Why Weight Restoration Is So Important in Eating Disorder Recovery
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One of the toughest parts of eating disorder treatment may be weight restoration, or helping a person reach a healthy weight. But as an eating disorder registered dietitian in recovery, I know firsthand that the discomfort of weight restoration—the physical, the emotional, the psychological—is well worth it.

What is weight restoration?

In eating disorder recovery, weight restoration is the process of gaining enough weight to reach a healthy, stable, and sustainable weight for a person's body. Weight restoration can be a challenge for the person in treatment as well as for their loved ones and providers, but it’s an essential part of treatment. Without full weight restoration, full recovery isn’t possible.

When is weight restoration necessary?

Weight restoration isn’t just for people who are underweight. It’s necessary in multiple instances regardless of a person’s body size. These include:

  • When a person loses weight through disordered behaviors
  • When a persons is chronically below their body’s healthy weight (which may be different than what the BMI chart says they “should” be)
  • In the instance of a child or teen, when they experience a drop on their growth chart or fail to gain appropriate weight to support their physical and cognitive growth

The bottom line is this: in order to achieve lasting recovery, full weight restoration is crucial for most eating disorder patients. Read on to learn why this is the case, as well as common questions that both patients and their loved ones have about weight restoration.

Why is weight restoration so important?

In short, weight restoration is essential so that the patient can reach a stable weight that allows them to function optimally.

Contrary to what I was taught in my (traditional) dietetics training and have now unlearned, Body Mass Index (BMI) is not a reliable predictor of a person’s health nor weight, and it’s often a faulty tool for setting an eating disorder patient’s target weight. This means that even if a person’s weight falls into the “healthy BMI range,” they can still be weight-suppressed, meaning they are below their body’s healthy weight. Weight suppression comes with many significant psychological and physical health risks.

Weight suppression symptoms

Brandy Minks, an RD specializing in eating disorders, says that not gaining adequate weight can cause a poor quality of life due to “debilitating physical or mental symptoms.” Those symptoms can include:

Caroline Thomason, an eating disorder registered dietitian, adds, “Further, if weight suppression reaches the point of malnutrition, it can have even more serious consequences like decreased immune function and risk for osteoporosis.”

Another significant physical risk of weight suppression is functional hypothalamic amenorrhea (FHA), or the absence of regular periods in those who should be menstruating. FHA can cause infertility, poor bone health, declining heart health, and unstable hormones. This happens because when someone is below their body’s healthy weight, their body will distribute its minimal energy to critical organs (like the heart) to ensure they stay alive; meanwhile, the reproductive system basically shuts down until it has enough energy and fat to work again.

The mental effect of weight restoration

Weight restoration can also provide a pivotal mental shift for eating disorder patients. Weight suppression can help keep an eating disorder alive by allowing the disease to maintain its grip on a person’s mind. Despite food intake being largely improved, every single one of my clients who was still weight-suppressed reported being consumed with eating disorder thoughts and thoughts of food until they had achieved full weight restoration. This was true even if they “looked healthy” and were eating what seemed to be a “normal” amount.

Weight suppression can also prevent progress in other areas of treatment, like individual therapy. Without a clear connection to their body and a relatively clear mind, it can be futile for patients to attempt to do the deeper work.

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What are the benefits of weight restoration?

Although it can be a hard process for both patients and their loved ones, reaching full weight restoration is well worth the struggle. In addition to avoiding all of the mental and physical risks outlined above, weight restoration also comes with many benefits for those struggling with an eating disorder.

Physical health

Physically, weight restoration supports healing across several body systems, including the cardiovascular, skeletomuscular, immune and reproductive systems. For example, anemia is a typical condition I see in my clients who are malnourished and weight-suppressed. Anemia directly affects immune health—making it harder to fight off illness and infections—and heart health—putting clients at risk for developing serious cardiac complications. Thankfully, with an adequate and relatively balanced intake along with weight restoration, anemia can be reversed.

“Weight restoration allows the body to heal from macro- and micronutrient deficiencies, resulting in significant quality of life improvements,” Minks says.

Mental health

Research shows adequate weight gain is one of the best predictors of psychological improvement and reduced eating disorder symptoms. Another study showed an association between weight restoration and improved mental processing speed in kids and teens with anorexia nervosa.

In my practice, one of the most common symptoms I observe in clients who are restricting (even slightly) and weight suppressed is the mind being nearly or completely consumed with thoughts of food. Weight restoration allows a patient to get rid of their scarcity mindset and eliminate this preoccupation.

Social life

Early on in our work together, I ask my clients to draw a pie chart showing the percentages of brain space that thoughts of food takes up. Their charts always show food taking up at least 75 percent, with only 25 percent left (at most) for the entire rest of their life. Once they’ve become weight-restored, their new pie chart will typically show food taking up around 10 percent of brain space, leaving most of it free for a whole life, full of family, friends, passions, education, and work.

Common questions about weight restoration

Weight restoration can feel daunting or confusing at first for patients and their families at first, especially if their patient doesn’t seem ‘underweight.’ Here are some of the most common questions about weight restoration, and their answers. ’

Why is my or my loved one’s target weight so high?

In the weight restoration process, a person’s target weight (typically set by their RD and doctor) is typically at least their weight prior to eating disorder onset and sometimes higher. In the case of children, teens, and younger adults, it’s almost always higher in order to support healthy development. Sometimes, a person’s target weight is higher than what may seem to be a “healthy” or acceptable weight, according to society’s narrow standards.

Weight stigma [or bias against larger-bodied people] is the main reason for resistance to target weights that seem too high,” says Minks. “I’ve had families and providers voice that if the patient gains ‘too much weight’ they will no longer be healthy, or will develop diseases like diabetes or heart disease, or will not be attractive or find a partner.” Not only are these beliefs untrue, but they also ignore the fact that if a patient fails to reach their true target weight, they cannot be fully rid of their eating disorder.

Like Minks, I often help clients and their loved ones gently pull back the veil on diet culture and see that recovering into a larger body is okay and often necessary. In fact, weight and health are not synonyms: it is entirely possible to live in a larger body and be a healthy, happy human, and body diversity is part of human biology.

Can you lower your target weight?

Patients and their families might feel overwhelmed at the idea of reaching a higher-than-expected target weight, so it may feel more attainable or realistic to lower it. However, lowering the target weight (if it was set appropriately) will often make reaching full recovery harder, because this is exactly what the eating disorder desires. As writer and eating disorder recovery activist Emily Boring put it in a 2021 podcast interview, “When in doubt, aim higher.”

Why is weight restoration necessary if someone looks healthy?

One of the most dangerous misconceptions about eating disorders is the belief that we can tell how sick a person is based on their weight and appearance. “While a patient may be doing ‘better than before,’ there are often still signs that more weight restoration is needed,” says Minks. She says some of those signs include:

  • Binge eating
  • Abnormal hunger
  • Fullness cues
  • Preoccupation with food
  • Ongoing physical symptoms that can’t be tied to another medical issue (like frequent colds or digestive issues).

What are common weight restoration challenges?

Some of the most common obstacles that patients face while working towards weight restoration include:

  • Resistance: One of the most significant challenges to weight restoration is fighting the mental resistance that can occur. The eating disorder voice can be so loud that it’s incredibly difficult for eating disorder patients to see the motivation for gaining weight at first. This is why the support of friends and family can be so helpful at this stage.
  • Co-occuring conditions: Most eating disorder patients have some kind of co-occurring condition, like depression or OCD. During the weight restoration process, the way these other conditions present can shift in unpredictable ways. That’s why it’s key to treat all conditions simultaneously.
  • Needing to set a higher target weight: Sometimes a patient’s care team can assess over time that someone’s target weight needs to be higher. This can be especially true for patients that are still growing.
  • Relapse: it’s very common to go through periods of ‘relapse,’ where someone starts restricting again. Leaning into your treatment team can help you get back on track.

How long does weight restoration take?

The timeline of achieving weight restoration is different depending on many factors including initial weight, target weight, and severity of eating disorder symptoms. For most people who need weight restoration, they can expect to start gaining weight in the first few months of treatment. At Equip, for example, 86% of patients are gaining weight by week 8, and 70% have achieved full weight restoration after one year.

What does weight restoration feel like?

Like all aspects of eating disorder recovery, this can vary greatly from person to person. In general, the weight restoration process can often be an emotional one. At first, it may be scary, frustrating or upsetting to gain weight. This is because the eating disorder brain can be very powerful in creating a fear of weight gain. Over time, however, patients report feeling physically and mentally better. They have greater energy levels, their mood is more stabilized, and their mindset about their body image can start to shift.

Recovery is all about re-establishing a life worth living, one that is aligned with a person’s needs and desires, and being weight suppressed makes it significantly more difficult to do so. It may be challenging, but weight restoration gives people the mental and emotional energy they need to live in connection with their core values and pour themselves into the parts of life that mean the most to them—like family, travel, and joy—instead of pouring everything they have into their eating disorder.

Two women sitting at a counter in a brightly lit kitchen, while one woman pulls food out of a brown paper bag
Worried you or a loved one need weight restoration? Schedule a free consultation to talk to our team of experts.
Take the first step

Caroline Young
Contributing Writer, RD
Clinically reviewed by:
Erin Reeves, RD
Director of Nutrition at Equip
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