So you’ve done all the hard work recovering from anorexia but maybe you weigh a little bit more than you did before you got ill and you are wondering if you can diet. The short answer is please don’t. You’ve re-discovered food freedom and that’s a powerful and life-enhancing thing. So here are five good reasons to avoid diets if you’ve had anorexia and five things you should do instead.
Five good reasons to avoid diets
- Anorexia is a means of control and you could inadvertently relapse into old eating disorder behaviours if you start dieting to control your weight. Once you re-ignite something it can be very hard to put out the fire.
- The “thin-ideal” is destructive, don’t give in to it. This media promoted “ideal,” has nothing to do with health. Many of the models we see in media and social media images are significantly underweight. In one study, 45 percent of a sample of fashion models had BMIs between 17 and 18.5, which we would consider underweight. A further 21 percent had BMIs below 17, which is considered severely underweight. The fashion industry also retouches images of models with a higher BMI to make them look smaller. The research evidence linking even brief exposure to these “thin-ideal” images with poor self-esteem, shame and eating disorder behaviours is so strong that many countries have created laws to ensure that models undergo health checks and to limit re-touching or enforce clear labelling of re-touched photos.
- It’s perfectly normal to weigh a bit more than you did pre-illness, especially in the early stages of recovery. Science shows that after starvation, bodyweight and body fat usually increase beyond pre-illness levels before gradually dropping back again to pre-starvation levels within a year or so. Also, it seems that lean tissue restoration can only occur after full restoration of fat tissue. Restoring lean tissue is really important for the health of vital muscles like those that allow your heart and lungs to work well. Make peace with a little extra fat and allow your muscles to be fully replenished.
- There is some evidence that we all have a natural set-point weight. For you this may be above what would usually be considered the healthy weight range or it may be above where you would like it to be – which for most people recovering from anorexia is right at the bottom of the healthy weight range based on body mass index. The set point isn’t a specific number, but a range. It’s where your body genetically wants to be. When I’m working with my patients to set a goal weight range, I always look at genetics and childhood centiles alongside the BMI chart. I am also clear that even if someone reaches this goal range and regains their periods, if they are still using eating disorder behaviours, they are not recovered and they are not in a safe place.
- Research also seems to show that your metabolism will not stabilise until you reach your set point weight range. This is important to understand because many of my patients fear that they will keep gaining weight forever. Once you reach a weight that’s healthy for you, your metabolism can adjust and allow you to maintain that weight. But if you stop short, your metabolism is more likely to remain confused.
Five things you should do instead of dieting
- Eat well to nourish your body. Instead of worrying about counting calories and macros think about the overall quality of your diet. Are you making positive choices in relation to fats and oils? For example, having plenty of omega 3 and monounsaturated fats. Are you eating high quality protein and a good mix of different sources to make sure that you get all the amino acids you need to build muscle and replenish hormones and enzymes. What about your carbs? Do you eat plenty of wholegrains. Take a look at your fruits and veg and check you’re having a wide variety spanning all the colours of the rainbow? Think about eating well so that you no longer need to rely on those supplements you’ve been taking. Find out more here. Work with your dietitian to understand how to do all this safely and without becoming obsessional.
- Embrace body positivity. Learn to observe the range of body shapes and sizes that reflect the diversity of the human race. Become more conscious of real-life everyday bodies, not the re-touched model images. Focus on presenting yourself well. Switch up your hairstyle, buy some fun fashion jewellery, think about the colours that suit you best.
- Alongside this remember you are more than your size or how you look. Think about your values and positive qualities and how these benefit the world and those around you. Make a list so that you can learn to embed them in your everyday conversations with people. It’s not about being arrogant but rather, representing yourself fully.
- Enjoy doing the things you love with the time you used to waste obsessing about your food and exercise. Think about what you used to do with your time before the eating disorder. Start with spending time with those you love. Rebuild relationships and start enjoying the things you used to do together. Perhaps you liked painting or going to the theatre. Perhaps you loved the cinema, concerts or music festivals. Maybe you loved classic cars. Whatever you love, do more of it.
- Learn to listen to your body. This is really hard if you’ve had an eating disorder. However, once your recovery is more secure you can start to work on recognising when you are ready to eat and when you are satisfied. If you’re finding this hard get some help from your dietitian.
So embrace life, enjoy food freedom and trust your body. Reach out to your dietitian and therapist if you start to feel anxious. Recovery is a journey that continues even after you’re weight restored. Get the help you need to live your best life. Get support here.