Extreme hunger in eating disorder recovery is something that is common and very unsettling. When you are working on regulating your eating, the last thing you want is feelings of being hungry all the time, in fact it can be terrifying and yet this can be a very normal stage of recovery. How I wish I had a magic wand to help people bypass this stage. The key here is that is it a stage and so it will pass, you just need to go through it.
Let’s take a look at why it happens and what you can do.
Why does extreme hunger happen in eating disorder recovery?
Extreme hunger does not happen to everyone who goes through eating disorder recovery, but it makes sense that after a period of restricted eating the body just wants nutrition and it is worried that you may go back to restricting again. The body is trying to heal itself and restore to full function. Even though you have just eaten, or feel you have eaten enough for the day – your body knows best.
Imagine you have restricted your intake for 2 years, your body is going to want to play catch up and so it is going to ask you to eat more than a normal person would need.
Lets say you underate and over-exercised by 1000kcals a day for a year. That is 365,000 kcals that your body missed out on that it needed. Which is why it can ask you to keep on eating more in those early stages.
What does hunger feel.like?
If you are constantly thinking about food, struggling to concentrate, cannot sleep due to stomach pain, feel unsatisfied, have a rumbling tummy, then you are hungry.
However hunger can also feel pretty subtle. Thoughts about food, a drop in mood, feeling tired or a feeling in your throat can also be hunger.
Practicing noticing the nuances of hunger takes time but it is so worth it in the longer term.
Types of Hunger
We can broadly summarise hunger as mental hunger and physical hunger. Both of these can mean you need to eat.
Some types of hunger:
- Stomach hunger: rumbling, feels empty, butterfly sensation, energy slump, mood dip, tiredness, headache. YOU NEED TO EAT!
- Taste Hunger: craving a certain taste or texture. Honour your hunger as often the body is telling you it needs something specific.
- Emotional Hunger: driven by an emotion such as anger, frustration, sadness, joy. Due to the link between our gut and brain (the gut-brain axis) we can feel our emotions in our gut. Now emotional eating isn’t necessarily wrong to be doing, we just want to have a range of different coping mechanisms that we use. Relying on food only isn’t a good plan.
- Boredom Hunger: eating brings pleasure and can boost your mood so many people eat due to boredom. Whilst again, this can be totally fine some of the time, it is good to have a range of activities you can rely on.
- Tiredness Hunger: sometimes our bodies can ask us to eat more when we are tired, as a way to find more energy. This again can be totally fine to do sometimes, but also think through why you are tired. Can you work on allowing yourself to rest more?
How long does extreme hunger last?
Usually extreme hunger just lasts a few weeks, but we are all individuals and it can be months. The more you give into it the quicker it will pass. So try to remember that this is a natural response from the body and it really won’t last forever.
How should I respond to signals of extreme hunger?
As hard as it may be, the best response is always to eat and to surrender to the signals. Trusting your body can be hard to do, but ultimately it does know best. Sticking to 3 meals and 3 snacks a day is the starting point but this is your skeleton meal plan, so it is totally ok to eat more.
A common fear is that if you eat all the time when you are hungry that you will tip into binge eating. Whilst this could be the case for a small percentage of people it is not the norm. Instead building trust in your body and learning to honour your hunger can lead to building an intuitive eating relationship that help you stay connected to your body for life.
Eating when not hungry:
One HUGE point to remember here, you can and will have to eat in the absence of hunger when you are working on recovery. Until your body is making and sending you the right hunger signals and you are able to recognise these, a structured routine of eating is 100% needed. That includes eating when you do not feel hungry at all, when you feel full, when you feel sad and mad, when you feel tired, when others are around or not there, when you feel anxious.
Later on in your journey in recovery you can work towards relying on those hunger signals in a more intuitive way.
Why am I more hungry on my period?
Increases of progesterone and oestrogen have been shown to increase cravings, specifically oestrogen has been shown to increase carbohydrate cravings and progesterone sweeter foods/drinks. There is an increase in your BMR (basal metabolic rate) and so you actually do need extra energy.
If you are working on recovering your menstrual cycle then this can be a very confusing time. When the body gets to a place where it feels safe to make those hormones in readiness for menstruation you may not be aware of it. However your hunger levels may increase without you knowing why.
Trusting your body takes experience and time but it really is the best plan here. Often we only know why we felt hungrier a couple of days after the event.
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