Understanding Weight Gain in Recovery
For many individuals with a restrictive eating disorder, weight gain is an essential part of recovery. Gaining weight after intentionally restricting food intake and increasing exercise can be scary and challenging—and it also requires a thought pattern change. Individuals can no longer think of weight loss as the goal, they have to start thinking about weight stabilization as the goal.
Understanding restrictive eating disorders
There are five types of eating disorders: anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, other specified feeding and eating disorder (OSFED), and avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID). However, out of these five categories, providers typically see that anorexia, bulimia, and ARFID involve both restrictive eating and notable weight loss.
Anorexia is characterized by a reduction in calories and an obsession with weight, size, shape, and appearance. This eating disorder is also the most deadly of all mental illnesses. Those with anorexia strive for thinness by eating less and exercising more. These individuals often experience body dysmorphia as well.
Bulimia typically involves overeating followed by purging behaviors such as fasting, laxative use and/or over-exercising. Those with bulimia may experience uncontrollable eating that is followed by compensatory measures to purge themselves of the calories consumed. These individuals may use the bathroom frequently, compulsively talk about weight or their body, and misuse laxatives, diet pills, or diuretics.
ARFID is characterized by a change in eating habits that results in weight loss, nutritional deficiency, and/or difficulties maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Those with ARFID may show a lack of interest in food or they may have an aversion to certain food textures or tastes. Warning signs include dramatic weight loss and stunted growth, however, there is no drive for thinness present in those with ARFID.
What is weight restoration?
Weight restoration in the process of eating disorder recovery refers to an individual reaching weight stability. This means that an individual reaches a weight that is healthy for them, meets their nutritional and growth needs, and is a weight that they are able to maintain long-term.
Weight restoration following a restrictive eating disorder may take months depending on how sick the individual is. This process often requires an individual to drastically increase their caloric intake in order to gain weight at a safe and steady rate. In treatment, an individual’s treatment team will often create a meal plan for them to follow in order to reach this weight.
Why is weight restoration challenging?
For those in eating disorder recovery, weight restoration is often one of the most challenging parts of recovery because it necessitates a change in both eating and thinking. Eating is challenging for those with restrictive eating disorders because the individual’s body has become accustomed to nutritional deprivation and low food intake. This may mean the individual may feel too full to follow their meal plan or may have increased difficulty in maintaining the meal plan.
Individuals in the process of weight restoration may also experience physical side effects such as bloating, constipation, headaches, and other gastrointestinal issues as their body becomes reacquainted to proper nourishment. While these symptoms are troublesome, they will go away as an individual continues to follow their meal plan. If these side effects are particularly bothersome, it’s recommended to discuss them with your doctor or dietitian.
Those in recovery may also experience negative mental and emotional side effects that come with weight gain such as depression or anxiety. It’s normal for complex emotions to come with weight gain, especially after an individual has restricted for so long. Eating disorders change how an individual views themselves, food, and their bodies. This change in thought pattern is often challenging to confront and change during recovery. Due to the complexities of eating disorders and the process of weight stabilization, we recommend those in recovery see not only a dietitian, but a therapist as well. A therapist will be able to assist an individual in working through complex emotions and to develop healthy coping mechanisms.
What to do if you are coping with weight gain in recovery
See a trained treatment team. We recommend seeking a specialized treatment at programs such as The Emily Program. By receiving care at an eating disorder treatment center, you are less likely to relapse and will experience more support on your recovery journey. A multidisciplinary team, which may include therapists, dietitians and medical providers, will work to cover all aspects of recovery ensuring that you are supported and cared for.
Follow your meal plan. We understand following your meal plan can be incredibly challenging, but we want you to know that it is possible! If you are experiencing extreme concerns with your meal plan or unable to adhere to it, speak to your treatment team as soon as possible.
Acceptance is a crucial step in recovery. By understanding that your body and mind will change in recovery, you can become open to the process and be more mindful during the transition.
Develop a support network. This network can consist of your treatment team, friends, family, or loved ones. Having a group of people that knows what you’re going through will help you feel supported while also being held accountable.
Donate old clothes. One part of weight restoration is a changing body and clothes that no longer fit. Instead of holding on to these clothes, let go of them and donate them to a local shelter or nonprofit. By donating old clothes and replacing them with new clothes that fit your body, you can feel a new sense of self and a new sense of comfort. If shopping is challenging for you, ask a support person to do the tough work for you and remove the size tags before giving you the new clothes.
Remind yourself why you chose recovery. By keeping a journal or a simple letter of why you chose to recover from your eating disorder, you can stay motivated in recovery. If you chose recovery so you could grow old and raise a family, keep in mind that weight restoration is one step toward that goal.
If you or a loved one is struggling with an eating disorder, it’s crucial that you get support as soon as possible. In addition, if you or someone you know is struggling with weight restoration and recovery, seek support as well. The Emily Program has trained treatment teams that can walk alongside you during your recovery to promote lasting change. If you are interested in learning more or starting recovery, visit us online or call us at 1-888-364-5977.