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  • Helly Barnes

Restriction in Eating Disorder Recovery and How it can Manifest

Updated: Jul 12, 2023

We often talk about restriction as the main symptom of restrictive eating disorders (the clue is in the name!) and that restrictive eating leads to other common symptoms. It's also frequently strongly encouraged that those affected break all the restriction in the how, what and when they eat, or with whom.

But we rarely stop and unpick what restrictive eating looks like and the many ways it can manifest.

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

In reality though, when overcoming an eating disorder, you could be eating thousands more calories a day—you could be eating ten or twenty-thousand calories a day and look like you are winning 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. They will try to negotiate every last thing, down to the smallest detail. You must recognise where these negotiations and sneaky attempts of the eating disorder to keep you eating restrictively are arising so that you can address them.

In this post, I cover some of the ways in which the eating disorder can still push you to restrict 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 a meal plan you won’t allow yourself to exceed, even if you are hungry. It could also be limits to how much you will allow yourself to eat at each meal/snack, not letting yourself eat more than this, even if your brain and body are screaming at you for it (or 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 limit you won’t allow more of or rigid portion sizes.

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

Typical things here are how often people will let themselves have chocolate, white bread, ice cream or other sugary foods in a day or week. It can also be meal rules such as having a particular 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 you need to break

Only eating specific types of foods at certain times

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

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

Another common eating disorder mindset is where you compare to your intake yesterday, not allowing yourself to exceed what you ate then, no matter how much you want to. It's another fear-generated thought pattern and method that your brain uses to keep you in a restrictive mindset.

Time of day eating—only letting yourself eat by the clock

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 won't allow yourself to eat at other times then it's a problem. If you are hungry between your time of day rules and won’t let yourself eat until the next permitted time—it's 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 or that you can eat even if you only have two minutes to force something down because you have an appointment.

Delaying eating

This is another common means of restriction for 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 restrictively, food is precious, so 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 due to restriction and in reality, there is always more food for you, no matter how early or late in the day and no matter what.

Weighing or measuring food to specific 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, which eating disorders love.

Calorie or other number checking

Calorie and number checking or tracking is a weapon of restriction and can result in only eating to a 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 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 the usual restriction creeping in.

Only eating as much as or less than 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 who has an energy-balanced appetite. Your appetite is likely to be several times theirs during your recovery journey and if you will only eat what they eat or less then you will continue to restrict which won't get you to recovery.

Special diet restrictions

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 fewer 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 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 this one is definitely not excusable as it is blatant restriction. Plus, full-fat and 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 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 reduce 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 by blunting your appetite or filling your time to avoid eating, or it might be as a means to compensate for your intake. Other compensatory behaviours can also be considered a way to restrict—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 way 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 is a starting point with several ways that restriction can manifest in eating disorders and 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 you are finding the weeds to the eating disorder in your life, digging them out and destroying them. 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 listen to that, please do. You will find the podcast on this website or to download from any mainstream podcast platform.


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