I’ve had a few questions lately regarding extreme hunger and mental hunger when the person is not “underweight” or the person is at their set point weight. One controversial but crucial aspect of the recovery process is allowing and following extreme hunger REGARDLESS of your weight.
The journey towards recovery is challenging, and there is no question that it involves confronting fears and embracing discomfort. Do you know what is on the other side of fear?
“On the other side of fear is freedom”
I’m going to share with you today why it is important to acknowledge and honour extreme hunger in eating disorder recovery, regardless of your weight.
As you listen, you will most likely feel triggered. The eating disorder might have a tantrum. But ultimately, to fully recover, one must stop listening to the eating disorder’s fears. We all get to a point where the thought of recovery terrifies us, but we know we have to do it anyway. The better prepared we are for it the more chance we have of seeing it to the end. Because ultimately we have 2 choices…
- To stay in the ED and have our life worsen over time because the ED takes more control over time and invents more ridiculous rules if we let it.
- To embark on our recovery journey and into the unknown. Yes, it will be scary but we’re constantly sacred anyway, right? May as well be scared AND get closer to freedom…
I’ll speak to extreme hunger in general first and then I’ll go into why it is STILL APPLICABLE for you even if you “think” you’re weight restored or at your set point weight. So listen carefully to everything I am about to say. It DOES apply to you, ok?
Does everyone get extreme hunger?
Extreme hunger is a pretty common part of any eating disorder recovery. I didn’t go through it until later on in my recovery. Some go through it in the earlier stages. Some do not go through it at all. However, 98% of the clients I’ve worked with, have experienced extreme hunger. In all honesty, if you are not experiencing hunger at all AND you are in ACTIVE recovery (which means you’re actually taking action steps to recover not just thinking about it) then you’re honestly most likely not eating enough. Your body needs to know that it’s actually got access to enough food before it starts sending you strong signals to eat otherwise it’s a waste of energy for your already energy-depleted body.
Is extreme hunger “bingeing”?
Most people call extreme hunger “bingeing” which it is not. It is feasting. After any famine, comes a feast… if we allow it!
Some resist it. They don’t want to admit it is happening because it is every eating disorder’s worst nightmare. Some embrace it because they, like me, have hit a point where they just don’t care anymore and know that nothing is worse than living in the hell hole of the eating disorder.
Some of us trust that extreme hunger is a “fuck you” to our eating disorder from our bodies — a response of strength. A response of life.
That is how I saw it. I was done. Still, when extreme hunger hit it terrified me. My eating disorder told me it would never go away. My eating disorder told me that I would eat and eat and eat and never be able to stop. But I decided to stop listening to my eating disorder the day I actually committed to recovery.
“Being 100% committed is challenging. Being 99% committed is hell.”
My eating disorder had told me lies my whole life. Why would extreme hunger be any different?
The hunger did wane eventually. My weight increased, then slowed, and then one day I arrived at my set point weight which is around 10 lbs less than my overshoot recovery weight.
There are two types of hunger in recovery. Mental hunger and physical hunger. You don’t have to have either of them in order to eat, by the way. In anorexia recovery, you can and often have to eat in the absence of hunger. Hunger is a bonus.
Even if you do experience extreme hunger during your recovery, you probably won’t get it straight away. I didn’t. My extreme hunger came only after I had been mechanically eating for months. And then when it did come I did the absolutely worse possible thing that anyone can ever do in ED recovery… I restricted and tried to compensate for the food I’d eaten— which I called “bingeing” for the next 15 years. DO NOT MAKE THE SAME MISTAKE THAT I DID!
The very sad thing is, a lot of professionals when working with eating disorder recovery clients start to become concerned about the amount of food their client is eating and suggest they “cut back a bit so that they don’t develop binge eating disorder.” 😡 😤 😣
Anorexia recovery is about eating regardless of hunger, regardless of mood, regardless of stress levels, regardless of whether or not you like what you are eating, regardless of the time of day or night, regardless of what culture tells you about food, regardless of what the person next to you is doing.
You can eat crying. You can eat shaking. You can eat swearing.
Back to mental hunger…
But let’s assume you are listening to this because extreme hunger has hit. And you have eaten. You have eaten so much that your stomach hurts and your brain is saying “How could you have possibly eaten that much? How is that even physically possible? How can you ever justify eating again? You just ate enough to last you a week!”
But you still want more food. That’s the mental hunger. Mental hunger counts. Even if you just ate 20,000 calories. If you are still wanting more you can and should have more.
I would let my eating disorder tell me that to keep eating when my stomach was full was ridiculous. It is not ridiculous, it actually makes sense when you consider that the brain is still getting signals from the body that the body is underweight and needs to eat more. (Remember you can be underweight for you and your genetics even if you don’t “look” underweight).
The signals are conflicting. The stomach is saying it is full. The body is saying it is empty. This is where extreme hunger can be a total clusterfuck of mixed feelings.
The mental hunger is your body awake and freaking out about the years of restriction it has endured.
The mental hunger doesn’t trust your stomach. You made your stomach lie to it before. When you filled it up by drinking litres of water. When you shrunk it by not eating for days. When you ignored the knocking of hunger cues for so long that they stopped. When you used caffeine as an appetite suppression (no, coffee is not a meal) or used an actual appetite suppressant. The mental hunger does not trust that you have eaten enough regardless of what your eyes and your stomach tell it. The mental hunger is trying to save your life.
I could eat until I felt physically sick and so full that I was unable to move but I’d still want to eat more. Mental hunger doesn’t care what you think is a lot of food.
In order to understand the mental hunger, I had to reframe how I saw it. I think a large part of the fear that my eating disorder latched onto and replayed in my head was that I was eating way more than what a “normal” person would eat in a day. I was able to shut that thought up by saying “A normal person hasn’t been in an eating disorder for __ years”
Most eating disorders love numbers. Calories are its currency.
Here is how to prove to your freaking-out self that you need to eat a lot.
Let’s say you need 3000 calories a day. (That’s actually what I would guess that I eat in a day). That’s around 1095000 (One Million And Ninety-Five Thousand) calories a year.
Let’s say you only ate 1000 calories a day for a year. That comes to 365,000 in a year.
That is a deficit of 730,000 calories a year. (!!)
Let’s say you did that for 10 years.
That is a 730,0000 (seven million three hundred thousand) calorie deficit you have to make up for!
And that’s not even factoring in the ridiculous amount of exercise you may have done too.
Let’s just say there was a lot of exercise, hours each day. Now, even without the deficit that exercise created, you have 730,0000 (seven million three hundred thousand) to make up for.
No wonder a 2,000-calorie large Dominos pizza didn’t even make a dent in the hunger, right?
In money terms that would be like having an overdraft of €7300000 (seven million three hundred thousand) and wondering why your bank manager wasn’t happy with €2000. 😆
Now, I know that the body doesn’t do math like this but if you look at it this way it helps you to be able to understand the extreme hunger and why it’s okay and needed for you to eat a lot lot more than “other people” around you. Depending on how many years you’ve been restricting (and yes, you are still restricting if you are “bingeing” as this is the body’s attempt to undo the damage of restriction), you have created so much deficit that no matter how much you fill your stomach, your body and mind will be hungry.
Drop the low-calorie foods
If you’re experiencing extreme hunger, there is no point in trying to “fill up” on lower-calorie foods. All they’ll do is make your stomach more uncomfortable. I advise that you temporarily stop eating high-fibrous, high-filling foods such as fruit, veg and rice as these won’t help you to satisfy your hunger. Instead, eat foods such as cheese, peanut butter, butter, saturated fats, ice cream and chocolate. Dollop everything with mayo. Wack peanut butter and coconut oil in smoothies. Melt pints of ice cream and drink them if you have to… Intentionally act as if you WANT to gain weight.
The eating disorder will hate this.
The eating disorder can go fuck itself!
Look what prison it’s had you cadged in for however long.
Doing the opposite of what the eating disorder wants you to do is THE fastest way to recovery.
Nutella used to be my thing. You may have heard me share this before as it was a regular occurrence for me. When I thought I was weight restored because I had gained a shit ton of weight, I’d want Nutella but I wouldn’t let myself have any. I’d already been challenging other previously “not allowed foods” such as cheese toasties for lunch, so I’d say to myself “I’ll have some Nutella on toast for lunch tomorrow.”
And before I knew it, I was drinking a jar of Nutella after melting it in the microwave. I drank the whole 750g jar.
My eating disorder was horrified, disgusted. But deep down I knew it was the right thing for me to do. My body needed it.
“I want what I need.”
The moral of this story is that after several reoccurring episodes of Nutella jar drinking, the next time I wanted Nutella, I had some. Chances were I would eat the whole fucking jar later anyway. And so what? My body obviously needed nutrient-dense foods.
Interestingly, I found I only “binge” ate in the way that I did with those jars of Nutella as a result of restricting and “not allowing” myself to have something. Chocolate was also like this for me.
I learnt that by having chocolate and Nutella whenever I wanted it, I would not feel the desire to eat the whole jar or kgs of chocolate at a time.
Restriction is rooted in many behaviours. Extreme hunger helps you weed it out.
The sooner I gave in and allowed my body calorie-dense foods, the sooner my extreme hunger turned into less extreme hunger, into just plain old hunger, into a normal appetite.
You cannot counter it with exercise or any other purging
If you are attempting to counter extreme hunger or binges with exercise or any other form of purging then you are just making the whole process last longer. Like I did. I was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa when I was 13, I was forced to eat enough until the doctors were happy with my BMI yet I only actually recovered when I was 33!
Go back to remembering the millions of calories in deficit that you are in and you will realize that exercising and purging is dragging it out. If you are underweight (for you, not BMI) you should not be doing any formal exercise of any kind in recovery from anorexia.
It won’t last forever.
Your eating disorder might tell you that extreme hunger and binges will last forever. It is (as usual) lying to you.
Extreme hunger lasts merely weeks in some people and much, much longer in others. It will not be dictated to, and you can give up trying to bargain and reason with it. It will run its course. You will end up in the same place at the end of it. You have two choices:
- Eat without restriction and enjoy doing so.
- Fight it. You won’t win. You likely will binge eat if you try to restrict yourself here. Then you will learn the hard way like I did that the only option is option 1 above.
I fought it initially and binge eating and bulimia came as a result. It took me far too long (15 years) to learn that if I fought it I only binge ate all the foods I didn’t allow myself to eat eventually anyway. When I surrendered to it, the whole process became almost enjoyable. Sure, I was petrified of weight gain and what that meant to me in this society but I enjoyed eating.
It did not last forever. The hunger, eating past fullness and binges subsided when my body and mind were good and ready to allow it to.
I had to place my trust in my body 100 percent.
I had to trust it would stop with the hunger when it was done.
I had to trust I would one day I’d be a normal eater.
I had to trust that my eating disorder was wrong (well, look where listening to that son of a bitch had got me anyway).
But most of all I had to trust my body. I knew there was no going back. I’d been living life with a full-blown eating disorder since I was 13. I started fucking with my food and was living with disordered eating from the age of 9. I was 30 when I started my true recovery journey and 33 when I got to a place of absolute food freedom and body love. It would have been a lot sooner if I hadn’t kept going back to micro restricting (eg only allowing chocolate at the weekends etc) time and time again due to my fear of weight gain and the eating disorder’s persuasion of weight suppression.
The same is true for you if you are in recovery from any eating disorder, extreme hunger or not. Going backwards is not an option if you want a life.
I hear you but I am weight restored, should I still allow extreme hunger and bingeing?
Yes yes and yes, only all of the time!
Rember what I said about energy debt? Well, that still applies to you, my friend. Just because you’ve gained weight (maybe a lot of weight) I call this superficial weight. Not because it’s not real but because it doesn’t mean you’re recovered.
This is the problem with most in and out-patient treatment and this is what happened to me. “You’re at the correct BMI and so you’re discharged. Be careful you don’t go the other way and develop binge eating but make sure you don’t go back to restriction” (!!!) 🔫
Your body is always doing stuff
As I sit here on the sofa with my legs crossed my body is doing stuff. In fact, this is maybe TMI but I am due on my period any day now and the way I feel today and the sounds my abdomen is making, I’d bank on it that it’s today. It’s busy doing things that I have no clue about.
Your body is also doing stuff as you listen to this. You have no idea if your body is currently repairing something in your liver or little toenail. That’s the awesome thing about having a body… it’s pretty much automatic and does everything for you.
You can’t force your body to give you an itinerary of what it’s doing for you! 😆 You just have to trust and surrender that it knows what it’s doing BECAUSE IT DOES. Just as it knows when it needs to empty its bowels or drink some water or get some sleep.
Your body doesn’t care about your opinion either!
So you may as well choose to love it for what it’s doing for you to bring you back to homeostasis and thriving and actually being able to ENJOY the life that you have.
I know it’s fucking hard when society praises thinness and berates fatness. But you can either choose to live with an eating disorder for the rest of your life and potentially live in a smaller body or fuck societal standards of beauty and social capital and live your best life as the authentic you in every way!
Here’s what will happen if you don’t allow unrestricted eating regardless of your weight…
There is a huge difference between eating more food and eating without restriction.
If you continue to restrict in ANY WAY, your brain will assume that there is a food shortage in your environment. If your brain thinks this, it is going to send you shit loads of hunger signals because that’s what a smart brain would do, wouldn’t it? If it thinks there’s a shortage it would make sense to get as much in as possible (think COVID and toilet roll 😂)! This includes mental hunger which is why you’re still most likely eating past fullness and wondering why.
You need to rewire your fear of weight gain in order to fully recover and the only way you do that is by consistently acting as if you are not afraid of weight gain.
If you don’t, your body will change but your brain won’t and then you’ll be stuck in a bigger body hating it and wondering why you ever started recovery in the first place. I GET IT!
That’s why body image work and self-love inner work are CRUCIAL aspects of eating disorder recovery but cannot be worked on until your brain is properly nourished. If you’re waiting to start eating unrestricted until you’re no longer afraid of weight gain then you’ll forever stay stuck.
All of your trauma and unmet needs come to the surface when you stop restricting, that’s why support is necessary.
If you’d like love, support and a step-by-step guide to recovery from someone who knows what they’re doing and who has been through it themselves then reach out to me to enquire about group or 1:1 coaching. ❤️
If not now, when?
And don’t forget to rate and review my podcast and send me a screenshot and you’ll be entered into the prize draw at the end of each month for a chance to win my Body Love Bite programme which is priced at 49 euros but is valued at 500.