If you have bulimia or binge eating disorder, you’ve most likely experienced weight gain from binge eating. You may wonder what will happen as you recover…will you lose the weight you’ve gained? Will you gain more weight as you begin eating normally? What will your weight be as a binge-free and diet-free person?
It’s important for you to understand that recovery from binge eating is not about weight loss or avoiding any further weight gain. Overcoming 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 are very common in recovering binge eaters, so I want to give you some help in this area.
I’ve addressed weight thoroughly for the first time in my 2012 post, “Weight After Recovery” and other posts after that (see a list of my weight-related blog posts), as well as in The Brain over Binge Recovery Guide. Today, I’m also going to talk about possibility of gaining weight during and after binge eating recovery, and how you can deal with this in a healthy way.
When I Stop Binge Eating, Does that Mean I’ll Stop Gaining Weight?
Usually, yes. It only makes sense that binge eating recovery commonly involves a cessation of weight gain and eventual weight loss as the out-of-control eating episodes decrease and go away. When you stop eating abnormally large amounts of food, your calorie intake goes down to a normal level, and it follows that body weight naturally goes down to the level that is normal for your unique body.
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 leads 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 bulimia can be slowly released. (For help stopping purging and dealing with bloating, read these Tips to Help You Stop Purging, and listen to Episode 54: Stop Purging in Binge Eating Recovery: Interview with Ali Kerr.
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.
Like I said at the start, recovery is not about weight loss, but 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 eat enough food on a daily basis, which is absolutely necessary, because recovery won’t happen if you keep yourself in a state of starvation.
If I Keep Restricting, Can I Speed Up Weight Loss in Binge Eating Recovery, or Avoid Weight Gain?
No. If you keep restricting, you will keep binge eating, and keep your calorie intake higher than if you just ate normally. Some people think that they can stop binge eating without stopping dieting and other dangerous weight-control behaviors like purging; but you simply cannot recover while your body is in underfed. 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 impossible to accomplish Recovery Goal 1 on a consistent basis without implementing 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 believe you are an exception to what I’ve explained above about binge eating recovery usually leading to a cessation of weight gain and eventual weight loss.
What if I Think I Will Gain Weight from Binge Eating Recovery?
To understand how weight gain is possible from binge eating recovery, let’s shift gears for a moment and think about anorexia recovery. It is a given that weight gain is a part of the process of restoring the recovering anorexic back to health. Weight gain is necessary and beneficial, and I believe this is also the case when weight gain is a part of binge eating recovery.
Stopping the binge and purge cycle and learning to nourish your body may lead to an overall calorie increase for you. This can be the case if you binge infrequently, if binge on smaller quantities of food, and if you restrict severely between binges. Even if you know you want freedom from the binge and purge cycle, the thought of weight gain may make you worry and make you want to avoid making healthy changes.
So, how then do you alleviate fears of weight gain from binge eating recovery? How do you convince yourself to eat enough food every day? How do you avoid giving in to the temptation to restrict?
In the rest of this blog post, I’m going to give you 5 tips to help with these concerns:
Tip 1: Realize the Futility and Danger 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 down to its natural weight. So, when giving these tips, I want you to know that I’m speaking of a challenge that I did not personally go through. Nevertheless, I believe my personal experience shines 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 binge eating 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 an earlier stage of my bulimia—when I was still underweight from restricting and anorexia, and before my binges had gotten very frequent and very large—then I would have indeed gained weight in recovery.
I look back and wish that I would have recovered at this earlier stage when I was still below my normal weight, both because it would have saved me valuable time that I wasted to bulimia, and it would have been safer and healthier than spiraling further into binge eating.
My binges got worse and worse over time, and the quantity of food I ate during binges increased; and I put on weight in an 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 you fear recovery because you are still under your natural weight due to harmful restrictive behaviors, you need to realize that this won’t last. You are on a dangerous path and it will only hurt you. It’s simply not sustainable to starve yourself or purge frequently to try to fend off weight gain from binge eating. It will only make the binge eating get worse and worse, and you will eventually gain weight—and likely more weight than if you learn to let go of those unhealthy behaviors now and accept natural, normal, and healthy weight gain.
*If you are severely restricting and/or underweight, it’s important to seek medical and nutritional help to gradually reintroduce a normal diet and restore weight.
Also know that the effect that restriction has on your metabolism adds to the futility of your current path. Starving yourself and purging slows 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. Restriction and purging cause too much stress, exhaustion, shame, and health problems.
Additionally, for all of the trouble and pain 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 all of the dangerous behaviors. Wouldn’t it be easier to just eat and digest the small amount of extra food? Wouldn’t any weight gain that results be worth it, in order to be free of the painful daily struggle?
Tip 2: Weight is 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, you are close to 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, and you get any necessary help with digestive issues, you allow your metabolism to 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 lead to increased binge eating. (For more on this, listen to Episode 9: Avoid Restrictive Dieting to Stop Binge Eating).
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 overall, 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.
Tip 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, and it’s helpful 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. 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 knowing 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 thinking that you are overeating. If you are used to trying to maintain a daily restrictive diet of 1,200 calories, then initially, eating 2,200 or more on a daily basis may feel like it’s too much. Even though you likely binge on much more than that, your digestive system simply isn’t used to consistently getting that nourishing amount of food each day.
Know that this isn’t specific nutritional 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.
Tip 4: Think of How You’d Want to 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 to starve herself while trying to stop binge eating, or at any time in her life?
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 and compassionate treatment.
Tip 5: Be Open to the Recovery 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 binge eating recovery process will be much easier on you.
If you want extra guidance as you recover, here are some resources for additional support: