How to Work Through the Weight Restoration Phase of Anorexia Nervosa

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Contributor: Kirsten Haglund, Community Relations Representative for Timberline Knolls and Founder and President of the Kirsten Haglund Foundation

One of the biggest fears of those suffering from anorexia is gaining weight. So it makes sense that the weight restoration phase of recovery can be one of the most challenging.

From a purely physiological standpoint, refeeding syndrome can occur, in which potentially deadly electrolyte imbalances can sabotage recovery, even if the individual wants to get better.  It is rare, but certainly does occur.

But equally as challenging is the mental, emotional and spiritual struggle of refeeding and weight restoration, which requires a daily focus on calorie consumption, facing fear foods and weight monitoring. Oversight by a treatment team is essential, but outside the numbers, counting, and rigor of the process, there are ways to soothe the heart and mind during the journey toward health as well.

Yes, it is necessary.

Anorexia Nervosa and Weight Restoration

When I first began to weight restore, my eating disordered brain said, “I’ll just gain enough weight to get my period back, and then I’ll stop.” I tried to think of ways to bargain, ways to deceive my treatment team. I thought that if eating disorders weren’t really about food and weight, then why did I need to gain weight? Couldn’t I just work on the emotional “stuff” without gaining weight? The answer was a giant “NO.”

hand holding dandelionWeight restoration is not an optional part of recovery; it is an essential part. It is not just about facing fear foods, restoring hunger and fullness cues, eating mindfully and discovering true balance and moderation. Even more, it is about returning your mind to a healthy place rather than one in starvation mode, so that you can actually do the emotional work.

I discovered my brain literally changed through the process of weight restoring. I couldn’t fully work with my therapist and engage my emotions until I was weight restored. I just couldn’t access my thoughts and feelings. Weight restoration is absolutely essential for full and complete recovery.

Practice Makes Permanent

As your body gains the weight – and life – that it needs, the eating disorder voice is usually there in full force, condemning you for how weak and fat you are becoming, and how all the “work” you’ve done is now lost. Because I was accountable to my family, my supporters and my treatment team, I had to learn how to combat this voice, and for the first time in my recovery, I realized this voice was lying.

As the body changes during weight restoration, it can be incredibly difficult, but it is also the great opportunity to start practicing healthy and compassionate thoughts toward yourself. Working with my therapist, I started to practice healthier thoughts about my new body as it was coming to be. I found new parts of my body that I loved.

I practiced saying loving and accepting things about myself and my body, even when I didn’t necessarily “feel” them. I discovered that practice makes permanent. Not perfect–no one is perfect. Besides, if you practice negative thoughts about yourself, they become your default, your normal. But if you interrupt the thought process and start to practice positivity – even when you don’t feel like doing it – that can become the new norm. And over time, it absolutely does.

Your Vision Changes

During weight restoration, your vision changes. The most fascinating thing I discovered was that my eyes actually seemed to change. My biggest fears when I started to work with my nutritionist on my food plan to weight restore was that I would hate my body even more once I started to gain weight.

Woman in Field considering anorexia recoveryWell, wasn’t I surprised, shocked, even floored when I reached my goal weight, stood in front of a mirror, and actually liked my body. I didn’t “feel” fat. I didn’t feel like I looked fat, even though my former eating disordered self would have definitely defined me as such. My eyes had changed, somehow.

Through therapy, through the hard work of refeeding, and due to the healthy nutrition my brain had received, my vision had changed. I emphasize this because at the lowest of low, we often don’t believe that we will be satisfied with our healthy self, so we don’t even risk the recovery process. I’m telling you, life on the other side is better, full, and amazing.

And lastly, your vision of your life changes. Refeeding is not just about weight restoring, it is about restoring your soul. My vision of my life changed: what I could do, what I wanted to be, my passions, my values and dreams. My starved eating disorder brain could barely compute anything unrelated to fear, food and weight.

My healthy brain after weight restoration could process love, compassion, courage, relationships, challenges, criticism, and acceptance. My healthy brain realized I wasn’t the center of my own universe, and there was a God who loved me deeply enough to rescue me from my eating disorder. My spiritual vision opened up, which could not have happened otherwise.

Weight restoration can be the hardest phase of recovery, because it involves hard work in your body, your mind, and your soul. But it is worth it, it is essential, and life on the other side is so much better. Trust me.

Community Discussion – Share your thoughts here!

If you have been through weight restoration as part of your treatment, what aspects helped encourage you during this part of your journey?

Kirsten+Haglund+HeadshotAbout the author: Kirsten Haglund continues to work as an advocate for greater awareness of eating disorders and resources for care. Since she won the crown of Miss America 2008, she has spoken on numerous college campuses, worked with youth and church groups domestically and abroad, lobbied Congress with the Eating Disorders Coalition, and started her own non-profit, the Kirsten Haglund Foundation, to raise funds and assist families financially in seeking treatment for eating disorders. She is also the Community Relations Specialist for Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center.


The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer 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.

Last Updated & Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on August 24, 2016
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