What if Stopping Binge Eating Means Possible Weight Gain?

Recovery from binge eating isn’t about weight loss. Recovery from binge eating is about letting go of a harmful, health-sabotaging behavior, rising above the shame and pain it brought, and moving on with your life. However, the reality is that weight concerns and the desire to lose weight can be present in recovering binge eaters, so the topic needs to be discussed.  

I’ve addressed weight in this 2012 post, “Weight After Recovery” and also in The Brain over Binge Recovery Guide. Today, I’m going to talk about another aspect of weight as it relates to binge eating recovery, by addressing the possibility that recovery might lead to weight gain.

If you shift gears for a moment and think about anorexia recovery, it is a given that weight gain is a part of the process of getting the individual back to health. Conversely, in binge eating disorder, recovery more commonly involves eventual weight loss as the binge eating episodes decrease and go away. This just make intuitive sense, because when you stop eating abnormally large amounts of food in an out-of-control way, your calorie intake decreases to a normal level. Weight loss is especially common if you’ve gained a substantial amount of weight over the course of your binge eating disorder.

Eventual and gradual weight loss is even common in people who self-induce vomiting or use other forms of purging after binges, because a significant portion of the binge calories are still absorbed, and stopping the binge/purge cycle still can lead to an overall decrease in calories. Even if there is some bloating when you first stop purging, the body can regulate and any weight gained from the disorder can be slowly released.

The fact that stopping binge eating reduces calories also holds true if you are dieting restrictively between binges. If you consider your overall calorie intake from restrictive dieting plus binge eating, you’ll realize that the total is likely more, and often much more, than the calorie total of a normal diet. For example, I recommend a daily minimum of 2,200 calories to help you recover from restriction and binge eating. Someone who is restricting and eating only 1,200 calories per day, but then having 6,000 calorie binges a few times a week, is actually averaging over 3,500 calories per day.

Although, like I said at the start, recovery is not about weight loss, the simple fact that quitting will reduce calorie intake goes a long way to alleviate some weight-related fears of recovery.  You may have previously worried that giving up restriction and purging would make you gain weight; but when you also factor in that you’ll be stopping binge eating as well, you may feel reassured to know that your overall calorie intake will go down to a normal level.  You may feel more willing to try eating enough food on a daily basis, which is a great, because recovery won’t happen otherwise.

Some people think that they can stop binge eating without stopping restriction and other dangerous weight-control behaviors like purging; but you simply cannot recover while your body is in a starvation state. This is why I teach that recovery comes down to two basic goals:

Recovery Goal 1:  Dismiss urges to binge (stop giving urges attention and stop acting on them)
Recovery Goal 2:  Eat Adequately (eat enough decent quality food)

It is nearly impossible to accomplish Recovery Goal 1 on a consistent basis without doing Recovery Goal 2.

If you’ve read this far and still find yourself having significant resistance to Recovery Goal 2 (Eating Adequately), this could be because you believe you are an exception to what I’ve explained above about binge eating recovery and weight. Instead of recovery leading to gradual weight loss (or at least weight staying the same), you may be convinced it will lead to weight gain for you. You may figure that stopping your harmful behaviors will lead to an overall calorie increase. This can be the case if you binge infrequently, binge on smaller quantities of food, and/or restrict severely between binges. To you, eating adequately every day may feel like a worrisome path to additional pounds.

So, how then do you alleviate any fears of weight gain in recovery?  How do you convince yourself to eat adequately every day, accepting that your calorie intake is going up?  How do you avoid giving in to the temptation to restrict in order to control weight?

In the rest of this blog post, I’m going to give you 5 tips if you are in that situation:

1.)  Realize the Futility of Your Current Path

In my own personal recovery, I was in the majority. Stopping binge eating led to an overall decrease in calories and my body gradually went back to it’s natural weight. So, when giving these tips, I realize I’m speaking of challenges that I did not personally go through. Nevertheless, my personal experience does shine an important light on this issue that I hope you will find helpful.

The reason I did not go through the challenge of weight gain in recovery was due to the time in my disorder that I recovered.  I recovered after the binge eating had already brought me well over my natural weight.  If I would have recovered in the earlier stages of my bulimia, when I was still underweight from restricting/anorexia, and before my binges had gotten so frequent and so large, then I would have indeed gained weight in recovery. And that would have been the safer and healthier option than what I did.

I continued down the path of restriction/binge eating, and my binges got worse and worse and the quantity of food I ate during binges increased, and I put on weight in a unhealthy and shame-producing way. Gaining weight by eating normally would have been so much less stressful and less painful, and I would have gained much less weight than I eventually gained by staying bulimic.

If, right now, you fear recovery because you are still under your natural weight (because of harmful behaviors), you need to realize that this won’t last. This is a dangerous path and it is futile. It’s simply not sustainable to starve yourself or purge frequently to stave off weight gain from binge eating. It will only make the binge eating get worse and worse, and you’ll eventually gain weight from that, and likely more weight than you would if you gave up those unhealthy behaviors and just ate normally.

Furthermore, starving yourself and purging has the effect of slowing your metabolism so that it will be increasingly more difficult and even impossible to maintain your current too-low weight. Thinking about what you are doing from a long-term perspective can help you realize that you can’t keep up these harmful behaviors forever; they cause too much stress, exhaustion, shame, and health problems. Additionally, for all of the trouble you are going through, your calorie intake (after factoring in the binges) is likely not much lower than what a normal diet would be. You may only be managing to eat a couple hundred calories less than you’d be eating if you stopped the restrict/binge/purge cycle. Wouldn’t it be worth it to just eat the extra couple hundred calories as part of a normal, nourishing diet?

2.) It’s Not All about Calories. Be Patient.

If you are underweight or under your natural weight, then of course, you will need to gain weight, just as someone in anorexia recovery would; but if you are around what you believe is your natural weight range, know that an increase in calories does not necessarily equal long-term weight gain. Recovery might involve some initial bloating and simply more food being in your system, which the number on the scale can temporarily reflect; but that doesn’t mean that extra weight is permanent. As your body gets used to processing a normal amount of food, your metabolism will “heat up” and start working normally again. Calorie restriction makes the body more efficient at using calories, so that it gets the most out of every calorie you give it. This metabolism-suppressing effect can make you feel trapped into always eating less and less, which is impossible, and will only lead to increased binge eating and other adverse healthy effects. Once you eat normally for a while and your body realizes that you are no longer starving, it can start to use calories for energy instead of storing them in preparation for the next “famine” (restrictive diet).  This means that, even though you may be eating more, you won’t be gaining weight. This regulation of metabolism can take time, so patience is required. By feeding yourself adequately, you are giving yourself a gift that will last–a normal and healthy metabolism.

3.) View Feeding Yourself in a Positive Light, Focus on Adding Foods that Benefit You

When you give yourself enough food, you are doing something good for yourself.  Try to keep this in mind.  Think of all the nutrients you are putting into your body, and focus on adding foods that make you feel good about adding them. Of course, it’s fine to have all types of foods, even unhealthy ones, but if you are feeling hesitant about eating more, incorporating foods you feel really good about can help you feel less self-critical. It can take you from a mindset of thinking that you are “overindulging” (which you aren’t!) to a more positive mindset of thinking you are “doing something very good for your body.” This positive mindset will encourage you to keep going down the healthy path, and not slip back into restriction.

Another aspect of viewing normal eating in a positive light is to avoid viewing it as “overeating.” If you are used to trying to maintain a daily restrictive diet of 1,200 calories, then initially, eating let’s say 2,300 on a daily basis may feel like it’s too much (even though you are likely bingeing on much more than that). Your digestive system simply isn’t used getting that nourishing amount of food each day. Know that what follows is not specific nutrition or medical advice, but if eating more food leaves you feeling overly full, you can try adding the extra calories as healthy fats and other healthy, calorie-dense foods.  Think of butter or coconut oil for example–there are a lot of calories packed into a small volume of food so that it doesn’t leave your stomach feeling too stretched during the time when you are increasing calories and regulating digestion. Adding healthy fat also has a positive effect on your metabolism’s ability to use calories for energy.

4.) Think of How You’d Want to “Re-Feed” Someone You Love.

If you are tempted to restrict, think of what you’d want someone you love to do in your situation. For example, if you imagine having a daughter who had this problem, would you want her to try to get by on the absolute minimum number of calories?  Would you want her trying in vain to stop binge eating, all the while starving herself?

Or… would you want to make absolutely sure she was getting enough nourishment?  Would you want to make sure her body and brain got the message that binge eating was no longer needed?  You can see that if you are thinking about someone you love, you want to make sure that person is well-fed…and you deserve the same kind treatment.

5.) Be Open to the Process and to Your Natural Weight

It is possible that, at this point, you aren’t even sure what your natural, healthy weight is. You may have dieted and binged for as long as you can remember and never allowed your body to find it’s normal set weight range. If this is the case for you, eating normally and stopping binge eating will be a leap of faith as far as weight is concerned.  What can help in this situation is to know deeply that wherever you eventually end up weight-wise, it will be better than where you are now–trying desperately to control your weight and then feeling so out of control with the binges.

If you can allow your body to just “be” and gravitate toward it’s natural weight, whatever that may be, you will be free to live your life. Will you end up being the weight you want?  There is no way to know. If maintaining the weight you desire is or has been a stressful struggle and required starvation, you need to listen to your body. An “ideal” weight that is impossible for you to maintain is not your natural, healthy weight and it just isn’t worth it. Trying to fight your natural weight is a losing battle, and if you are open to accepting your body’s unique size, the recovery process will be much easier on you.