Self-Help

Eating Disorder Recover: The Challenges of Hunger Signals

One of the biggest challenges I’ve faced in recovering from my eating disorder is hunger signals. More specifically: trying to remedy the fact that they have (not so) mysteriously disappeared! Like so many other folks, I have struggled with my body image for years. From being told at a young age that “cheerleaders don’t take bigger girls” to watching the number on the scale steadily decrease while the mirror says I look the exact same – the “picture perfect” body has eluded me for over a decade.

Not surprisingly, up until recently I was doing everything I could to cut calories and work out more. I would wake up at 5am, go for a 2 mile run and eat a “healthy breakfast” of two egg whites, two clementines, and a cup of coffee – all for less than 200 calories. Lunch never exceeded 360 calories and after work I would come home and lift weights (or run more) until I ate my hearty dinner of 500 calories or less (most of the time my dinner would look closer to 300 calories). This goes without saying, but I lost weight quickly while also losing my hair and memory and piling on a decent amount of organ damage.

I’ve been in recovery for almost 10 months now, and like any recovery there are great days where I eat upwards of 2000 calories per my nutrition plan, and there are days (read: weeks) where I eat whatever I want and end up only getting about 1500 calories in a day. While 1500 calories a day is way more than the average diet allows for daily intake and is a stark contrast to my 800 calorie a day net from days gone passed, it’s still not enough for my specific body. But I digress.

So where is the disconnect? Why am I able to eat my entire days worth of calories one day while falling inconsolably short the very next? The unfortunate truth is that my body has given up on telling me when I am hungry.

Hungry
Contrary to what the disorder would have you believe, I really do love eating

For so long, I dieted and cut calories to an extreme low while brutalizing my body through workouts only to deny it the full rest and recovery it so desperately needed through sleep and nutrition. In denying my body its down time and fuel, I successfully quieted the very evolutionary mechanism that was meant to keep me alive: hunger signals.

In November of 2015, I would come home from my third week on a new job too exhausted to move. I collapsed on the kitchen floor unable to even walk and after almost carrying me up the stairs to our room, my husband asked me if I was going to die. I can honestly say that I didn’t know how to answer him. And I was scared the answer may have been yes. It occurred to me that night in bed that I really hadn’t eaten more than 800 calories that day. Nevermind the workout I did, but on top of that I just hadn’t eaten most of the day. But why?

When I’ve been having a bad week with the eating disorder, the hunger signals disappear entirely. Not only does the thought of food sound unappealing (or worse, fattening regardless of nutrition), but my body is telling me that I don’t need food, I am not hungry. There is no stomach cramp, no pang or want for food, and no body noises to indicate that I need fuel. I haven’t had these warnings in years. Which makes it all the more difficult to actually eat something.

But 1500 calories a day does not a happy Hassanah make. And in the spirit of recovery, the best thing I can do is try to get my hunger signals to come back.

Toast

Wrestling with my hunger signals really seems like this meme a lot of days. To get your hunger signals back, you need to let your body know that you’re actually going to feed it and stop abusing it. It sounds silly to say, but your body doesn’t feel comfortable enough to tell it’s hungry – after all, why should it? Every hunger signal in the past has gone unnoticed and ignored, so the energy is better spent elsewhere (like keeping your organs fully functioning…)

So to get your hunger signals back, you have to go against your mind and feed yourself even when you’re not hungry. Your mind will tell you to stop, you may feel guilty for “eating out of boredom”, but the important thing to remember is the only way your body will ever again tell you to feed it, is if you start feeding it now when it isn’t asking for it. Trying to reach your daily goal on a consistent basis will not only fuel you and keep you healthy, but in time it will allow your body to relax and remember what it’s like to eat when it needs fuel and not be ignored.

The days I struggle with my signals are the days I eat a lot of granola/protein bars, crackers and hummus, and fruit and cheese. The idea of eating a full meal (let alone a completely balanced one) is revolting on these days and when you already feel terrible about yourself and your perceived lack of recovery, the last thing you want to do is make yourself feel worse. But trying to eat something on a consistent basis can ease you back into eating larger amounts and ultimately lead to a healthier you.

Then and Now

The differences in these photos are startling to me. The left picture is the height of my eating disorder in the weeks leading up to my collapse on the kitchen floor. I weighed 153 pounds, wore size 11 jeans, and still thought I looked like I did weighing in at my 193 pound starting weight. The picture on the right was taken the day of my work’s 4th of July picnic this year. I don’t honestly know how much I weigh, but my self worth is no longer based on how well I fit into a pair of jeans. I don’t know my measurements, I don’t know how many times this year I have stepped on a scale, and I don’t know how many calories were in my breakfast. But I know how far I’m capable of running, I know how much I squat, deadlift, and press, and I know that I have a long way to go before my body is completely healed. But the most important thing I’ve learned is that my body is capable of doing so much for me, so instead of using my time critiquing the things it does not do, for the sake of my mental and physical health, I will spend my time focusing on the things it can and does do for me.

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