So you’re in recovery…or recovered from a history of chronic dieting, negative self-talk, running yourself into the ground, or dealing with life and emotions through food (or lack thereof). It feels good to break FREEEEEEEE…
But what do you do when your body (and metabolism) still seems out of sorts. Is “normalcy” possible again? And what is normal anyway? More on life after eating disorders…
Will I ever have a normal metabolism?
It’s a question I am often asked by individuals in recovery from eating disorders…and one that has kept me scratching my head myself.
Researching and exploring, I have continued to try to best understand what exactly happens to the body after going through, well, hell and back.
And if there is ONE thing I’ve learned from both research and experience…it is that your metabolism is definitely NOT the same as a “normal” person after going through a battle with a severe eating disorder.
In layman’s terms:
It goes crazy.
For some: It becomes super fast. Your body needs a lot of food as the metabolism goes through the roof!
For others: It’s super slow-you have no real appetite, you can get by seemingly just fine on what others may consider a diet.
Check out this study, evaluating the calorie requirements for weight maintenance of anorexics and bulimics.
For the test groups, researchers recruited anorexics who were 4 weeks into recovery and at 95%-100% of normal body weight; comparing them to bulimics who were 1-4 weeks into recovery and at a normal body weight.
They looked at both their caloric intake and weight gain.
After weight restoration, restricting anorexic patients required significantly more calories per day to maintain weight than did bulimic anorexic patients, as measured with corrections for weight, body surface area, and fat-free mass.
Previously anorexic normal-weight bulimic patients required significantly more calories per day to maintain weight than never-anorexic normal-weight bulimic patients, as measured with correction for weight but not with the other factors used to correct caloric intake
In short: Your history and type of eating disorder may determine your metabolism in recovery.
After 14 years of living in a sub-par state of being, mimicking the body and nutrition intake of a Holocaust survivor or literal slavery, I definitely put my body through the ringer:
- Small rationed portions,
- Depriving my body of fuel,
- Spiraling down in weight loss,
- Dark circles under my eyes,
- Thinning hair and nails,
- Horrific chest pains and stomach pains,
- Weakened brittle bones
With its wonderful abilities to adapt though (particularly for survival), my body learned to survive off very little nutrition for quite some time, and for many of tgose 14 years, I was able to “get by” and maintain my weight, subsisting off what others may call a “diet” to help people lose weight.
However, once the process of recovery began…and I began reintroducing adequate fuel to my body, it soaked it up like a sponge,—and kept going and going and going (Energizer bunny style)—fast and furious!
All of a sudden, I went from needing very little food to get by, to need upwards of 3-4000 calories per day, in treatment, to barely gain, or maintain, my weight during treatment.
A night and day difference!
Today, while I have been in recovery a solid five years…my metabolism continues to be a firey furnace and highly sensitive to any change in its daily routine of feeding.
As my body continues to mend, heal and recover from the 14 years of hell it lived through, my metabolism demands the intake some days of some grown men I’ve worked with, and unlike the days of old (chronic dieting), I finally know how to listen (and feed the machine).
For others I’ve counseled, nutritionally and therapeutically, they experience the opposite: After years of chronic dieting, binging, purging or other unhealthy stressors on their bodies, their metabolism is seemingly “shot”—underfunctioning and sluggish.
Regardless of which camp you fall into…Is a “normal” metabolism really possible for those who’ve struggled with dieting and food issues?
First things first, question: What is a metabolism?
(Jeopardy music: Doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo)
“It helps you burn fat.”
“It increases when you workout, have more muscle and when you eat protein.”
“A slow one makes you gain weight or struggle to lose weight.”
In part… yes.
However, while all these are accurate statements, they do not answer the question.
Your metabolism basically means the energy your cells require to thrive.
Every individual has a BMR (Basal Metabolic Rate) which equivalents to the amount of energy your body uses in a day for processes such as digestion, hormone balance, repairing and recovering, fighting off bad bacteria and pathogens (foreign invaders), sleeping, focusing (brain power), and more—every living function for when you are pretty much at rest!
It also equivalents to the amount of energy you need to consume (i.e. amount of food you eat) in order to keep a steady supply of fuel to the furnace of your cells and body systems to thrive.
A slew of factors determine your individual BMR—from:
- Genetics and body type (ectomorph, mesomorph, endomorph), too;
- The types of foods you tend to eat and balance of foods in your diet (i.e. a steady diet of beer and pizza will more than likely do some crazy, wonky things to your metabolism—making it run less efficiently);
- Your pre-disposition for gaining muscle/losing weight (i.e. a hard gainer vs. an easy gainer)
- Your activity levels
- Your age
- Your gender
- Your environment (higher heat vs. cooler temperatures)
- Your internal body heat
- And eating disorder recovery
Since we are talking about eating disorder recovery today, take a moment to consider where you fall on the metabolic spectrum of Metabolism in Recovery. Then check out the potential reasons why your metabolism is how it is…and some insights on meeting your body right where it’s at.
1. An Overactive Metabolism:
What’s so bad about a fast metabolism? You may ask.
After all, doesn’t everyone want a fast metabolism?
Requiring more energy (food) is not a bad thing; but it can also seemingly be a chore.
Unlike the folks who can easily skip breakfast or “forget” to eat lunch, your body is so sensitive now that if you were to do these things, you’d set yourself up for a set back (i.e. unwanted weight loss, relapse, etc.).
The bottom line: Eating is not an option; it is a necessity—and you need to be extra mindful to keep up with your revved metabolism.
Initially during treatment and recovery, a crazy fast metabolism is often referred to as “hypermetabolism” (fast metabolism) and it is actually considered a relatively “normal “part of the recovery process—(get this: sometimes individuals may require upwards of 3-4000 calories of fuel in order for healthy weight gain to occur).
Often times this hypermetabolic function occurs because the body is FINALLY being given the fuel its been longing for all along from an otherwise starvation mode.
Think about a 14-year-old boy hitting his growth spurt. His mom jokes that he must have a hollow leg because he is literally eating everything in sight—anything he can get his hands on…and yet…the food seemingly goes nowhere.
This is how the body often first responds in recovery—as there is A LOT of damage and repair and lost time to be made up for (mending bone, hair, nails, electrolyte balance, hormones, tissues, etc.).
Once a healthier weight range and regular nutrition is re-established (i.e. your body is not fearful it will go without), the hypermetabolic mode begins to fade (typically 6-12 months after maintaining a healthier state of being)…BUT, often times, a higher-than-normal metabolism continues for many.
2. A Sluggish Metabolism
On the flip side, because severe dieting and stress lowers your metabolism, if you’ve suffered from an eating disorder, you may find you struggle with the opposite: a sluggish metabolism.
This can make the process difficult when it seems like, once you start eating “normally” and taking care of yourself, and your metabolism is not kicking into high gear.
No matter which metabolic state most resonates with you, here are some potential reasons why your metabolism is “off”, and some ways to support it in recovery:
- More than skin deep. Your body is continuing to heal. Re-establishing bone, muscle, cells, brain cells—all parts of you. The damage done to your body (underneath the hood) did not happen overnight, and while you may not be able to see it externally, internally, your body is coming out of traumatic event. In order to support this part of recovery, more fuel is often necessary. In this study, researchers evaluated the caloric and energy needs of anorexic clients 2-6 weeks after completing their healthy weight and body restoration, then 6+ months after as well. The findings? The clients continued to require greater than normal caloric intake to maintain a stable weight and elevated levels of activity during the initial 6-week period following weight restoration. In the later follow-up months and years (6+ months later), they found that the caloric demands had ‘normalized’ more but they still showed signs of slow resolution to normal of the neuroendocrine dysregulation (i.e.: recovery is a process—internally and externally!).
- Leaky gut. I’ve said it many times before, and I’ll say it again—digestion is essential to every process in your body! If or when your digestion is off…everything else easily falls out of place: from hormonal balance, immunity, skin breakouts, brain power, energy levels, how you feel, anxiety, stress…everything. Given your history with disordered eating, chances are, your digestion is off. “Leaky gut” is a buzzword easily thrown around nowadays, but essentially it means: you are not digesting your food, or absorbing all your nutrients. If your digestion is “off”, then of course your metabolism is going to be off! By taking a deeper look into your digestion with a knowledgeable nutrition or healthcare provider, you can do some deeper digging into what’s going on. It may not necessarily be “leaky gut” either: From hypochloridria (low stomach acid; stomach acid is necessary for digestion) to SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth), underfunctioning liver/gallbladder, poor sugar handling by your pancreas, and more, can explain the wonky metabolism you have—and any accompanying constipation, bloating, gas, poor appetite, etc. you may experience.
- Adrenal (Stress) Recovery. If you come from a background of chronic dieting or over-exercise, you come from a background of STRESS. And this constant state of stress you lived in, taxed your adrenal glands (the “stress regulators”). In order to keep up with the demands you placed on your body, you were more than likely running off cortisol—and lots of it (the fight or flight hormone). In turn, this lowered your metabolism for a time, and you were able to ‘get by’ and function in your extreme dieting and exercise ways. Consider this:Studies show if a 200 pound woman is limited to 800 calories a day, after three weeks her metabolism may decline by 15 percent — possibly prompting further, unrealistic calorie reductions which cannot be sustained. Remarkably, exercise may actually exacerbate the problem. If a person isn’t consuming enough calories and is exercising, the body — which automatically does the math and reacts to an even more severe calorie deficit — will reduce its metabolism further.Another study found that:Metabolic rate progressively decreases with dieting, an average of 0.9% per day with a total decrease of 12-17% after 2 weeks. Regardless of how rapid the decline, the minimum metabolic rate seems to be no less than 70% of normal. Now that you are no longer restricting yourself or slaving away on the stairmaster, your metabolism can finally re-awaken and your adrenals can FINALLY take a big deep breath!However, 99% of the girls and women I have seen in recovery do have the residual effects of this former adrenal dysfunction (hence why your metabolism is still off), and have all benefitted from an individualized approach to healing their adrenals and hormones—both nutritionally and supplementally.The adrenal glands (and their impact on your health) are a whole other topic for another day (stay tuned), but for some great resources and further understanding on adrenal function and adrenal fatigue, check out “Adrenal Fatigue in the 21st Century” by Dr. James Wilson, and Dr. Lam’s Adrenal Fatigue Center online)
- Lack of Balance. This is a topic that is rarely discussed in eating disorder treatment, because, essentially, most programs and providers preach “balance”—but sometimes their approach is far from it.You are given a handout of the food guide pyramid, caloric-intake prescription or a meal-exchange counting template, and told to “eat anything” just so as long as you check off your boxes or hit your calories that day. To an extent, this is totally acceptable and helpful! After all, you’ve been in “dieting” or “restrictive” mode for oh, too long, that you finally have liberty to eat anything you like. However, what is often failed to be communicated is the actual necessity to eat BALANCED—proteins, healthy fats, veggies, fruits, and some starchy carbs included, and that “healthy” eating is good for you! (i.e. not just Dairy Queen milkshakes for snacks, or ‘no veggies whatsoever’ since you are no longer dieting).While former “fear foods” may be presented in a treatment setting (things like bagels with cream cheese, takeout pizza, sandwiches and chips, cold cereal, ice cream) as a part of exposure therapy to help you overcome fears, it’s still important to keep balance in mind (as opposed to “all or nothing” thinking).In other words: Building your diet around a balance of nutrition, and occasionally being OK with the “junk foods” or “unhealthier foods” if you’re at a dinner party, or baseball game, or stuck in an airport (i.e. no perfection).
- Chronic Undereating. Even though you are in recovery—and perhaps no longer binging, purging or actively restricting, some individuals may fall into the trap of undereating (particularly if you’ve experienced a more sluggish metabolism in recovery and it seems like you don’t need as much fuel; or you lack an appetite). Chronic undereating basically means living off less than what your body ultimately would like to thrive. Check out this post on Chronic Undereating here. Contrary to popular belief, in order to have a revved (high) metabolism, you actually need to eat more calories (quality and balance) more often. And if you already have a higher metabolism…this is why (you finally started feeding your body!).
- Nutrient Deficiencies. Just because you are in recovery, does not mean you are “in the clear.” If you find that it seems your appetite has not fully recovered, it could mean you are low in zinc. For others, low Vitamin D levels and fatty acid deficiencies may be the root of a more sluggish metabolism. Or perhaps your vitamin count is low, and therefore, in order to try to tell you it needs more nutrients, your metabolism is en fuego (on fire)—but still missing the boat (perhaps unbeknownst to you). How do you know if you’re deficient? It’s not a one-size-fits-all answer, but I love nothing more than to provide an individualized nutrition assessment and functional evalution with folks to see what your body may be lacking (minerals, vitamins, etc.) in order to best help you support you! In addition, a check in with your healthcare provider for the very least, some lab work, can begin to point you in the right direction for looking “under the hood.
- You’re not “normal.” What is “normal” anyways? Does it even really exist? If you’ve been through an eating disorder, and lived to tell about it, the experience you went through is not one that is considered a “normal” experience for human bodies to undergo. Instead of trying to problem solve or pinpoint exactly why your metabolism is not back to normal—completely—do your best to meet your body where it’s at today. Honor yourself by taking the best care of you possible—physically and mentally. You beat yourself up and hated on yourself for far too long. Do the opposite today—and choose life in recovery! Your body (and health) will follow suit.
Interested in seeing how nutrition therapy or my Thrive Eating Disorder Recovery program could best support you in your journey?
Connect with me for a free 30-minute consult to talk your hopes, vision and health, and find out how Thrive’s approach could work for you–both for distance and local clients alike.