Mental vs Extreme Hunger
During ED recovery, have you ever questioned your sanity as your mind gets obsessed about food? I know I did, and the 2 craziest things I faced during my recovery were “Extreme Hunger” and “Mental Hunger”. Mental and extreme hunger tend to go hand-in-hand. Let's find out what they are and how they are related. Hopefully you will find the answer to your question and put your mind at ease that what you are going through is normal and part of the process.
What is Mental Hunger?
Mental Hunger is a sign where your mind constantly thinks about food. Other signs include: planning ahead of time, when and what to eat, thinking about cravings / foods that you don’t allow yourself to eat.
This is actually your mind signalling your body to eat. It is a hunger that is just as valid as your stomach rumbling. You have to understand that your body no longer trusts your stomach to rumble when it is hungry as you have not fed it properly for a long time. You may think you are going crazy or your body is “damaged” and be left frustrated and confused. However, you got to understand it takes time to build the mind-body trust and for you to get your physical hunger signals back.
During eating disorder recovery, mental hunger is as important as physical hunger since physical hunger may no longer be present after ignoring it for a long time. I used to ask myself, “I don’t know if I’m hungry or not.” Chances are you probably are, as this question would not come into mind if you are not hungry. Asking yourself about food means you are thinking about food which also means you are hungry.
How to Handle Mental Hunger
Eat whenever the thought or questioning of food comes into mind. It’s that simple yet challenging to act upon. As intimidating as it seems, you should trust your mind and eat if you are thinking about food.
An example I like to give is peeing. If you think about peeing, it means you feel like peeing and you want to pee. Therefore, you get up and go to the toilet to pee. The same principle applies to eating. If you are thinking about food, you need to eat food. If you are wondering and confused if you are really hungry or not, you are thinking about food, and you need to eat food.
What if my Mental Hunger wants Junk Food?
Then you jolly well go eat that junk food that you have been craving. And as much of it as you want. This is the period where you should not be concerned about consuming low-calorie, nutrient-dense food. Save that for later when you have recovered.
When your body is malnourished, you crave and seek junk food because junk food is highly processed and high in calories which will reverse the energy deficit in the most efficient way possible compared to low-calorie food groups like vegetables. It is okay to put nutrition last during an eating disorder recovery.
But do not worry. This is only temporary and once your body reaches a state of energy balance, it will naturally begin to prefer a more balanced diet. During this period, do not fight the urge and try to choose a “healthier” alternative to substitute what you really want. Feasting on foods you want will make your mind think that the famine period is over, and you will recover faster.
What is Extreme Hunger?
Extreme hunger is having an enormously large appetite for food. Normal amounts of food don't satisfy you. This is something that you experience after periods of restricted food intake such as dieting or eating disorders. In simple terms, your body is playing “catch up” from being underfed. It does not happen to some people, but most, including me, go through it. A milder version would be if you were to skip your lunch, you will tend to eat more for dinner. That's just how our biology works.
You will know it happens when you have to eat about 5,000-6,000 kcal a day for your hunger to go away and feel satisfied. Eating this amount of food is scary. You may seem like you are eating a lot of food but it is actually needed and important to pay-back for the lack of food previously. This is crucial as your body needs this high number of calories to repair and function optimally during recovery.
How to Handle Extreme Hunger
First off, you got to understand why you are facing extreme hunger. When the body is starved, it requires lots of food depending on the level of restriction and how starved you were. This is needed to come out of an energy deficit. Therefore, you should just eat and listen to that hunger. Yes, you might need lots of food, sometimes even upwards of 6,000 kcal, but do not worry, it will end with consistent eating.
Some resist it, but I reached a point where I did not give a shit anymore and just wanted to recover and get done with my eating disorder. Therefore, I just decided to go all-in and ate whatever and whenever I wanted. I gave no shit about it.
At first, I was afraid my hunger would never stop, and I would continue gaining weight and become obese. But the human body is intelligent. It knows when is enough and thankfully, the insatiable hunger did eventually wane. My weight increased quickly at first during the initial stage of recovery. However, it slowed down, and then one day, I was back to my old weight. My pre-eating disorder weight.
How long will Mental & Extreme Hunger last?
However long it needs to for your body to recover. Those who restricted harsher and for longer periods of time naturally require a longer time. For me, it took me 4 months of consistently eating till I was satisfied before I stopped thinking about food all the time and for my hunger to normalise.
Your body is an intelligent machine. As long as you trust it and eat accordingly to your mental and extreme hunger, your body will gradually come out of an energy deficit and be in a state of energy balance.
Then, the mental hunger will also gradually go away and your brain stops getting feedback from the body that it needs to be constantly fed. Once your extreme hunger dies down and normalise, you also no longer need as much food and calories as before.