Ask Aly: Losing Weight After Recovering From an Eating Disorder

Right before Justin and I got married, my eating disorder mentality came back without me even realizing it. I lost more weight than I should have (that I didn't need to lose in the first place) and I didn't notice how close I was to slipping back into my old destructive behaviors. Although that was two years ago, since then I've tried to put more effort into watching my thoughts and my actions so I can make sure it doesn't happen again. Over the past couple of years though, I've gained a little weight and I've been trying to grapple with how to exercise and eat healthier without laying out a welcome mat for my anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorders at the same time.

Thist past week, a friend messaged me about someone she knows that's going through the same thing and asked if I had any tips or thoughts on how they can be healthy and also lose weight, but not slip back into their eating disorders. While eating disorders might not ever go away, we shouldn't let them bully us around. If we want to be in control of our health, we need to be cautious with the steps we take to lose weight, have a pre-determined plan in our minds that we will stick to, be observant of our mental well-being, and constantly question what our motivations are behind losing weight or trying to become healthier. 

Exercising and changing your eating habits can seem terrifying once you've recovered from an eating disorder, but here are a couple ideas I shared with my friend that I think can help build a buffer between those two things and your past eating disorders: 

Avoid Numbers
  • This is especially important with food. Don't focus on calorie amounts or anything you find on a nutrition label (fats, sugar, carbs). Instead, focus on the actual health benefits of the foods you eat and the nutritional values that come from food (vitamins, minerals, etc.). Ask yourself, what are the things that my body needs to survive and how do these foods support all that I need my body to do? Even foods that are considered "unhealthy" by the dieting world, can benefit your body. We need fats, proteins, sugars, carbs, and calories for our bodies to function and do everything they were made to do. Obviously, you shouldn't eat McDonald's every day, but there are healthier ways to watch what you eat without cutting calories or only eating fruits and vegetables for your meals--our bodies can gain something good from almost everything that we eat. 
  • Don't weigh yourself and avoid scales as much as possible. Both can be major triggers and avoiding them can help you overcome a mentality where you believe your worth is equal to your weight. 
Avoid Portion Sizes
  • Controlling the amount that we eat is usually the first idea that comes to anyone's mind whenever they want to lose weight. When I was first recovering from my binge eating disorder and wondering about how I was going to lose all the weight that I gained, my doctor told me that one of the best things I could do was to listen to my stomach as I ate. He went on to say that I should eat until I was full enough not to be stuffed or hungry. Mindfulness when eating is definitely an acquired talent, but it does help you be more aware of what your body needs since portion sizes sometimes end up being too much food or not enough food for what our bodies need.
Set Firm Limits
  • Benjamin Franklin (according to the internet) once said, "By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail." Preparation and planning are crucial when it comes to trying to lose-weight or pick up healthier habits post-eating disorder. You need to know your triggers are and be aware of the fact that you have lurking disorders that are still with you--even if you no longer restrict your diet, purge, or binge. Understanding this and using your knowledge of yourself and your disorders to construct your workouts and food habits will increase your chances of success. For instance, if I wanted to start working out and exercising consistently, I would set a limit where I could only exercise for 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week. That way, I would be able to prevent my eating disorders from pushing me to extremes. 
Avoid the Gym
  • Especially if you are newly recovered from your eating disorder, avoid exercising in a gym at all costs. They usually have a competitive atmosphere and it's easier to compare your body to those around you in such an enclosed, intensely-focused space (both can be huge triggers for disordered behaviors). Instead, try to exercise in your home or outside where competition and judgment are less likely. 
Involve Friends and Family
  • While not everyone has family or friends that are aware of their eating disorders, both can be valuable tools when you're trying to lose weight or start healthier habits. If you feel comfortable with it, check in regularly with a someone about how your eating and exercising plans are going. (Keeping a journal where you can record any signs of your eating disorder coming back could also work if you have not told those closest to you about your eating disorder. You can use it to track your triggers and figure out if you are in a good spot to be exercising or changing your eating habits.) Be open and honest with them and with yourself. You could even ask for friends or family members to exercise with you. However, if you do this, make sure you are aware of your thoughts and feelings when exercising with another person. If you feel competitive towards them or judgemental towards yourself, stop immediately and figure out another way to involve them in your efforts. 
Check In With Yourself
  • When you are exercising or trying to eat healthier, listen to your thoughts and how you talk to yourself. Constantly ask yourself what your motivators are and why you are exercising or eating healthier. If your answers have anything to do with your appearance or weight, stop immediately and reassess your plan. Both of those motivators (along with any other motivators that are similar in nature) have nothing to do with health and everything to do with your eating disorders. 
Be Patient and Keep it Gradual
  • While losing weight quickly is really unhealthy and really bad for your body (heart issues, metabolism issues, organ stress), it also makes it much easier to redevelop an eating disorder (especially anorexia and bulimia, since the goal of both disorders is to lose weight fast). So, make sure you are patient with yourself and your progress. Celebrate the small victories and use that time to learn to love your body at all shapes, weights, and sizes. It took me three years to lose the weight I gained from my binge eating disorder and I feel like I grew more from that experience than I would have if I gave into diet culture and pushed myself as hard as could to lose weight in the shortest amount of time possible. It also helped me learn to understand which thoughts were mine, and which thoughts came from my eating disorders too. Weight loss and creating healthier habits is a process, not a race. 
Learning how to navigate your body after recovering from an eating disorder can be hard! Don't be afraid of yourself or your body, but remember to be aware of your disorders. If you want to lose weight, make sure that you focus on your overall health, rather than your size. Try to focus on how the exercise you are doing makes your body stronger and how the foods you are eating will help your body reach its full potential. 

Basically, when it comes to exercise and eating healthier, the end goal shouldn't be becoming skinnier, because, like a lot of us who have recovered from eating disorders know, being skinny does not necessarily mean that you're healthy.

 In fact, it usually means the exact opposite.