eating in certain locations, with particular people or if you have a reasonable amount of time to do so

These rules need to be addressed in recovery so that you learn that you can eat anywhere, that you can eat alone or with others, that you can eat even if you only have 2 minutes to force something down because you have an appointment.

Delaying eating

This is another common means of restriction to those with an eating disorder. IF you do eat at a different time to any fixed and rigid rules and routines, then your disordered brain will very likely make it later than your ‘usual’ or planned time and never earlier! When you eat resctrictively, food is precious and you want to drag it out and still have it there to look forward to before you fall into bed at night. But delaying eating is all due to restriction and in reality, there is always more food to be had, no matter how early or late in the day and no matter what!

Weighing or measuring food to certain amounts

People with eating disorders get very attached to their kitchen scales (I know I did) and weigh out anything and everything. If you are eating without limits and restriction then you don’t need a set of scales or other means to measure food quantity to tell you that. You have as much as you possibly can of whatever it is and keep eating it until your brain and body say ‘I’m done with that now but quite fancy x instead’ and then you have that. Scales are machines of restriction and eating disorders love them.

Calorie or other number checking

Calorie and number checking or tracking is a weapon of restriction and can result in only eating to a certain limit or making your food choices based on what the numbers say – avoiding higher values. When you see the numbers, always go highest to show you can and override those restrictive calorie checking habits.

Not buying the foods in the shop that you really deep down want so you don't have them at home!

When out shopping, you might subconsciously avoid buying the non restrictive foods because the eating disordered side is saying, if you don’t have it at home then you won’t be able to eat it...

You need to fill your cupboards at home with all the least restrictive options you can find so that you don’t have the ‘I don’t have any’ excuse not to eat without that restriction creeping in!

Only eating as much as or less then a partner / parent / sibling / friend or only eating if they are eating

This keeps people eating restrictively because when in recovery, you need so much more food than a person who is not energy deprived and has an energy balanced appetite! Your appetite is likely to be several times theirs at times in your recovery journey and if you will only eat what they eat or less then you will be restricting and it won't get you to recovery.

Special diet restrcitions

If you need a special diet for medical or other non ED reasons then you know what is true for you. In this point though, I am referring to people choosing a special diet, such as avoiding meat, animal products, wheat, dairy or other things, not because of a true (and I mean true) medical need to avoid them and not because of real ethical beliefs either but because the illness has persuaded them to use these reasons over the years as a way to restrict.

The little things where you are eating so much more food but there are still small ways in which you restrict...

- Eating bread (even lots of bread) but not buttering it;

- Eating 3 big magnums when you really want 5 or 6,

- Choosing one flavour of ice cream over another because it has 13 less calories (or something ridiculous!),

- Having the big milky drink but saying no to the cream or toppings,

- Avoiding the higher calorie sauces or dressings with things,

- Having a pear instead of a banana because although you are eating thousands of calories in a day now, bananas are still a fear food,

- Eating the fear food, such as a huge sandwich with loads of cheese and butter and massive slabs of bread but then not having the crisps you really want with it.

These little things count. Notice every decision when it comes to food and where the restriction is still lingering.

Diet products of any type

You are not on a diet if you are in eating disorder recovery and uthis one is definitely not excusable as it is blatant restriction. Plus full fat, full sugar options always taste better and ARE the right choice!

Pre or post event restriction

Restricting before an event or big meal to give yourself more ‘permission to eat’ when you are there… or restricting after a meal or event as a way to compensate, even though you are still bloody hungry! You don’t need to restrict as permission to eat later and you don’t need to restrict even after a huge feast when you are still hungry (mentally or physically) and to recover it is key that you don’t!

Restriction in response to weight gain

Many people also restrict if they notice their weight has gone up and judge it to be too fast or inappropriate and so cut their intake again to try to slow the rate of gain down or stop it altogether… Ultimately, recovery means letting go of any attempts to manipulate body weight and shape and eating with NO restriction.

Ignoring body cravings

Then there is the eating more but not what you actually WANT to eat… not following your body cravings but telling yourself you are eating more so it’s good…

Using compensatory behaviours as a way to restrict

This could be exercising as a way to restrict your intake (blunt your appetite or fill time to avoid eating) or to compensate for your intake. Other compensatory behaviours are also a way to restrict at the end of the day… purging, laxatives, diet pills etc… These are all to make up for eating or to give you permission to eat more later and a form of restriction.

Keeping busy

Be that mentally or physically as a means to avoid eating or avoid hunger is also a form of restriction! Notice what you are doing and then aim to rest and relax more, let the hunger in and respond to it!

This list then is a starting point on some of the ways that restriction can manifest in eating disorders and even in recovery. And as I say, this is a starting list… it takes weeding out what in your case is restrictive and where some of the less obvious restrictive behaviours and habits linger.

It really does ALL matter!! Everything matters when it comes to finding the illness in your life, weeding it and destroying it. At the end of the day, you might be eating LOADS more in recovery but if you are still using restriction in even the small ways, it reinforces to your brain that you can eat ‘too much’ or that numbers matter or that times of day or who you are eating with or where you are eating matters…

And these restrictive habits might not make a difference to if you weight restore or not but they keep the eating disordered mindset strong and they will stop you fully mentally recovering.

On my podcast series, 'Feck it, Fun, Fabulous and Free in Eating Disorder Recovery' I have also made a podcast episode on this topic which has a bit more detail, so if you wish to have a listen to that then please do. You will find the podcast on this website or you can download it from any mainstream podcast platform.