Author: Breanna Mills R.D.
Many clients throughout their recovery question whether they are getting enough to eat. It can be difficult to determine, and the eating disorder likely has its own ideas about what getting enough means and may try to manipulate your perception around how much and what you are eating. What does getting enough truly mean? How could you determine if you are getting enough?
In our society, tracking or counting food has become common. This leads us to believe that we need to be in conscious control of our food intake and be able to account for every bite of food that goes into our mouths. Many people who are going through recovery for an eating disorder have used tracking apps to keep track of their intake and it may be tempting to continue to use them. An app can estimate the average intake someone would need but does not consider any additional or unique factors about an individual. Tracking or counting food is an external measure that pulls us further away from getting to know the signals from our own bodies and learning how to respond to and trust these signals.
Signs that you may be getting enough:
Overall energy and increased concentration
When food is restricted, our brain and bodies go into conservation mode to keep us alive with the limited amount of energy that is being provided. Sleep is also typically poor when we aren’t getting enough because our brain is on high alert and can’t let us sleep too long without reminding us that it needs fuel. As food intake increases, our bodies and brain have more fuel to go around for the various things we may want to do in our day and helps us to sleep better, which both result in an increase in overall energy. Concentration and focus are similar. If our brain is starved, it isn’t able to focus on the entertaining book we are reading and rather is hyper focused on how it can get more food. As you eat more and eat more regularly, many clients experience a significant change in how well they are able to concentrate.
More stable mood and decreased intrusive thoughts about food
Since the brain is so focused on food, thinking patterns often become more rigid and we aren’t able to navigate the highs and lows of life in the same way. This can often manifest in experiencing strong emotions and big emotional swings. In addition, when we are getting enough, our brains have the energy to produce chemicals and hormones that are involved in mood regulation. When the body is deprived of energy and nutrients, it focuses more on food and many people experience an influx of intrusive thoughts about food. As the brain is more nourished, these thoughts decrease.
Labs and vitals are normal, regular and consistent period, temperature regulation
There are some physical or tangible markers that we are getting enough food, although these can be tricky. The body has an amazing capability to adapt, and some people can be deeply entrenched in their eating disorder and not have any changes to lab markers or their menstrual period. These signs can be an indication for some people that they are getting enough, as they can show that the body is not in conservation mode anymore and there is enough body fat to help with temperature regulation, the heart has enough energy and muscle to keep blood pressure and heart rate stable and that the body is able to resume hormone production and can spare the energy to have a menstrual period.
Weight restoration or nutritional rehabilitation
Some clients in their recovery process require restoration of weight to where their body will function optimally. If you are undernourished and/or if your weight has changed significantly, your body will need to restore and repair itself with nourishment. Naturally, your weight will shift throughout this process.
Ability to respond to signals from the body
Our body provides us with many signals that indicate what it needs in that moment and can help to cue eating. Our body has the ability to tell us when we are hungry and full, as well as tell us what foods or type of foods it is craving. If you are getting enough, you are likely able to start to listen and respond to the signals that your body is giving you on a regular basis, even if those signals change from what you are used to. Learning to listen to these skills can take time and practice and even if you have signals from your body back, it will likely take time to understand them and develop trust with your body.
Permission for all foods and increased satisfaction with meals and snacks
Another sign that we are getting enough, is if there is unconditional permission for all foods and that foods are not avoided due to eating disorder rules, or the fear of weight gain. When we are eating foods that we enjoy and make us feel good, this usually leads to an increase in satisfaction with meals and eating.
Social eating and social interactions
A big part of eating is social eating! It can be so enjoyable to go out to eat with a friend or sit down for a meal with family. When we are getting enough and are not experiencing as many intrusive or obsessive thoughts about food, many people are able to enjoy an increase in flexibility with food and enjoy eating in social settings. Getting enough also helps you to be able to focus on the social interaction that may come with eating, instead of the food itself.
There are many signs that you may be getting enough food. Another important thing to remember is that enough can vary day to day and in different contexts. For example, getting enough at Christmas dinner may look different than getting enough at lunch time. By working on getting enough intake, you can start to listen to the signals that your body gives you and enjoy a fuller life, free from the eating disorder.