Weight loss and ED Recovery - Can the two go together?

April 18, 2024

The eating disorder recovery journey can be a complicated experience with many ups and downs. It’s further complicated when we all exist in a culture that focuses so much on body shape and size. While you’re working through the layers of an eating disorder and exploring your beliefs about health and body, the question, “Can weight loss and eating disorder recovery go together?” might arise. And you’re not alone if that question comes up for you. 

You might have desired or pursued a specific body shape or size; yet at the same time, recognized the harm that pursuit has brought to your mind and body. Whether it’s culture, family, religion, or the pressure we put on ourselves, we are surrounded by fatphobia, diets, and weight loss talk. It’s normalized in what feels like everyday conversation. Of course, we might wonder if weight loss is something we all should still pursue; if we can try to lose weight when we’re “at a better place with our relationship with food,” or even have desires to lose weight during recovery. Changes in our bodies during recovery might cause those thoughts to grow even stronger. Even though we’re nourishing our bodies, and feeling strength and energy return, we can still wonder and wish for a different body. “Maybe it’ll be different if I find a ‘healthy’ way to do this,” – we might wonder as we work through recovery.  

So, can weight loss and eating disorder recovery go together? Well, just like recovery–it’s complicated. Here are four things we should consider regarding weight loss:

One. Studies have shown over and over again that intentional weight loss (i.e., body size manipulation, whether we call it a diet, lifestyle change, health journey, etc.) has a 95% failure rate. Weight loss methods also fail to meet the criteria for ethical interventions, so there may not be a “healthy” way of pursuing weight loss. We see that intentional weight loss doesn’t stick in the long run. The restrict-binge cycle or weight cycling (the cycle of losing weight and gaining the weight back) that can come from weight loss attempts leads to worse outcomes for our health. Even knowing this, a wellness industry that thrives off the desire and pursuit for a thinner body continues to exist. 

Two. Pursuing weight loss could delay your recovery. The pursuit of weight loss typically involves eating less, moving more, or “compensating” where you can. If your eating disorder already involves this, continuing to pursue weight loss may make it harder to recover–both physically and mentally. The sooner you eat adequately and nourish your body, the sooner you’ll get back to your full life and positively impact your long-term health. It doesn’t matter if you’re in a smaller or larger body, not eating enough or moving too much will negatively impact your health. Sure, at a later stage of recovery, some might find their weight lowers–but this is not the purpose of recovery. You don’t need to recover into a lower weight or a smaller body to get better. 

Three. Consider your values for yourself and your life. If we know intentional weight loss doesn’t work out long-term or can harm us, why do we pursue it? Here is where we tap into our reasons for weight loss. Is it safety? Acceptance? Comfort? Control? Our society’s version of health? We can also investigate our values. Values guide our actions in moments of uncertainty and help us make decisions that remain true to what's important. Some examples of values can be curiosity, self-acceptance, connection, or adventure. Exploring the reasons why you may pursue weight loss, understanding your values, and checking how pursuing weight loss may align or conflict with your values can help make a decision that honors you.

Four. What are your reasons for recovery, and what might it bring you? Does the pursuit of both feel aligned in some places or directly clash in others? What do you gain or lose (no pun intended) in both processes? Suppose it feels like your values and desires for weight loss or recovery are constantly fighting. You want to lose weight, but you also want a more peaceful relationship with food. You’re exhausted from the constant thoughts about your body. In that case, this may be a sign that pursuing weight loss could be more harmful than helpful. You may think back to when you pursued weight loss and what that experience was like. From the food fears, tracking macros or calories, and the stress of self-criticism, is that an experience you’re willing to try again? We can acknowledge how difficult it is to want weight loss deeply and at the same time, recognize we can’t continue the cycle of harm anymore. We may need to grieve the “ideal” body we wished for and the version of life we thought would come with it. And perhaps we dream of the possibilities when we’re not making ourselves shrink. 

Like many areas of our lives and health, the answer for pursuing weight loss during eating disorder recovery is not black and white. It’s complicated and nuanced, and only you and your team can decide what is the best decision for you. If the desire for weight loss comes up for you quite often during recovery, you’re not alone, and you’re not doing recovery “wrong.” You deserve support as you navigate these complicated thoughts and feelings. We must give ourselves context and compassion as we navigate a world that puts so much pressure to have a “perfect” body. At Arise, you can have a dedicated team that meets you where you're at and understands these questions. Reach out to Arise and we'll connect you to advocates and clinicians who can help you navigate these questions and support your recovery journey.