I say normal, loosely. Because the majority of the population has some form of low grade restriction going on. Whether they realize it or not, any diet behavior is restriction. This is not normal eating. But it is ‘societies normal’ This is not an option for us.
When we restrict, our body adapts, by lowering metabolism and a whole heap of other changes like disrupting hunger cues. (This is partly why diets don’t work, restriction leads to a response known as ‘hyperphagia’ (increased hunger) to counteract this unnatural behaviour. Our bodies function in equilibrium and so will adapt or correct the perceived famine. For anyone who is interested like me, in evidence or scientific explanations, the ‘Minnesota Starvation experiment, led by Ancel Keys’ is the closest we will ever get to depicting what happens to humans when starved, both physiologically and psychologically. It would never pass an ethics committee today but the evidence still stands. This was a practice changing study from the forties that still helps to shape nutritional rehabilitation. It provides explanation for experiences such as hyperphagia.
In early recovery most of us experience “extreme hunger”, hyperphagia. For me this wasn’t so much physical hunger, for the most part, but it translated more as mental hunger or feeling off. Regardless it’s still hunger, if we are obsessing about food it’s because our bodies are needing fuel. I was constantly thinking about food, when I was next going to eat, what I could eat, worrying about whether it was ok/ not enough, even dreaming about food, obsessing about food, reading recipes the list goes on. It felt relentless and really intrusive. It was hard to think about anything else. During this period, I would also find it hard to leave food on my plate, even if I felt full, I guess it was my brain freaking out, fearing that I was going to return to a state of famine again. I’d feel almost a compulsion to finish everything. I never felt satisfied early on, I would be painfully full but still thinking about food. This has gotten better with time. I don’t feel the need to finish everything in front of me. This obsession with food was different to that in the depths of my eating disorder, where I would obsess over food then. When under the grip of ‘HH’ I would control everything around it, I’d cook for others, but never eat what I’d made. I’d bake a lot at this point, now I bake if it’s someone’s birthday, I’m just not interested or obsessed like I was. This is common I think, now we have a rule in my house if I make it, I eat it. Some days, if I haven’t eaten quite enough, I find my extreme hunger can return the next day, but this is getting less and less.
This is terrifying when it first happens. If it is happening to you, or someone you know, extreme hunger is normal, it’s a healthy response to energy deficit and reintroducing nutrition. It showed up for me months later in recovery, after I got back on track from a relapse. I didn’t experience it prior. Bingeing is normal in this setting. It’s distressing, it feels it’s going against everything the eating disorder believes. But the only way I found it improved was to listen and respond to it. Restriction remains the enemy for this.
Some-thing I still find difficult, is what’s normal. I also think, there probably isn’t actually a normal, because what’s normal for one person is not for another. However serving sizes is a tricky one, I can under-eat some times because I have done so for so long and my perception of what a ‘normal portion’ is warped.
I have found asking for help with this, although humiliating as an adult and at time unbearably uncomfortable, I often run my lunches past my husband and if he tells me it’s not enough, I don’t argue, I add more. I am trying to re-learn normal eating.
Another thing that helped me, although at the time I hated it and argued until I was blue in the face was relinquishing control around food. By this I mean, I was lucky my partner took complete control of what I ate, when I could not make healthy decisions geared towards recovery without ‘HH’ sabotaging. I was not allowed to cook, prepare meals, or enter the kitchen when meals were being prepared. It was one of the most humiliating experiences of my life and there were times when I would argue, shout, cry, throw, he would force me to eat what was in front of me. I was like a child. But worse, I was an adult having a meltdown. But this role was necessary for a short time, because if left alone, I would skip ingredients, make smaller meals, substitute ingredients ‘for healthier’ alternatives etc.
But it was important for me to regain independence quickly (for me and my partner) and the only way I could was to suck it up.
I cannot express the grattitude I have for my partner, I think people who support a person through eating disorder recovery are saints, they see the worst side of a person imaginable, because a caged animal will always lash out. I have apologised more times than I wish I’d ever have to in a life time. I think this is where it’s useful to seperate the person from their eating disorder. We are not our eating disorders, and the non-negotiations are with the eating disorder, not the person being over shadowed by it. This does not give a free pass to be a dick, it’s just to help understand why you have to keep fighting for recovery. Thankfully this wasn’t needed for long.
For a short while, I followed the principles from Gwyneth Olwyns, homeodynamic recovery. I like evidence and this is evidence based. I will link this below. I do not count calories and find doing so to be detrimental, however this principle sets minimums and it helped me for a short period when trying to become independent again.
One thing I’ve accepted is, comparing what we need to eat in recovery to someone who has not just waged war on there body is never going to be helpful. We need more than most people to heal. Healing doesn’t end at ‘weight restoration’, we still have a nutritional rehabilitation, inner repair, mental healing beyond this. Who knows how long this will take. This, Is hard for someone with a restrictive eating disorder, but I believe it’s true and giving yourself permission to eat whatever, whenever and often ‘more’ than people around you is an important step. Letting go of the judgment. I’ve only recently gotten to this point, I used to find it really really hard to eat in front of, or with others. That’s isolating and something a lot of us have to overcome. So ignoring comments about food is important, hard but totally achievable.
1. The Minnesota Starvation experiment: https://archive.wphna.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/2005-Mad-Science-Museum-Ancel-Keys-Starvation.pdf
2. Gwyneth Olwyn, Homeodynamic Recovery Method: https://edinstitute.org/blog/2013/3/31/homeodynamic-recovery-method-guidelines-overview