What is eating disorder recovery?

What is eating disorder recovery, and how do you know what it looks like? It’s a harder question than it may seem to be. Because the fact is that just as every eating disorder is unique, every recovery is unique, too.

Defining recovery can be a tricky business, especially since one person’s recovery can look very different from another person’s. In the medical model, insurance providers often define recovery based on weight or an ability to control behavioral urges. Let’s look a little deeper …

What does recovery mean?

Recovery from an eating disorder looks different for each individual. Most insurance companies and treatment providers are looking for key metrics to say an eating disorder is in remission. On a very simple level, they’re looking for the following measurements of recovery in people who have an eating disorder:

  • Binge Eating Disorder: no binge eating episodes
  • Bulimia: no binge eating and purging episodes
  • Anorexia: maintaining a weight above “underweight” according to BMI
  • EDNOS: no restriction, binge eating, or purging
  • ARFID: more food variety
  • Orthorexia: more food flexibility

However, those are the bare minimum recovery metrics. Eating disorders are mental illnesses that should not be judged based on individual behaviors or weight. A full recovery from an eating disorder will also include:

  • Reduced food fear/increased food flexibility
  • Lower fear of weight gain
  • No compulsive exercise
  • Fewer episodes of “body checking”
  • Freedom to socialize without food rules
  • Increased emotional literacy
  • Improved self-worth
  • Lower anxiety
  • Better coping skills
  • More interpersonal boundaries
  • Clearer sense of identity

Each person will define recovery in their own way. While it is a great goal to reduce dangerous behaviors (e.g. weight), if that’s all we focus on, the person is at higher risk of relapse.

Think of it this way: if you have a broken bone, you get a cast. The bone may heal nicely, but when the cast is removed you often need occupational therapy and special exercises to gain full movement again. Some people with the exact same break will need more post-cast care than others. And different bones and breaks require different post-cast care. In other words, even in seemingly simple cases, recovery can vary greatly. It can’t be measured by a single metric.

What does it feel like to be in recovery from an eating disorder?

I asked hundreds of people who are in recovery about their experience. Here are some of their answers:

“For me, recovery means not thinking about food all the time or worrying about my weight. I feel a lot more free, and as if I can do things that were frightening for me before.”

“I’ve been in recovery for a few years, and it’s a lot harder than I thought it would be. I sometimes feel ashamed when I relapse, but then other times I remember that it’s pretty common. So I try not to beat myself up when it happens, and instead get myself back to therapy and on the meal plan that I know works for me.”

“Now I can order a pizza and eat a few slices. I wrap up the leftovers and put them in the freezer to eat later. This may not seem like a big deal, but it is! Before I would have not ordered the pizza because I was afraid I would binge. But then I would order it and binge anyway. It was an awful, stressful cycle. Being able to keep pizza in the house is a major win for me.”

“I never knew how much anxiety I had – my eating disorder masked it all. So now I notice that I am pretty anxious. I’m still learning how to cope with it – it’s not easy. But I think I’m getting better at it.”

“I’m not going to the gym for hours every day or measuring my macros. I try to exercise a little bit every day, but there’s definitely a limit.”

“The ability to go out for ice cream with my friends and not have to pretend to eat or make excuses for why I’m not hungry. Now I just eat the ice cream and enjoy the moment.”

“I have a whole new relationship with my family now. We barely talked before recovery, but now we’re actually close. It’s like when I went into recovery they all took responsibility and learned new stuff.”

“I worry a lot about relapse. While I’m technically “in recovery,” I don’t really feel “recovered.” I still have a lot of intrusive thoughts and worry about my weight. I don’t know what it will take to stop those things, but I’m trying.”

Can people recover from an eating disorder?

Yes, people can definitely recover from an eating disorder. But exactly how you define that depends on the circumstances. Recovery looks different for each person. So recovery can include:

  • A complete elimination of eating disorder behaviors, body shame, and food fears
  • No more eating disorder behaviors, but still struggle with disordered thoughts like body shame and food rules
  • Technically meet the medical requirements for recovery but still restrict food, weigh themselves, and exercise to maintain control
  • Spend the majority of their time not using eating disorder behaviors, but relapse occasionally
  • Go between recovery and relapse frequently
  • Are considering recovery
  • Are trying to recover

It makes sense if you assume that the people at the top of the list are in “real” recovery and the people at the bottom of the list are somehow doing it wrong. But that’s not the case.

Eating disorders are complex, and we can’t measure recovery based on our assumptions about what is good and bad. In fact, this sort of black and white thinking is a hallmark of eating disorders.

So if you or someone you love is anywhere on the list above, that is recovery success! Of course we would love for everyone to find food freedom and the end of body hate. But we hold ourselves back from appreciating success if we hold people to standards that are currently impossible for them to meet.

If you want to learn more about how you can help your child recover, please reach out for parent coaching. I’d be glad to help!

Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating disorders and body hate.

She’s the editor of More-Love.org and a Parent Coach who helps parents handle their kids’ food and body issues.

Disclaimer: This is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this Website.

Published by Ginny Jones

My mission is to help reduce body hate, disordered eating, and eating disorders.

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