The Science Behind Perpetual Hunger in Eating Disorder Recovery

Hunger is the feeling of discomfort or weakness caused by lack of food, coupled with the desire to eat. Hunger is a message that our body sends to our mind, letting it know that it needs more fuel to keep working properly.  The problem occurs when we ignore these hunger signals, and our physical symptoms of hunger begin to worsen. We get headaches, feel weak, lack concentration, and become hangry, for lack of a better word.

Why do we ignore our hunger when it’s very purpose is to take care of us? 

We desire to change our bodies, so we begin to count and restrict calories.

We want to fit into the culture around us, so we hop on to whatever diet is most popular at the time: Weight Watchers, Paleo, Ketogenic, Whole 30, etc. 

We become “too busy” to eat.

Whatever the excuse may be, I am confident that 95% of people reading this have attempted to control his or her weight through food restriction, myself being one of them. 

And it’s not our fault, we live in a society that glorifies dieting, lifestyle, and body image. If we didn’t live in the culture that we do today, there would be no logical explanation for calorie restriction. It’s counter-intuitive and it’s not how our bodies are designed to work. 

When we restrict calories, two things generally end up happening: 

  1. We fail to maintain consistent, sustainable weight loss (because we didn’t need to lose weight in the first place). 


    2.   We find ourselves falling into disordered eating patterns.

Individuals in the first group fail to maintain consistent weight loss not because they lack self-control or because anything is wrong with them, but because their body is unwilling to allow them to stay in a place of chronic restriction. These individuals are not genetically vulnerable to developing pathological eating patterns, meaning, they won’t restrict food groups or calories long enough for it to cause any harm. Any attempts at dieting are short-lived and trivial. They view their body and weight in an objective way. Sure, there are things they would change about their bodies if they could, but they aren’t willing to trade off their physical and mental well-being to get to that place. This is why dieting doesn’t work.  

Individuals in the second group may or may not lose weight, but one thing is for sure: their minds and hearts are taken over by the ill-effects of chronic restriction. They refuse to listen to their hunger signals, no matter how strong they may be. They make excuses around mealtimes, lie about what they have or have not eaten, and become trapped in a cycle of perpetual hunger. Many of these individuals develop disordered eating patters/eating disorders, whether they realize it or not. These are the individuals who experience perpetual hunger. 

Perpetual Hunger 

One of the most obvious effects of chronic restriction is chronic hunger. It makes sense, right? If our bodies aren’t getting enough food, and hunger is a signal that reminds us to eat, chronic hunger is a no brainer. An individual will never break-free from a cycle of chronic hunger without consistent, proper nutrition for a solid period of time.

If you restrict calories, you will be hungry.

If you purge calories, you will be hungry.

If you are exercising too much, you will be hungry.

But what if you are not restricting, not purging, and not exercising? Why are you still so dang hungry?

1 large bagel with a heaping helping of peanut butter with banana slices, honey, and chocolate chips on top. An hour later, I was starving.

How could this be when my mom had only had a cup of coffee, and my sister was still sound asleep, not dragged out of bed by her own hunger?

Answer: My body was in a hypermetabolic state.

When our bodies are deprived of the food it so desperately needs, it begins to adapt. Our metabolism slows down, along with other physiological processes, in order to maintain every bit of strength and energy that the body can afford. As my dietitian so eloquently put it, our bodies have a way of “slowing down the process of starving to death.” Yikes! So our body starts to slow down so that it doesn’t have to use up as much energy i.e. burn up as many calories as it normally would because it’s not receiving enough calories to do what it normally can do. In the midst of that, our body is screaming to us: I AM HUNGRY, GET ME FOOD, AND GET IT NOW.

This is why individuals in recovery may become hungry 1-2 hours after eating a solid meal; their bodies are in a fragile state and the body is trying to do everything it can to restore itself to the way it was. Whether weight restoration is necessary or not, the body still goes into panic mode when food is scare and it’s not getting what it needs.  

Take home message: Hunger/fullness will normalize and become easier in eating disorder recovery when you consistently nourish your body with regular meal + snack patterns. In the time leading up to that point, follow your meal plan, honor your hunger, don’t wait too long between meals/snacks, eat foods that make you feel uncomfortable, disobey your eating disorder, and don’t give up. 


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