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Side Effects of Normalizing Eating After Years of Abuse

By February 21, 2013

I have had an eating disorder for 14 years of my 27 years. I have been admitted in eating disorder programs four times within five years. Each time the hospital helped me get my eating on track and work on underlying issues. I, however, wasn’t ready to give up my eating disorder and would continue to relapse over these five years. In January of this year, I decided that I really wanted to work hard towards recovery and that is what I have been doing. It has not been easy at all. My body seems to be going through some sort of shock. Since beginning this journey I often feel ill, my stomach is often bloated and uncomfortable, and I have gained ** lbs, that I’m afraid will stay on me. I also can no longer go too long without eating or I get dizzy; I shake, feel sick to my stomach, and am not able to function at times. I do know that my body is adjusting to the fact that it’s being fed and also that the food is not being purged, but why is it doing this? There are days when I am crying because my stomach hurts so badly. I told my therapist I’m not sure recovery is worth it because there are many days when I feel worse than I did when I was engaging in my eating disorder. I have also gained weight since I have been eating in a healthy manner. Does the body reach a point where it adjusts to eating and things (such as digestion and blood sugar levels) begin to normalize? I am trusting God with my eating and continuing on this difficult journey because I believe it will get better. I am under the care of a doctor; all of my blood work is good except for anemia, which I am being treated for.

Dear Anonymous,

Congratulations on focusing on recovery. Ideally eating appropriately would make you feel great after years of abusing your body. Unfortunately there is usually what is sometimes referred to as “withdrawal” symptoms or side effects of normalizing eating after years of abuse. I often use the analogy of alcoholism. When someone stops drinking they more often feel worse for a time. Before discussing your symptoms further, the most important advice is to check with your doctor about your symptoms.

Side effects of eating after restricting and/or no longer purging after years of purging are GI distress, delayed gastric emptying and increased anxiety. After years of purging, your digestive enzymes and the entire digestive system are off. Make sure your doctor knows of these symptoms as there are medicines that can help. With the help of a dietitian, you can work on foods that are less distressing and develop a meal plan of possibly smaller meals and two or three snacks. A meal plan that incorporates snacks (eating every 3 hours) can also help if you are having swings in blood sugar.

As far as weight gain, was weight gain needed? When weight gain comes without an increase in calories it is most likely from fluid retention, another side effect of withdrawal of purging. Fluid retention is temporary.

Stay with an outpatient team to help you work on recovery. The team will provide the expertise to help you and the support you need to get through the tougher times.

Eileen Stellefson Myers, MPH, RD, LDN, FADA