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Eating to Gain, Part 3: Really Hungry, Really Full

In the last few weeks I’ve been doing a short series of posts about the weight gain phase of eating disorder recovery. In many programs, this is the first stage of recovery: you have to restore to a weight range that’s healthy for you before you can work on learning to eat intuitively, recovering psychologically, and finding a new, ED-free identity.

First, I posted a rough approximation of what I ate in the weight gain stage of recovery. What you will need to eat in recovery may be very different from what I needed to, but you, too, will likely be assigned a meal plan by the dietitian or nutritionist with whom you’re working. He or she may ask you to track exchanges, macros, or even count calories. (My dietitian at the time had me count calories, which I now regret, but that’s another post for another day.)

Second, I posted about unlearning what you have likely learned about eating “healthy” and challenging yourself to eat fear foods.

Today, I’d like to share some thoughts about something that was particularly a challenge for me in this phase: how often my body hit the extremes of intense, uncomfortable hunger and intense, uncomfortable fullness.

I’m not a dietitian, but the professionals with whom I was working taught me that in the weight gain phase of recovery from a restrictive eating disorder like anorexia or bulimia, you really don’t have the luxury of stopping when you’re full. You’re not ready for intuitive eating yet. You need to eat to your minimum, whether that’s measured as a meal plan, exchanges, macros, or calories, every single day. Often, you won’t actually feel hungry. In fact, you’ll often end up in the zone of really uncomfortably stuffed…even before you’ve met your minimum for the day. And you still need to keep eating.

First of all, you need to do this because restrictive eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia really distort your sense of fullness. I’m all about trusting your body, but if you’re coming off of a period of starvation, you really can’t trust your body for a while. It’s too screwed up.

Second, you need to eat at least your minimum every day, even though it will sometimes be stupid uncomfortable, because that’s what’s needed for weight gain. Eating until you’re overfull once in a while is not enough to gain weight even for a healthy person, let alone someone who is extremely malnourished. Significant weight gain means eating until you’re overfull frequently, sometimes at every single meal.

To be totally honest, this aspect of recovery was hard for me, but it wasn’t the hardest part. Yes, I really dislike feeling uncomfortably full. But I also like following rules. And eating to a minimum every day with no additional exercise was oddly comforting to me in that it offered structure: there was no questioning when to eat or how much.

What was honestly even harder for me was the other extreme: feeling intensely, overwhelmingly hungry.

See, while the meal plan provided me the structure I needed to force myself to eat enough to gain weight and recover, I was very perfectionist about it. I didn’t want to ever exceed my allotted daily total. I was afraid of…what? Was I afraid I’d gain weight too quickly? I don’t remember thinking that consciously, but perhaps I was. I’m inclined to say it had more to do with my perfectionist tendencies; I was going to follow the law, by the letter of the law, and any deviation was a screw up, a mistake.

And the intense hunger was scary, overwhelming. Sometimes I had to get up in the middle of the night to feed myself–sometimes several times a night. Sometimes I ate a big meal and was extremely hungry within an hour. Sometimes I’d get so hungry the edges of my vision would go fuzzy and I’d get dizzy.

Still to this day, it makes me anxious to respond to hunger when it comes at an unexpected time, when I feel like I’ve already eaten “enough,” when I feel I haven’t exercised enough to warrant eating more, etc.

But that’s an anxiety I have to learn to tune out. Because eating when you’re hungry is not eating to gain weight. Eating when you’re hungry is eating to maintain: maintain your weight, yes, but also to maintain your health, your skin, organs, bones, blood, and your body’s many complex functions. When you’re coming off a period of starvation, your body has to work extra hard not only to maintain but also to restore and repair these many functions. And that takes a ton of energy–even while you sleep!

Again, I’m not a dietitian, but resources I have read about the science of recovery, as well as information I’ve received from professionals I worked with, suggest that someone recovering from starvation sometimes needs as much as two to four times as much energy as a healthy person of similar height and build.

Sometimes I wonder if part of the reason I still don’t have my period back, even two years after I’ve been “weight restored,” is because during this weight gain phase, I was frequently unwilling to exceed my daily “allotment” of calories, even on days when I was really, intensely hungry. My body put as many of its Legos back together as it could–I regained weight, stopped feeling so cold all the time etc.–but maybe it didn’t quite have enough energy to put all the Legos back together. I still have a few abandoned Legos rattling around in there.

Is that a weird metaphor?


My point in all this is, following your meal plan or exchanges plan is important, yes, but it is the minimum. Equally important, perhaps more important, is learning to respond to your hunger, no matter what. I’m still working on that.

You’re hungry for a reason. That reason is you need more food.


To readers who have gone through eating disorder recovery: did you experience the extremes of intense, uncomfortable fullness and intense, uncomfortable hunger?

Were you, or are you ever still, afraid of eating beyond what you planned?

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  1. I love how you said that we are hungry for a reason; it took me a long time to realize and embrace that, but when I did it was so freeing to be able to eat.

    And it’s so hard to get used to your hunger signals again and eat beyond them because your body needs it, but it’s SO worth it.

  2. Alyssa says:

    “You’re hungry for a reason. That reason is you need more food.” AMEN. Thank you for that. It is hard to get used the fullness and it is hard to become fully in tune with your body and hungry signals, but it becomes easier with time. <3 xoxo

  3. Cora says:

    I very much like the lego metaphor. Its amazing the amount of lego we have in us that we can’t see or feel. We just have to trust they are there and are needing help to do their thing. Aha. Oh metaphors.

    You know, I have off hand seen many people deal with these extremes – mostly extreme fullness but the hunger as well – and as far as I can recall, I never really experienced them. Though, I didn’t really have much brain power while in the ED program so who knows what I remember. I remember being hungry, but never to the extreme, and I remember saying I was really full but I think I was doing so to appease myself mentally for some weird reason. That’s just me though. Point is, our bodies won’t learn to fully trust us (and therefore give us back our periods etc.) until we prove to them that we will ALWAYS give them food when they are asking for it.

  4. Erin says:

    In early recovery, I was SO hungry all of the time. Even eating what seemed like a ton of calories, I felt like I was never full. In retrospect, I realize that my body was trying to make up a huge deficit. This stage was definitely the hardest part of recovery for me, and I wish that I had been able to trust my body and just eat. Instead, I know that I dragged out the recovery process by stringing my body along out of fear. Now, I experience more normal levels of hunger and fullness and I’m so grateful for that, but it has truly taken years to get to this place. Thanks for sharing this series!

  5. georgie says:

    Hi! can this extreme and intense hunger still happen at healthy weight? and literally 10 minutes after a big meal? so much so that you feel so so so sick but rumbling? also sometimes after I respond and eat say a big bowl of granola and milk- I then feel really sick for a bit.

    1. Joyce says:

      Yes, Georgie. From what I’ve read, you can be at a “healthy weight” and still have more recovery to do. Especially if you’re not yet having your period (if you’re a woman.)
      Recovery takes so stinkin long. Hang in there. ❤

      1. Georhie says:

        Thank you for the shift response! I am having my period! But my bmi last time I was weighed a month of ago was on the border of healthy and I reduced slightly. I however hungry 10minutes after eating a big meal and it’s to the point I feel sick! The dr thinks I might have reflux… do I still respond to hunger?

        1. Joyce says:

          Hey Georgie. For advice that specific, you’re going to have to see your treatment team. I’m not qualified to give specific medical advice. This post reflects what I’ve read and experienced in recovery understood through the lens of what I’ve read.
          What I do know is that you’re doing awesome to be at this point in your recovery and astutely aware of your hunger! Wishing you all the best!

  6. Mira says:

    I think I experience extreme hunger just now. I had anorexia and started recovering one year ago. I never really reached a healthy weight but I am not so far away from it as well. That’s why I am wondering why I experience extreme hunger. I can only imagine that it is because I did lots of sports everyday and only ate about 2000 calories (which was too less considering my sports exercises). Is that why I experience extreme hunger now? I am so afraid of gaining weight because I already almost have a healthy weigh but I eat and eat…

    1. Joyce says:

      Hey, Mira! Just a friendly reminder that I’m not qualified to answer specific questions about anyone’s health needs. But yes, extreme hunger can happen even as you near recovered weight. Also remember that not everyone has the same healthy weight. The goal weight any treatment team gives is just an estimate. Don’t be afraid of weight gain! I know, I know. Easier said than done. Here are some awesome posts and blogs from super-awesome and qualified dietitians for learning more. (the video from about 7:00 to 10:00)

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