A few days ago, I had a conversation with someone about the topic of extreme hunger. For those who might not be familiar with this terminology, it’s a period during recovery from an eating disorder in which one feels an insatiable hunger, resulting in thousands of calories being eaten in a relatively short amount of time. Some consider this bingeing, which I do not agree with in the slightest. I think it is a time of recovery that needs to be taken seriously, but I really do not believe it should be equated to bingeing. I’m going to try and explain why, because I know this can be a time of increased anxiety and shame. That should not be the case. One should feel proud of giving into the hunger and listening to one’s body. It’s about nourishing a long forgotten body, starved and left out to suffer. It’s changing the tides.
Extreme hunger is scary. It’s extremely valid to feel frightened, terrified even. It feels like your body won’t ever stop growling at you, begging for more food. Do you keep going? Do you force yourself to stop eating, even though you know you’re still hungry? Do you continue even after 3,000 calories? Is that restricting? What about refeeding syndrome?
The easiest way for me to understand extreme hunger is the comparison of breath. I know I heard something along similar lines somewhere, but for the life of me, I cannot find the original author of this thought. If you do happen to come across similar articles as to what I’m about to explain, please do leave it in the comment section so I can add it here for a better reference.
Holding Your Breath
Think about holding your breath. Not just to rid yourself of hiccups, but for a significant length of time. This past February, the world record was increased up to 24 minutes and 3 seconds for holding your breath. Imagine yourself holding your breath for that long. Your body is depleted of all oxygen. It’s tortured by this. But you keep going and going… until finally you stop. You open your mouth and you take in some oxygen for the first time in 24 minutes.
Now imagine how your body reacts at this precise moment in time. When you allow yourself to take in a breath. Do you automatically return to a steady state of normal paced breathing? No.
Your body heaves and gasps, pulling at the air to get in every ounce of oxygen it’s able to. It needs to make up for those past 24 minutes where it suffocated. It’s reacting to the torture it just endured.
When you deprive your body of air, an essential component to living, what is it going to do when you finally allow yourself to breathe again? Is it going to automatically return to a normal pattern and rate? Nope. It’s going to go crazy; you’ll heave and inhale as much air as you can.
Your body doesn’t trust you anymore. It can’t. Not after that.
Now it’s on alert because it’s worried you’ll hold your breath again. It’s now on guard for asphyxiation. Your body needs to learn how to trust you again. It’s gonna take in as much air as it can get right now in case you decide to stop breathing again.
Let’s take this same concept and apply it to food.
For however long you’ve restricted your caloric intake, your body has been left deprived, starved, neglected. Then, you make the courageous steps to begin recovery. Be proud of yourself. That is the most difficult decision to make, and to make it again and again each day- I commend you so much for that. Seriously, be proud of that.
So now you’re here, a few weeks into recovery (or however long it takes, there is no prescribed time for this to happen) and your body notices that you’re eating more. You’re providing the nourishment it needs again. It’s excited now. It’s going to take advantage of this opportunity. You’re beginning to listen to hunger cues. So now, it’s going to set off a hundred more hunger cues. It wants you to get the memo- it’s ready to replenish itself.
Extreme hunger, when listened to, is a beautiful reconnection between yourself and your body. It’s a time to submit and give in to the irrational rules you’ve so long followed. They don’t mean anything anymore. What matters most is that you’re listening to your body and you understand this will end.
And I promise, extreme hunger will end.
I know in the moment it seems as though it’ll go on for the rest of your life, but that won’t be the case.
Take it back to the breathing metaphor.
Okay, 24 minutes of holding your breath. How long would it take to get back to normal breathing? Maybe 5 minutes. Maybe 10 or it might even take a half hour. My point is, I’m not a doctor, so I don’t have any clue about the length of time, but it will go back to normal. It has to. Our bodies are intelligent- they know when to back off. It’s all about proving to them that we can be trusted again. Even though, yes, we restricted, we over-exercised, we ate insufficient nutrients, our bodies, if we choose recovery, will give us a second chance.
There is one aspect of Extreme Hunger to be careful with, and that is refeeding syndrome. Please keep in mind I’m not a doctor and I have no medical credentials tied to the back of my name. All of this is my opinion on extreme hunger. If you have any fear the hunger you feel will result in your body rebelling against you to the point where it would shut down, as is the case with refeeding syndrome, I encourage you to seek out the professional advice of a nutritionist or other doctor. They know what’s best, far better than what I, a measly English and Religious Studies major, could ever articulate.
Extreme Hunger vs. Bingeing
As for the notion of extreme hunger and bingeing being synonymous, I disagree with this sentiment. In my mind, and this could be just the opinion of my own understanding, extreme hunger is in response to eating disorder recovery. Bingeing is out of one’s control, a form of an eating disorder in itself. Both can be caused by restrictive diets, but I think there is a difference. I think it may be possible for extreme hunger to turn into bingeing, but that is why vigilance in recovery is so important. I know I need to be mindful about the actions I take, even now as I am 3 years from the start of my recovery.
Struggling with bingeing is not something I’d wish upon anyone, and I know that some people do in turn develop problems such as this in recovery. I’m not well versed on this subject, so if anyone does have an experience they’d feel comfortable sharing with me (publicly or privately), I would be honored to know your story. It’s a topic I’m not as familiar with as I’d like to be, considering I think of myself as an eating disorder advocate, so I’d like to learn more. Please do let me know if I’m mistaken in my ideas about the correlation, or lack thereof, between extreme hunger responses and bingeing. I think my research has led me to believe they’re different, but this is only coming from my perspective. I want to keep my blog as an open forum, so let me know if you feel differently!
This is not me encouraging someone to eat everything in sight because that’s the “only way to recover.” No absolutely not. I really believe there are an infinite amount of ways to recover because each of us are our own person. That’s what is so beautiful tragic about this world. What works for me won’t work for the next person I meet and so on and so forth. That said, I know the majority of people enduring eating disorder recovery will mark their path through similar experiences, some long and some short. I want to offer my perspective on the idea of extreme hunger, and I think I can sum it up to one rule for recovery. I don’t believe recovery has very many rules, considering mine was all about abolishing the distorted logic of my mind, but here, I think recovery does have one vital rule for success:
If you are hungry, eat.
That’s it. Looks simple, but I think we all know how much further complex it goes once we dive under the surface.
Extreme hunger is not something to be afraid of. There will inevitably be fear at the beginning, but I guarantee you will feel pride once you come out of the other side. Nourishing your body, finally feeding it the calories it desperately needs is something to be celebrated, something to be regarded. You are something to be celebrated and regarded, simply for choosing to fight.
I feel like it’s been a long time since I’ve sat down to write an entire post dedicated to one aspect of recovery. I don’t know whether that’s a good thing or not, but it feels like one. I’m happy to continue my advocacy for eating disorder awareness, because I realize how important that is, but it’s nice to know I’m able to separate that part of my history into a box in my brain. it’s no longer one long veiled sheet impressing itself into every crevice of my life.
For other Eating Disorder Recovery Related posts, please feel free to check out my Recovery Resources page. I hope in those posts you might find solace and comfort.
Questions of the Day
- Have you experienced extreme hunger? I’d love to hear your thoughts and your story!
- How long do you think you could hold your breath?
- What is your favorite way to take care of your body?