Weight gain is often a natural and healthy part of eating disorder recovery. Parents must accept their child's weight gain to support recovery

Why is my child gaining weight in eating disorder recovery?

While not everyone gains weight during recovery, many of us do gain weight as a natural and healthy part of eating disorder recovery. It is very important that parents wholeheartedly accept their child’s recovered weight. To help you understand what may happen with your child’s weight during and after eating disorder recovery, we must take a deep dive into physiology.

Restriction and eating disorders

We cannot point to a single reason for the development of eating disorders. We have not yet found a genetic pattern or biological marker. There are many co-existing disorders, but not every person who has an eating disorder has these conditions. The single correlation that applies to all people who develop eating disorders is a history of dieting. The purpose of dieting is to reduce body weight. The most common dieting methodology restricting caloric intake and increasing rates of exercise.

Almost all of us who have eating disorders began with a diet. Whether we remain in the restrictive phase (anorexia), or cycle between restrict-binge (binge eating disorder) or restrict-binge-purge (bulimia), restriction is a core behavior. 

Multi-layered disorders

Different varieties of eating disorders may come and go over time, making a “pure” diagnosis difficult. Low body weight is a diagnostic criterion for anorexia, but many people practice extreme restriction and experience starvation while never becoming medically underweight. At the same time, many people who are primarily diagnosed with anorexia also have binge and/or binge-purge episodes. Many people who have bulimia cycle through severely restrictive phases and binge-purge phases.

When we repeatedly engage in restrictive behaviors, eating disorders take over. At this point, it’s no longer just about the food and weight, it’s about the control, the power, and the ability to soothe our needs with restriction, bingeing and/or purging. Disordered eating becomes a maladaptive coping behavior.

Weight loss caused by restriction results in weight gain

Unfortunately, despite all the media and advertising messages to the contrary, science has proven that, for 95% of all humans, each time we lose weight through restrictive methods, we will regain all of the weight lost plus more. When we lose weight by restricting, our bodies seek weight homeostasis and regains weight by any means possible. Our metabolisms slow down.

Each time we weight cycle, it becomes increasingly harder to lose weight, and we add a few more pounds. Each time we lose weight through restriction, our physiology adapts to become even more efficient at storing fat. The long-term prognosis for 95% of us who lose weight is that we end up heavier than before.

Why is my child gaining weight?

This is very bad news for those of us who have eating disorders. Since most of us engaged in restriction, we have seriously messed with our physiology. If your child is gaining weight during recovery from an eating disorder, it is because weight gain is a natural and physiological natural response to restriction. Your child’s weight during recovery may fluctuate wildly as the body recovers and the brain learns to accept the body’s natural weight.

Physical recovery from an eating disorder depends on how long your child has struggled with an eating disorder, his or her individual metabolism, the total weight lost and gained throughout the eating disorder, the number of weight cycles, and more. These factors will combine to make each recovery journey unique.

How much weight will my child gain during recovery?

Because most eating disorders involve restriction, recovery often includes weight gain. Recovering bodies need to return to a natural weight and will likely add pounds in response to the restriction endured during the eating disorder. It is impossible to estimate your child’s recovered weight, especially since it may take years for your child’s body to settle into a new “normal.”

What you must know is that, once recovered, no number on the scale will ever measure your child’s health. Full recovery from the eating disorder, not body weight, will dictate your child’s health and the likelihood of a successful, meaningful and joyful life.

Time to look in the mirror

The good news is that your child’s weight, with proper eating disorder treatment, will eventually stabilize. The bad news is that your child’s new weight may make you uncomfortable. This is why you need to work on your own biases about body weight and food restriction. Do you believe low body weight is a sign of health? Do you believe that your child can only be happy and successful in life if his or her body meets a narrow societal standard of body size?

If so, then please check the podcasts, online courses and other materials available from Christy Harrison, RD, a non-diet dietitian. It is imperative that parents learn the dangers of the false belief that we can and should control our body weight. Parents who have children who have eating disorders must learn that bodies must not be controlled.

Of course, we should generally eat healthy food. Moderate exercise provides excellent mental health and cardiovascular benefits. But the most important thing about achieving health is allowing our bodies – not our minds – to dictate what we eat. The most common method for this is Intuitive Eating.

Our mind is subject to massive advertising and PR campaigns promising that we can and should control our bodies with restriction. Restriction is never a healthy response to weight. We must learn to listen to our body’s intuition and allow each body to thrive in its own form, at its own healthy weight.

Full recovery from an eating disorder

Those of us who have messed with our physiology with eating disorders often find ourselves at a much higher weight than we want to be. After all, we hated our “natural” weight (that’s why we began dieting), and now we regret that we weigh even more as a result of our disorder.

Parents who fully accept children’s bodies as they are, in their current form, without judgment, make a huge impact on the likelihood of full recovery from eating disorders. Parental acceptance helps children learn to trust that they are good and lovable regardless of their body size.

Full recovery from an eating disorder is 100% possible and happens regularly. Those of us who have recovered may not love our recovered body size, but we know that being recovered is more important than being thin.

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