Contributor: Staff at Montecatini Eating Disorder Treatment Center
Eating disorder recovery is often described as a journey or process, but at what point does a woman cross over to successful eating disorder recovery? A woman struggling with an eating disorder may have reached a healthy weight and started menstruating again, but she may still find herself struggling with the occasional compulsion to count calories.
When someone is living with a condition in which recovery is described as a process or a journey, can she ever find success?
Murky Criteria for Successful Eating Disorder Recovery
The criteria for successful eating disorder recovery are murky because experts have yet to agree on a single definition. A study in Frontiers in Psychology explored the ways eating disorder recovery has been measured over the years and found that, historically, success has often been measured solely by whether a person is no longer experiencing physical eating disorder symptoms .
Some researchers have defined successful recovery from anorexia nervosa using only body mass index, while others have used both body weight and whether a woman was menstruating. Other experts have added a time frame to recovery criteria, requiring a woman to have maintained healthy body weight, experience a regular menstrual cycle, and no longer struggle with behaviors such as bingeing and purging for at least eight weeks.
Not only are there many variations in how a person may define eating disorder recovery, but also the study authors note that these criteria miss a key component: the state of a woman’s overall wellness.
A More Holistic Definition
Many experts define successful recovery primarily using a medical model, but some people who actually have an eating disorder have a different perspective. Researchers reviewed 18 outcome studies to gain an understanding of the criteria patients use to define successful eating disorder recovery . While patients did say that the reduction of physical eating disorder symptoms was an important factor, they also included criteria such as:
- Healthier relationships
- Personal growth
- Personal autonomy
The researchers found that eating disorder recovery wasn’t like healing from a physical injury such as a broken arm in that, although abatement of the physical aspects of the illness is essential, addressing the emotional components is just as crucial. By using criteria that offers a more holistic approach and accounts for a person’s physical, emotional, social, and behavioral needs, the researchers were able to ascertain the patients’ overall wellness.
Common themes that emerged throughout the meta-analysis involved “finding a new or healthy identity and developing self-insight and self-acceptance.” As the researchers remind us, eating disorder recovery is not about achieving a perfect state. And striving for perfection is certainly a harmful goal for anyone who is struggling with an eating disorder.
Instead, the authors suggest that a new definition for eating disorder recovery is the “ability to adapt and to self-manage in the face of social, physical, and emotional challenges with an overall tendency towards growth in psychological well-being and adequate symptom remission.”
Success Is Personal
Although there have been many terms for eating disorder recovery – a process, a journey, a state – none of those terms seem to offer a suggestion when a woman has attained successful eating disorder recovery or reached her goals.
The criteria for successful eating disorder recovery has been a moving target because it’s ultimately up to the woman living with the condition to decide what success looks like for her. Every person has a path to recovery that is uniquely their own, and they must find the road that is best for them.
But that doesn’t mean that they’re alone. By working with a professional treatment team, a woman who is in recovery from an eating disorder can get expert help in identifying the most beneficial therapies and solutions for her. She can build the skills she needs, such as resilience and adaptability, so that she’s less likely to relapse, and will have a support system available if she struggles with the compulsion to restrict her food intake or binge and purge.
As the researchers noted earlier, defining successful eating disorder recovery does not have to be an “all or nothing” state of perfection. Success is personal to each woman who walks the path of recovery, no matter how others may define it.
Resources: Bachner-Melman, R.; Lev-Ari, L.; Zohar A.H.; and Lev, S.L. (2018). Can recovery from an eating disorder be measured? Toward a standardized questionnaire. Frontiers in Psychology. 9 (2456). 10.3389/fpsyg.2018.02456.  de Vos, J.A.; LaMarre, A.; Radstaak, M.; Bijkerk, C.A.; Bohlmeijer, E.T.; and Westerhof, G.J. (2017). Identifying fundamental criteria for eating disorder recovery: A systematic review and qualitative meta-analysis. Journal of Eating Disorders. 5, 34. https://doi.org/10.1186/s40337-017-0164-0.
About Our Sponsor:
Montecatini provides comprehensive treatment to females age 16 and older who are struggling with eating disorders and co-occurring addiction and mental health concerns. We provide a full continuum of life-changing care, including residential treatment, a partial hospitalization program (PHP), and an intensive outpatient program (IOP). We also offer a wellness center where clients can build healthier relationships with their bodies through joyful movement.
The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective on eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.
We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.
Published January 4, 2021, on EatingDisorderHope.com
Reviewed & Approved on January 4, 2021, by Jacquelyn Ekern MS, LPC