Before I begin this post, I want to say that I’m not a nutritionist, a personal trainer, or an MD. This post is not to be taken as medical advice about how to lose or gain weight, or how to have an ideal diet. Please know that these are my own opinions about the issue of weight as it relates to recovery, and this does not substitute for nutritional advice.
When it comes to weight, the reality is, we are all different; and binge eaters come in all shapes and sizes. I have said before that even if I never would have lost a single pound after recovery, recovery still would have been 100% worth it. Binge eating brought so much misery to my life, and the weight gain was only a small portion of that misery. Sure, it was good to get back to my regular size after recovery, but that was by far not the greatest benefit. However, I realize that being overweight or having an extreme desire to be very thin can be factors in tempting a person to go on restrictive diets or to avoid eating normally.
Although the issue of weight in recovery will affect everyone differently, I think that wanting to lose weight and actively trying to do that while also trying to stop binge eating can complicate things. Some bulimics may fear recovery because they worry that life without purging will inevitably lead to weight gain; some of those with BED may fear recovery because they are overwhelmed at the thought of losing the weight gained from binge eating. I strongly feel that anyone who wants to quit binge eating – regardless of how much they weigh or how much they desire to weigh – should try not to focus on weight loss until long after binge eating stops.
There are two primary reasons why I feel this way:
1.) Weight will likely take care of itself after binge eating stops.
For me, stopping the binge eating was all I needed to do to lose weight. My metabolism started working the way it should and there was no need to try to shed those extra pounds. I believe this is the case for the vast majority of people with BED or non-purging bulimia, and even most bulimics who self-induce vomiting. Some people seem to think that extra weight from binge eating just stays there until you do something (diet/exercise) to make it come off, but that’s usually not true. Some patience may be needed while the body regulates itself, but pounds should come off by stopping binge eating alone. Here is why I think it happened for me and can happen for others:
Caloric expenditure increases with body weight (overweight people burn more calories per day than slender people). The reason is because it requires more energy to carry around extra weight, and extra surface area also means more energy lost as heat. For example, one study showed that slender people used 2,481 calories per day, and obese people used 3,162.* This fact comes to the aid of those who have gained weight from binge eating, and let me explain that using myself as an example:
I was about 20 pounds above my natural weight when I stopped binge eating. My normal diet was about 2,300 calories, but with the binges added (let’s say approximately 4 binges per week, around 8,000 calories each), it upped my weekly caloric intake by 32,000 calories. Spread that out over 7 days, and my daily average was around 6,870 calories. Yes, I was exercising frantically to try to compensate for that, but my “purging” only burned a minimal amount of all of those calories. Even if I would have been dieting restrictively between binges (which I was doing in the earlier years of my bulimia) – eating let’s say only 1,000 non-binge calories each day, the daily average with the binges added would still be 5,570 calories. So, in short, quitting binge eating obviously reduces calorie intake…big time.
But, how does that automatically lead to weight loss? I probably still eat somewhere around 2,300 calories per day now (I don’t count), and my weight stays the same; so why did that same amount of food allow me to lose 20 lbs after recovery? Because of the fact I mentioned previously – more body weight means more calories burned. At 20 pounds above my natural weight, I may have been using around 2,600 calories a day, but eating less than that (2,300), leading to gradual weight loss. (*I realize this is vastly oversimplifying things due to the fact that weight loss is not a simple calories in-calories out equation, which I’ll explain more later in the post). This is not starvation or putting oneself in a calorie deficit; this is just how people naturally lose weight after consuming too many calories for too long. The body gravitates back to it’s normal size, because the larger size can only be maintained with an overabundance of calories.
To sum it up: while there is something you need to do (binge) to maintain a larger size, there is often nothing you need to do to slowly gravitate back to normal. For most binge eaters, the weight is likely only staying high because of the binges; it’s not permanently stuck there until you diet it away. No, it won’t come off overnight like it might with some fad/crash diet, but it’s healthier in the long run to lose it naturally, and it can help you avoid repeating the diet/binge cycle in the future.
What about those who think they are “getting rid of” those binge calories by self-induced vomiting? It’s not much different logic there either. Most people who self-induce vomiting probably already know that it does not actually get rid of all of the binge calories. Studies have shown that calorie absorption may even begin much earlier in the body when you have bulimia – another one of the body’s natural ways of protecting itself. If you binge and self-induce vomiting, your daily calorie intake is likely still much greater than the number of calories you’d consume through a normal diet with no binge eating or purging. Another factor is: purging can slow down metabolism, so that calories a bulimic consumes are stored instead of being used as energy; but once the binge eating and purging stops, metabolism can get back to normal allowing for weight to regulate.
2.) If weight doesn’t take care of itself, you’ll be in a much better position to tackle the problem.
I don’t believe weight loss is a simple calories in/calories out equation, so the above explanation might not hold true for every unique body. If you are overweight and don’t gradually lose weight after stopping binge eating, even after you are very patient about it; I still feel it’s vital not to try to address it until after you are confident the binge eating is done for good. Once you are sure of your ability to not binge, you’ll be better able to tackle the problem with a healthy solution.
During the time that you are becoming binge-free, I think it’s also important to be aware that your lower brain might use a lack of weight loss as fuel for the binge urges. If you don’t see the scale dropping (and I wouldn’t even recommend getting on one during this time), you may hear thoughts like, “You are not losing weight so you might as well binge.” Rationally, you know how ridiculous that sounds, because obviously binge eating will only bring you further away from ever finding a solution to your weight issue; but in the moment, it can seem like a convincing thought. Always remember that you can stop binge eating for good even if you are not the weight you want to be.
We all come in all different shapes and sizes, and what’s a healthy weight for one person of a certain height might not be a healthy weight for another person of that same height, and I also believe it’s possible to be fit and healthy even if you technically overweight (I don’t think BMI is the best indicator of health); however, there are some who would unquestionably benefit from some weight loss. I don’t subscribe to the belief that we can be far above our natural and unique body weight range, yet still be very healthy. (On a side note, being thin is not a guarantee of health either.)
I am not against healthy weight loss, but I feel strongly that advice to simply restrict calories is completely misguided and does more harm than good (especially in those susceptible to binge eating), and just doesn’t work in the long run. For example, I think the typical 1200-1400 cal/day weight loss diet for a woman is starvation, unless she is lying in bed all day and not moving at all. Low calorie diets lead to a slower metabolism, malnourishment (which some claim is one of the causes of obesity), and more weight gain in the long run. It’s also simply unrealistic to think you can maintain a 1,200 calorie per day diet to lose weight and then keep that weight off for life.
So, then how does one lose weight without restricting calories? First of all, when I say “don’t restrict,” I don’t mean eat excessively. I mean eat enough, eat to nourish yourself well, eat what your body needs. Of course, a bit of overeating happens from time to time even in normal people; but as a rule, daily intake should be within a normal range.
That being said, I know that excessive eating isn’t usually to blame, and I definitely think there are a myriad of other problems that can contribute to not losing weight (for example: hormonal imbalances, insulin resistance, leptin resistence, food allergies/sensitivities, thyroid problems, infections, damage to the organs involved in metabolic control, too many toxins in the diet, not enough activity, too many processed foods, not enough water, not enough sleep, too much stress…etc).
If you go from binge eating to eating a normal diet, and you don’t eventually lose weight; then I believe it makes sense to look into what might be preventing that from happening. Reasons for not losing weight can be multifaceted, and science currently has an incomplete understanding of why some people can lose weight easily and for others, it’s a struggle; but I don’t think the complexity should prevent us from looking for answers.
I believe that making some changes to the composition of one’s diet (without letting it become an obsession and still allowing for flexibility) can help many, and is a much better approach than simply slashing calories. Focusing on eating a lot of nutrient dense, nourishing foods can lead to more weight loss in the long run without ever putting the body in “starvation mode.” Everyone is different, and some people might find that changing diet composition to add more protein and fat helps them feel better and lose weight, while others find that adding more plant-based foods and high quality carbs help them achieve the same results. I also am a big advocate of healthy, enjoyable, non-stressful exercise as a way to move the body toward a healthy weight.
In my opinion, the goal for anyone trying to lose weight, whether they have a history of an eating disorder or not, should be to gain better health, not to simply lose weight fast. I think when people are truly focused on becoming healthier, it becomes an effort to nourish the body well, to feel better, to gain energy for living, to prevent disease; and it ceases to be about how many pounds they can lose or what size jeans they can fit into. And, usually, if one focuses on becoming healthier (and he/she does need to lose weight) the weight will come off naturally. In those who desperately want to be super-thin, focusing on health can help them realize that trying to maintain an unnatural weight is not good for their body. Focusing on health can also allow them to appreciate food for it’s nourishing qualities, without worrying about how many calories foods contain or if they can possibly lead to weight gain.
But focusing on health is usually not possible when binge eating is still occurring, because when you fundamentally feel like you don’t have control of what or how much you eat at times, it’s hard to implement healthy changes. This is why I believe those who want to quit binge eating should not address weight issues until after recovery. Improvements in health, weight, and attitudes toward your weight are just some of the positive changes that recovery can free you up to make.
To help you end the binge eating, I’ve created a downloadable guide that gives you the basics of the Brain over Binge approach.
*Leibel RL et al. Changes in energy expenditure resulting from altered body weight. N Eng J Med. 1995 Mar 9;332(10):621-8