Until you experience extreme hunger for yourself, it’s not something that a lot of people can comprehend. It’s hunger that’s violent, hunger that’s all consuming, hunger that’s never ending. It’s constantly niggling and unsatisfiable. It feels as if it’s never going to stop. And it’s something that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.
I wanted to write this post because extreme hunger was the aspect of recovery which I found most difficult. It was something that my treatment team seemed completely unaware of and were able to offer little advice on.
First it was blamed on Veganism, then I was accused of eating because I was bored, not eating the correct macro nutrients, not eating enough, tested for thyroid problems and told that I should distract myself. But to me, it made a lot of sense that after 5 years of constantly being in an energy deficit, that my body was crying out for food. I was told not to eat, because it would only result in weight gain and even told not to listen to my hunger because it might result in me becoming weight restored ‘too early.’ But I knew that the only way out was to listen to my hunger and gain weight.
I wanted to write this post to not only answer your question’s regarding the topic, but to let you know that it does get better. I hope that other people who find themselves in the same situation know how to deal with it, why it’s happening and that it’s a normal part of recovery.
This post is in no away intended to replace the advice of a medical professional – I’m speaking simply from experience and what has been beneficial for me. If you are suffering from, in recovery, or think that you have a disordered relationship with food then please visit your GP. You can also find advice and resources on the following websites: Beat, Mind and the NHS.
The reason for extreme hunger
Although it might be an unpleasant experience, extreme hunger actually makes a lot of sense and it’s more common in recovery than you might think.
For me personally, when I was in the depths of my eating disorder, I actually didn’t find it that difficult to feel full or satisfied after a meal. So it came as a surprise when I started eating more, that I found myself ravenously hungry.
It’s unsettling and frustrating when you finally begin to listen to and fuel your body adequately for the first time in years, but are only met with a huge backlash of what feels like never ending hunger. But there’s actually a completely rational explanation as to why…
In recovery, it’s normal for a malnourished body to overshoot its set point weight because in the early stages, hunger signalling is for both body fat mass and fat-free mass. The process of thermogenesis means that fat tissue is restored before fat-free tissue, which is why the process of achieving your set point weight can take longer and also explains extreme hunger. In order for fat-free (or lean) tissue restoration to take place, more body fat must be deposited first. In other words – you carry on feeling extremely hungry until both types of tissue are restored, which is the reason for extreme hunger.*
And to add to that, it’s also completely rational that hunger signals would be heightened during recovery; when you’re starving, your body doesn’t recognise that there’s food available and is concentrating more on simply trying to keep you alive. Your body doesn’t see the point in sending out hunger signals. However, when you start eating again, your body which has been in a deficit for such a long time goes in to overdrive as it realises that there is food available. In response to this, hunger signals are heightened as your body doesn’t know when it’s next going to be forced in to starvation again. When you’ve been in an energy deficit for so long, your body has a lot of making up to do.
In application to my own experience – I overshot my highest pre-ED weight by 10kg and entered the ‘overweight’ BMI category before my extreme hunger began to decrease and my period returned.
So the only way around the problem of extreme hunger, at least in my opinion, is to eat more and gain weight.
Mental Hunger Counts
Physically I was so hungry that I was in pain and shaking, but the constant thoughts of food, planning my next meal or snack and not being able to concentrate on anything else were all signs of hunger too. And they all count.
The way I see it, if your mind is constantly thinking of food then it’s for a reason – your body needs more of it. Even if you’re physically full but mentally want to eat more, then that’s a hunger signal which as just as valid as your stomach rumbling.
Satisfying your extreme hunger is NOT binge eating.
Initially I was reluctant to listen to my mental hunger, but it’s only natural that you do. Listening to it and concentrating on my cravings has helped me massively.
During the worst of my extreme hunger, I was so mentally and physically hungry, that some days all I wanted to do was stay at home and eat. I thought that it was never going to go away – I was so scared that I would be that hungry forever.
More on my experience
Extreme hunger is scary. It’s scary when all you know is to not eat – when your brain has wired itself to constantly restrict. But not acknowledging or listening to it only causes it to worsen. Personally, I’d reached a point where I was ready to tackle it head on. I was done with starving myself. Nothing was worse than not eating.
Nothing would satisfy my extreme hunger. I increased protein and fats, I followed my cravings, I ate large snacks – even a whole pizza at some points, but I was still left feeling as though I could eat it all again three times over.
Tackling extreme hunger is actually quite time consuming and expensive. I was angry – angry that other people could eat half the amount of me, but feel satisfied whilst I was left wanting to eat their meal as well as mine. There were times when I was embarrassed by the amount that I had to eat – that it was double than those around me, but I had to keep reminding myself that my body was definitely not in the same position as there’s. If anyone around me, my Mum for example, had starved their body for as long as I had, then they too would have to do the same.
I also had a lot of other symptoms around the time of my extreme hunger; swelling, shaking, tiredness and feeling constantly weak. I can’t pinpoint that they were a result of extreme hunger, but they were definitely all symptoms which came a result of recovery.
How I Overcame It
There’s no denying that it was the hardest part of recovery for me – I was increasingly frustrated as I continued to gain weight, but was still left feeling ravenous. I would eat each of my meals and snacks and be left feeling as if I hadn’t eaten at all. I increased fats, protein and my portions but nothing seemed to help. I can’t exactly pinpoint the time at which my extreme hunger subsided, but I know that gaining weight was a main factor. It takes time, but it does get better.
There wasn’t one thing in particular that fixed my extreme hunger. But all of a sudden, something clicked and my hunger completely calmed down. It actually coincided with my period returning as well.
I can now look back at my extreme hunger understand it. I know that it was necessary. It was part of the process of getting my body to trust me again.
That being said, I still have to ensure that I eat regularly and if I have a day where I’ve not eaten as much, you can bet that the next day I will be ravenous. But overall, I am so happy that it’s over. It does get better but you have to listen to your hunger – both mental and physical, and follow your cravings.
Where I’m At Now
I used to eat a lot more in a day than I do now. I actually saw a really natural decrease in the amount that I eat – it was as a result of my appetite decreasing and wasn’t something which was pre-planned or forced. I don’t restrict and still eat more than enough to fuel my body and maintain my current weight.
I was eating whole pizzas and chocolate muffins for my supper, now it’s something that I rarely have! But if I’m still hungry, then I’ll grab myself a bowl of cereal. I would eat snacks the size of meals, now I’ll have one snack a day and it’s generally just a protein bar. There’s nothing wrong with eating a larger amount – it was completely necessary in order to heal my body and get to the point that I’m at now. If I hadn’t gone ‘all in’, then I wouldn’t have been able to fix my extreme hunger.
Extreme Hunger Q&A
As this is a topic which I was so keen to talk about, I also asked for your questions over on Instagram, which I have answered below.
Q1. When did you start experiencing it?
At the end of July / start of August.
Q2. How did you manage to not feel guilty about your extreme hunger?
I had to completely rationalise with myself. I read around the topic which helped me to better understand why it was happening and so I knew that the only way to overcome it was to gain weight and eat more.
Q3. How did you decide what to eat if you weren’t particularly craving anything?
I would often just eat one of the ‘regular’ meals that I was used to. Another huge part of recovery for me was trying to not overthink or pre plan meals.
Q4. What was the best way to satisfy your extreme hunger?
Eating what I was craving.
Q5. What would happen if you ever ignored your extreme hunger?
It would only worsen.
Q6. How did you deal with eating in front of other people?
This is something which I quickly became more comfortable with when I started college. It’s completely normal to eat – no one is going to judge you for it.
Q7. How did you know when to stop eating?
When I felt that my hunger was satisfied physically and mentally.
Q8. How to avoid wanting to exercise to compensate for the extra food?
I’d stopped working out by the time my extreme hunger had really kicked in. I also knew that exercising would only make my extreme hunger worse or prolong the process.
Q9. How did you discover and identify that it was extreme hunger over just being hungry?
I knew that it was extreme hunger when I wasn’t feeling satisfied after any of my meals or snacks, even after eating a large amount.
Q10. I’ve been in recovery for over a year and I still get it. What can I do to stop it?
In my opinion, if you’re still experiencing it then I would say that you need to gain weight and eat more.
Q11. I’ve gone ‘all in’ but all that I’m craving is chocolate biscuits – why don’t I want to eat anything else?
Listen to your cravings! And eventually they will subside.
Q12. What to do if you’re not physically hungry but are still constantly thinking about food and wanting to eat?
Mental hunger is valid and should be listened to as much as physical hunger.
Q13. How did you get over the fear of honouring it?
It was scary, especially when I wasn’t certain of how much food it would actually take for me to feel satisfied. But as I’ve already mentioned, I knew that I had to go ‘all in’ to fully recover and help to reset my hunger signals.
Q14. Did you have any specific cravings?
I was definitely craving a lot of sweet and carb rich foods.
Q15. Did you honour all mental hunger cues? And how can I recognise them? Were there any that it was harder for you to satisfy?
I tried to honour them all, however there were definitely times when I ignored it or was in a situation where I wasn’t able to eat. But in hindsight, I know that it’s so important that you do listen to them all.
Q16. How did you deal with eating more than you ‘used to’ have?
I definitely struggled with it at first but considering that I’d been in an energy deficit for 3/4 years, it actually made sense to me.
Q17. How did you deal with loss of or irregular appetite?
After experiencing severe extreme hunger, I then experienced the exact opposite. Every time that I ate I felt nauseuas and my appetite had decreased massively.
I still continued to eat regularly, but I reduced my portion sizes accordingly.
Q18. Was there a particular food that was super satisfying after feeling super hungry?
For me personally, no. Even foods that people suggested to be ‘filling’ weren’t at all for me.
Q19. How to deal with food being the only thing that you can think about?
I struggled with it a lot, but I found that the only thing to do to move past it was to gain weight, following my cravings and eat more.
Q20. How to deal with feeling as if you’ll never stop eating?
I just had to put my faith in the fact that eventually it would pass, which it has.
Q21. When did it stop and how can you tell that your ‘normal’ appetite it back?
There are still days when it makes an appearance, or where I’ll be more hungry than others, but it massively reduced in November / December – around the same time that I got my period back.
Q22. Did you find it reduced as you became healthier?
Yes! Gaining weight was one of the main factors in it reducing.
Q23. Do you think that levels of extreme hunger correlate to how long you were in an energy defecit for?
I’ve not seen any research around this topic, but if that’s the case then it would make sense.
Q24. How to balance it with daily life?
In terms of if you’re trying to work or attend college whist dealing with then my tips would be to try and maintain a regular eating pattern and eat as much as you can or need to when you get the opportunity.
Q25. How did you manae the fear of eating alongside being really hungry?
I reached a
Q26. Should you eat until you’re uncomfortably full? I get too scared so never act on my extreme hunger.
If you don’t act on your extreme hunger, then it will probably only get worse. In my opinion, you
Q27. Did you follow your cravings? Or just increase calories?
Counting calories isn’t something that I have done in several years – so I didn’t focus on the numbers. Instead I ate what I wanted or craved until full satiety.
Q28. How not to compare the amount that you’re eating to other people?
This is something which I definitely used to struggle with – I constantly used to feel guilty if I was eating and someone else wasn’t or if I was eating more than them.
But then I started to realise
Q29. Is it ok if I’m snacking on a lot of sugar?
I was definitely craving sugar a lot early in recovery – all I craved was chocolate, dates and carb rich foods. In my opinion, it’s so important to listen to your cravings in recovery. Doesn’t otherwise is restriction and will only cause them to worsen.
Q30. How did you deal with extreme hunger at a healthy weight? I find it hard to justify and it makes me feel guilty.
This is one of the reasons why I never used being underweight as a justification to eat, because eventually you hit a tricky spot.
Personally, I dealth with extreme hunger all the way up until the ‘overweight’ BMI category. Regardless of your weight, your body is still asking for tha food for a reason and it’s so important that you listen to it.
Q31. How did you deal with the thought of eating a large amount of calories?
There were definitely times when I felt guilty for eating the amount that I did, but I knew that it was completely necessary if I wanted to fully recover.
Q32. Did you ever deal with extreme hunger when you were out and couldn’t eat in that moment?
This was a difficult one, especially when it came to being in college because I found
Q33. I am so scared to eat unhealthy foods during recovery but that’s all I want to eat. What should I do if all I want to eat is junk food?
Listen to your cravings! Like I said, doing otherwise is restriction and will only cause the cravings to worsen. Plus it makes it harder to feel satisfied if you’re not eating what you actually want to.
Q34. Did you ever wake up in the night feeling hungry?
Yes! And it’s perfectly OK to eat at that time if the same happens to you!
If you are suffering from, in recovery, or think that you have a disordered relationship with food then please visit your GP. You can also find advice and resources on the following websites: Beat, Mind and the NHS.