One of the most common questions my clients ask me is whether they will gain weight when recovering from chronic dieting, disordered eating or an eating disorder.
And it typically happens as we start working on intuitive eating. The concept of letting go of diets and using a non-diet approach can be scary for many people, especially women who have only ever used diets as their approach to weight.
They worry that once they start gaining weight, they will never be able to stop. This question is asked even more so by women who are in midlife or menopause.
The simple answer to whether a person will gain weight and, if so, how much is… ”It depends.” In today’s article, I will share my best advice to answer this question for you.
Will I gain weight when I am working towards Intuitive Eating?
This is a tough question to give a specific and defined answer… It really depends on whether or not you have suppressed your weight below its natural set point.
It also depends on how long you have been restricting your food, how many years/times you have yo-yo dieted, and what your genetics say about your body shape and size.
In short, this is not an easy question to answer and is as individual as you are!
I will do my very best to help you understand why figuring out our body’s natural “set point” weight is not such a cut and dry answer.
People can be so consumed with avoiding weight gain that it can hamper recovery and keep them stuck in an endless cycle of restricting, bingeing, dieting and other unhealthy weight control behaviors.
This holds true for all bodies – whether an adolescent recovering from an eating disorder or a menopausal woman giving up dieting to embrace intuitive eating.
How can I tell if I have suppressed my weight?
Our worry about weight gain makes perfect sense, given the diet culture world we live in.
This esthetic, however, is usually rooted in weight stigma, or fat phobia – the societal message that only one size body is acceptable – and that is small. The message that there is no room for a body that is naturally large.
I invite people to reflect on their weight histories when trying to understand what a natural and sustainable “set point” weight for their bodies is.
Hint: If you have to obsess over every morsel of food consumed and are afraid to take off even one rest day from your exercise regimen, you are likely suppressing your body weight.
If you have lost and gained the same weight over and over, this is called weight cycling, and demonstrates a suppression of your natural body weight.
You might not LIKE your body’s natural set point body weight, but the fact is, we have genetic markers that determine how much our body is meant to weigh. This is no different than having a genetic marker for eye color, shoe size or for our height. Look to your ancestors for clues about your body’s natural shape.
According to a seminal book on weight science called Body Respect, the way to determine a genetic set point weight is to look at:
- The weight you normally maintain when you eat to appetite.
- The weight that results from behavioral and metabolic responses to signals of hunger and fullness.
- The weight you maintain when you don’t fixate on your weight or food habits.
- The weight you return to between diets (which usually creeps up the more you diet).
- A result of your biology, biography and current circumstances.
When you try and control and manipulate your weight by dieting, you interrupt your body’s internal regulation system.
With food restriction and/or over-exercise, your body will do everything in its power to keep you safe from the next “famine” or diet! This means it will hold onto extra weight until it trusts that food will be coming at regular intervals.
So how long will it take for my weight to normalize if I give up dieting?
Recovery can take you anywhere from a few months to years. Our bodies are not machines, and they work very hard to maintain homeostasis.
Intuitive eating is going to take some time, and sometimes it can be hardest for us middle-aged women. We have spent years and years suppressing our weight, on and off diets, trying everything we can to get to our perceived ideal body and weight.
It is not an overnight job! Your body will usually level off to a consistent weight once it knows that it will be fed regularly, and with enough food.
The fact is, to TRULY recover from an eating disorder or chronic dieting, and to become an intuitive eater, we really must put thoughts of weight on the back-burner.
Here are 5 practical suggestions for dealing with weight gain while you are recovering and feeling better in your current body:
- Know your “reasons for recovery.” Make an actual hand-written list. What is important to you? What are your values? Keep the list somewhere you can refer to it when you need. Add to it and visit it when you question yourself. This helps keep you on your path to becoming an Intuitive Eater.
- Use positive affirmations to stay positive. Examples are:
- I am more than my weight
- I am worthy of recovery
- My body deserves to be treated with dignity and respect regardless of its size
- My body radiates beauty and strength
- My body will carry me wherever I want to go
Affirmations will help you stay in the positive space to continue your journey and not stray off the path back to the dieting or restricting life you had before.
- Get rid of clothing that does not fit. This goes for underwear too! Wearing tight, poorly fitting clothing is guaranteed to make you feel uncomfortable in your changing body. If new clothes are too pricey, consider online consignment shops like Thred-Up or even consider a clothing exchange with friends.
- Learn about the science! Part of our fear of fat is supported by the research that suggests that fatness is inherently unhealthy and even deadly. But the truth is that this research is all correlation, not causation, and there is a TON of evidence that suggests that pursuing health behaviors such as intuitive eating and joyful movement are the keys to long-term health no matter what your size! This is called the Health at Every Size model, pioneered by Lindo Bacon. They have two great books I would suggest you read to really start wrapping your brain around the idea that size and health are not as inextricably linked as the media would like us to believe: Body Respect and Health at Every Size. Once you dismantle that information a bit, you will likely find it much easier to fire back against people who may shame your weight gain on the basis of “health,” including yourself.
- Change up your social media feed. Consider what looking at triggering images of smaller bodies does to your mind while you work on recovery. Remember that comparison is the thief of joy. Get rid of images that do not serve you well. Instead, fill your feed with all body shapes.
Above all else, remember, we don’t need to love our bodies in order to take good care of them.
If you are looking for more strategies to help you ditch diets and learn to make peace with food and your body image, I have a few resources to help you:
- Nutrition for Midlife, Menopause and Beyond ebook
- 3 Steps to Making Peace with Food and Your Body Image ebook
- Nutritional Guidance: A mini course for those in Eating Disorder Recovery