Eating disorders often aren’t talked about until they become explicitly relevant in a person’s life. They are heartbreakingly more common than they should be, but they still aren’t normalized. Those who struggle with an eating disorder and then begin recovery are often unaware of what is happening to their bodies. I only knew about anorexia from the American Girl book about puberty that I’m pretty sure every girl born in the early 2000s (or maybe before) owned, “The Care and Keeping of You.” My mom recovered from anorexia and bulimia in her 20s, so when she found that the book mentioned eating disorders, she came up to my room and attempted to explain it to me. I’m pretty sure as soon as the American Girl book came out I closed my ears and curled into a ball in the corner of my bed and screamed NO! Anything to put an end to the awkward conversation about anything related to puberty and bodies, typical of a 10-year-old girl. Fast forward almost a year, and I was in the thick of my own battle with anorexia, feeling hopelessly lost and confused and unknowingly risking long term damage to my health. I didn’t find out about the possible long term effects of anorexia until months into my recovery, and my doctors never explained the way my body would feel and change during the process, so I had to find out first hand. I will be starting a series called “Scientific Saturday” where I share a blog post about the science/physical effects of eating disorders every other Saturday. I want to share the physical effects of refeeding during recovery and how it gets better, as well as my experience with them. I hope to help others realize that, while early recovery feels uncomfortable in the moment, it is not forever.
Possible Physical Effects of Refeeding (During Recovery)
- In the very beginning:
- Bloating and discomfort from gaining ‘water weight’ while being rehydrated.
- Excessive fullness
- Hunger (appetite may start to return)
- High anxiety due to an eating disorder-induced fear that the discomfort will last forever.
- Weight gain:
- Fluid fluctuations related to variation in sodium and carbohydrate intake
- Some experience prolonged fullness and suppressed appetite
- ‘Swinging’ between extreme hunger and over-fullness
- Gas or bloating
- Anxiety and eating disorder thoughts/urges to give into behaviors due to the unpredictability of this phase of recovery
- The process continues:
- One may experience abdominal discomfort
- Weight gain may occur in the abdomen first rather than the legs or arms to protect vital organs
- Fewer periods of extreme hunger and more prolonged fullness (body is establishing a ‘checkpoint’ for how to regulate its hunger and fullness)
- Body image can vary but relief often accompanies nearing the end of weight gain
- Body adjusting to a new normal:
- Adjusting intake to maintain healthy weight
- ‘Redistribution’ of weight within six months but in as little as a few weeks
- Metabolic rate can stay elevated
- Hunger cues are more normalized
- Eating disorder thoughts and urges will probably continue, it may feel like a constant battle but it gets easier. Even if the thoughts continue, how one responds to them is what matters.
- In my experience:
- The hardest part of refeeding and weight restoration was body image issues caused by extreme fullness. The physical discomfort I was experiencing led to mental discomfort because my body started to feel foreign to me. Even though I knew deep down that the discomfort was only temporary, it was hard to convince myself of that fact in the moment. Physical discomfort related to extreme fullness also exacerbated my body dysmorphia, which made pushing through disordered thoughts even harder.
- The number one tip I have for working through the weight restoration process is leaning on your support system. At this time, it felt like I couldn’t trust myself. I couldn’t trust my eyes in terms of what I looked like. And I couldn’t trust my mind to look out for what was best for me because it was dominated by my eating disorder. So I leaned on my loved ones: my family and friends. When I couldn’t rely on myself, I put my trust in them, the people who loved me and cared about my well-being, no matter what my body looked like.
Through this new series I am starting, I hope to bring attention to and provide information about eating disorders, in the hopes of abolishing stigma and providing a sense of comfort to those who need it. The main takeaway from this post is that recovery may feel like the hardest thing you have ever been through because it feels like it turns your world upside down. However, it gets better. There is a light at the end of the tunnel and it is so important to hold on to that. Though the physical discomfort will pass sooner rather than later, the majority of the work that needs to be done is mental, so honoring being kind to oneself amidst the discomfort is so important.
I’ll provide some resources below for those looking to learn more.