What to Expect when you Stop Dieting Part 3: What the Heck is Happening to Me?

This blog series is an exerpt from my book ‘Taking Up Space: a Guide to Escaping the Diet Maze’.


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We discussed identifying disordered eating in Part 1, and the path out of the maze in Part 2. Now we’re going to get into the nitty gritty of what happens to the body when it’s finally getting adequate calories and nutrition after a long period of either undereating, or inconsistent eating. Each person’s experience is unique, and largely dependent on their history of restriction and their current state of health. If you are dealing with symptoms of malnutrition or disordered eating, do NOT attempt to undertake the process of refeeding on your own. It can be dangerous, and you need to be monitored by a medical professional.

Your Eatopia really has the most in depth description of the stages of recovery from restrictive eating. Most of what I’ll share here is an overview of the info presented there. I’ll also add my own observations of the experiences of clients and readers. Some people won’t have any of these symptoms, some will have only mild symptoms, and some will have them all. I can’t give any guarantees, or tell you how long it will take your body to heal, or tell you how extreme your symptoms will be. I can only tell you what is normal, and that you WILL get through it. In general, the longer and ‘harder’ you’ve restricted, the more extreme your recovery symptoms will be, and I’ll reiterate again the importance of working with a medical professional if you are dealing with disordered eating and/or starvation symptoms. Some common symptoms of refeeding:

Weight Gain

Almost everyone sees an initial 5-10 pound bump in scale weight. This is fluid retention, and completely normal. It is not fat. Your body holds on to extra water as it begins the process of tissue repair, think DOMS, but on a more systemic level. If you’ve been restricting carbs, or calories drastically, your muscles will also reglycogenate, and this can bring a 5+ pound bump in scale weight from the water that is bound to glycogen. It is normal and healthy! This edema seems to resolve at the 6-8 week mark for the majority of people.

Some people continue to gain weight because their body needs it. They may have been maintaining a weight or body fat percentage that was too low for their body to function optimally at. What I’m saying is, some people need to gain weight, even if they don’t think they do. A person may wish to look like a runway model or maintain a very low BMI or body fat percentage, but their body may need to weigh more to be healthy. Health is the priority here.

A few people continue to gain weight because they’ve overestimated their activity level, or are underestimating their calorie intake. If you don’t have a history of extreme restriction, and your weight continues to climb beyond the 6-8 week mark, and you’re at the upper end of your healthy weight range, take a long and honest look at your activity and your calorie intake. You may simply be eating more than your activity level demands. It’s an easy fix. Either increase your activity or decrease your calories modestly.

Go Maleo wrote a good post on calorie underestimating and metabolic derangement. There are two things worth noting here. In the study that looked at 10 women who all believed that their metabolisms were ‘slow’, in reality all but one of them were burning 2500 calories or more per day (the one study participant who truly did have a depressed metabolic rate had hypothyroid issues). Most of them were also drastically underestimating their calorie intake, hence their inability to lose weight. If you’re gaining weight at what you believe is an appropriate intake, it may be a good idea to spend a few days really weighing and measuring everything you’re eating, to make sure you’re really eating what you think you’re eating. If you are, then a visit to an endocrinologist is in order, there may be an underlying illness that needs to be addressed.


I discussed edema a bit already. This really throws a lot of people for a loop. You feel squishy and swollen. Your rings don’t fit, your clothes feel snug, your ankles swell and disappear. This is all normal. Your body is retaining water to aid in the cellular repair process. Most people see a 5-10 pound bump in weight but 15 or even 20 pounds isn’t unheard of. It’s uncomfortable, I won’t lie. It’s temporary though. Many people see it start to subside within a couple weeks, most see it resolve by the 6-8 week mark. You can read more about the edema of recovery here.

Digestive Distress

If you’ve been undereating for any length of time, your body has slowed your digestive processes. When you increase the volume of food you’re consuming, your GI system can’t quite keep up, so you’ll experience bloating, gas and other lovely discomforts. If you’ve restricted macronutrients or food groups, your gut flora may have been seriously altered, and will take time to repopulate. People can mistake this for an intolerance, so giving your system time to repair and adjust is important. Again, this can cause bloating, gas, distension and poor digestion. Like edema, this is a normal stage of recovery. You will get through it. You may look 6 months pregnant for a few weeks, but you will get through it. Eating smaller meals more frequently, and taking probiotics, can help ease some of these symptoms.

Fatigue and Joint Pain

For the most part, the fatigue and joint pain are a normal physiological response to the process of cellular repair. Gwyneth Olwyn says that this pain is your body’s way of forcing you to rest, and I like that way of looking at it.

Belly Fat Accumulation

In the early stages of recovery, as your weight begins to restore, the body preferentially stores fat around the internal organs. In combination with the edema and bloating from digestive distress, this can be very distressing and even trigger relapse. In time, this fat redistributes to a more normal distribution pattern. Be patient and allow your body to do what it needs to do to recover fully.

Increased Libido

Not all of the body’s responses to refeeding are negative! Many people experience a dramatic increase in libido and sexual response. During starvation, the body shuts down reproductive function. When you are getting adequate nutrition again, reproductive hormones rev back up. Enjoy!

Increased Energy

Lots of people experience dramatic improvements in energy levels. Workouts become more enjoyable, strength and stamina increase, and the body begins building new muscle mass. Even though they may see an increase in scale weight, measurements and pictures show that it is lean mass that is increasing.

Hair, Skin and Nail Improvements

Better nutrition means your hair skin and nails get the nutrients they need to thrive.

Improved Thyroid Function

We’ve had several people experience reversal of hypothyroid in our Eating the Food group. Again, if you have a medical condition like hypothyroid, work with a qualified medical professional (an endocrinologist for example) in addition to any dietary changes you make. Do not rely on bloggers, alternative health practitioners or diet books for treatment of medical conditions.

Changes in Self Perception

Disordered eating can mess with your mind. Most people with eating disorders have distorted body images, and lack of adequate energy intake can trigger and magnify these disordered thoughts. Many people, when finally getting adequate calories, begin to have a more realistic self image, realizing that their body really isn’t as abnormal as their disorder led them to believe. This is my favorite change to observe, the moment when a person realizes that there is, in reality, nothing wrong with their body. It is life changing.

Recovery is a mixed bag. Parts of it are wonderful, and parts of it can be so unpleasant that a person relapses to restrictive behaviors. Fortunately there are communities of people who’ve powered through and come out the other said (I linked to them in Part 2). Please seek out community support, it is so important to know you are not alone and there is a light at the end of the tunnel! A supportive community and a qualified treatment team can set you on a path to a healthy relationship with food and a healthy body image. You deserve to be healthy and thrive, free of the burden of obsession and disorder.






24 thoughts on “What to Expect when you Stop Dieting Part 3: What the Heck is Happening to Me?

  1. Pingback: What to Expect When You Stop Dieting Part 2: How Do I Do This | Go Kaleo

  2. This series of posts are well timed! Thank you.

    Is the weight gain and edema also seen in very large people? I’d assume so? I didn’t think I ate too little, but when I checked…1900-2100 day when my TEE is 3800. So, I’ve been eating 3000-3200 a day and feeling rather bloated.

    Anyway…thank you times a million for all this info!

    • Yes, I think anyone who has restricted can experience any of these symptoms. Every body is unique, and every recovery is unique.

  3. Thanks for the great articles, Go Kaleo! I started re-feeding about 3 months ago, after discovering 180DegreeHealth, and after a “switch flipped” and I was ready to STOP DIETING and START EATING! I experienced all of the above symptoms, and I don’t think I’ve fully recovered yet…too many years of damage to overcome in just 3 months. I started refeeding at a comfortable weight (122 lbs at a petite 5’3″), and I’ve put on 15 lbs. Most of the fat is in my belly, as stated in your blog post. For the first 2 or 2 1/2 months, I was exhausted!! No energy whatsoever. I felt sluggish, sleepy, worthless. But, I believe that was during the most intense re-building part of my recovery. Now, my energy is back, my nails and hair are growing well, I sleep like a rock, I don’t pee every half hour all…day…long, my digestion seems to be working better, I actually want to have sex (I haven’t given a rat’s ass about it for YEARS), my mood is more stable, my period is shorter and less painful… Amazing what sufficient calories will do for ya!

  4. WOW… haven’t started afraid too but so fascinated… is there a way to subscribe to all the comments for this series of articles…

  5. I cannot even come close to thanking you … you changed my life … and every time i feel i am slipping i find some life saving article like this one … today i am a more healthier happier person than i have ever been … much of this is because of you … your articles have so much common sense and integrity that they easily shatter all my previous beliefs … i am grateful that i was able to recover … it’s like your body wants to recover and live a better life if you just let it do what is was made to do … thank you again … and please don’t stop writing … i am serious you are a life saver

  6. Having fixed my bad relationship with food and exercise, I definitely noticed that my disordered body image began to improve. When I look at certain photos now, I usually am either shocked at how skinny I got, or I see photos from when I was my heaviest a few years ago and think, “I actually wasn’t so bad”. Before, I never thought I was skinny enough, and when I weighed my heaviest I thought I looked like an elephant.

    While it’s still not perfect, I’ve noticed a HUGE improvement, and it definitely is incredibly freeing.

  7. Pingback: Eating the Food | Fat Fitness 2.0

  8. Great article! I can definitely relate to it as I’m a former dieter/binger. I’ve experienced some of those effects you described. I’ve written my story below..sorry it’s so long. Maybe someone will find this useful..
    It feels good to not obsess about food. In high school, I tried out various diets- low fat, high fat ( raw meat too- eek!), paleo, PHD, etc. I also gradually cut down my calories, reaching as low as 1200 per day and giving myself extra points for going even lower. I was convinced that I was eating healthier than everybody else. I even argued with family members over not allowing me to skip certain foods. When they didn’t let me have my way, I devised ways to throw away ‘forbidden’ foods I was given.

    At the same time, I was feeling quite depressed for a variety of reasons. In my last year of high school, all that dieting and increasing stress from school work led to my first binge eating episode. My binging became more frequent but when I graduated, I was close to being underweight. Some of family said that I looked too thin whereas I thought that my body fat% was too high.

    When I entered college, I truly lost control of my eating. In the privacy of my dorm room, it was so easy to sneak in food. I ate as much as 4-5k of calories per day without exercising. I was disgusted and ashamed of myself but I kept on binging. My mental issues from high school also worsened. I tried to stop binging. Some days were better than others but overall, I allowed myself to become a food addict.

    I also lost my period. By the end of my first year of college, I had gained 35-40+ lb along with numerous stretch marks on my lower body. At the time, I was somewhat overweight.

    When the school year ended, I vowed to stop binging and start eating like a normal person again. And so far, I think I’m doing alright. I’ve slowly lost about half of the weight I’ve gained. Now I’m normal weight according to the BMI- higher range of normal but I’m fine with that. My period came back too (annoying but a relief too after months of bloodlessness) and the stretch marks have faded a bit (fade faster please!).

    Although I returned home, to a environment that is less conducive to binging than college, I feel that I’ve taken back control of my eating. I still follow a few guidelines for eating (minimize PUFAs for example ) but if I want ice cream, I’ll have a small bowl–just not a whole carton like back in my binging days.

    However, my eating is not perfect- My appetite ‘sensor’ is still kinda screwed up so I’m still trying to learn to listen to my appetite. But what has really helped me is activity. Not just physical activity but also learning and creating things. Currently, I’m trying to become an artist so I’m drawing everyday.

    I really regret all the time I spent in high school and my 1st year of college obsessing over diets and stuffing my face, time that I’ve could’ve spent cultivating relationships and following my passions. Of course, I can’t change the past so I try to focus on the possibilities of today and tomorrow.

    I am glad though, that I am probably more aware of nutrition and health issues than an average person of my age. I sometimes feel a bit scared that I might fall into the dieting-binging cycle again but I think maintaining good habits is the best method of prevention.

  9. “Bloating” seems to be a female thing, I have never heard a man complain of bloating. Near as I can tell it means “I have to fart a lot,” or maybe “I am backed up,” but it is definitely code for something. I had a girlfriend once who I used to run with, and she insisted on running ten yards or so behind me, in case she farted. She figured the ten yards would be enough to keep me from hearing her fart.

    Do women just “bloat” out of nowhere? What is the deal with the bloating? Does it happen when you have gone a long time without peeing?

    • I think men get it too, they just call it ‘gas’, and they’re more apt to let it out, hence they don’t get the same distention and discomfort. '?

  10. Thank you so much for this! Earlier this year I “went Paleo” and started reading a lot of “real food” blogs and by July I realized that the obsession I had over food because of it was clearly unhealthy. I was either terrified of eating or would just binge. For the past two months, I’ve started trying to eat around 2000-2200 calories (which is still too low unless I’m just sitting around all day). I’ve experienced every single one of those symptoms and honestly have been freaking out thinking all the hard work I’ve put into the past almost year and half was disappearing. I had lost 40 lbs since May 2012, and have gained nearly 20 in the past two months! This really gives me hope that I’m doing the right thing.

  11. Amber–just wanted to first say, thank you for sharing your journey and all that you do in researching and sharing what you learn with the rest of us. When I came across your blog, it was a real eye opener.

    I’m going through the process of increasing my intake to support my activity level per the calculators you linked in another post, but I’d like to get your input. I lift weights about 4 days a week, for anywhere from an hour to two hours. I lift to build strength, so I’m aiming at increasing max weight for no more than 5 reps. It’s definitely a workout, but it’s not heart-racing, sweat-soaked work (maybe sweat spritzed, with a drip here and there).

    How should I characterize this level of activity to check against those calculators? Between moderate or vigorous…?

  12. This is such a great blog post!! I found it through Tara’s blog at Sweat like a Pig. I’ve recently given up dieting and moved to intuitive eating and am currently in that uncomfortable gained some weight stage. It is inspiring to know more of the science behind it and what is happening. I’ve noticed my nails lately have been stronger and I didn’t think anything of it in connecting it with normal non diet eating but now I see the connection :)

  13. Pingback: 2000 calories on ONE DOLLAR a day (& acting like junk food is cool) | Anarchist Kitchen Blog

  14. I have come to the conclusion that diets don’t work and so am very happy to have found your blog. I am already confused though. I checked the counter that Go Maleo mentioned in his blog and it said over 3000 (5’4″ 230lbs). But when I go to a calculator I can use regularly like myfitnesspal, it says to only eat 1200-1500. Is this more dissonance?

    • No, many of the calculators on the diet websites give unsustainably low calorie targets. I don’t know why they do this. Fat secret is one that doesn’t do that, though. And the calc Go Maleo (and I) linked to is much more accurate.

  15. Hi. :)
    I’m getting back in to reading your blog again. I have a few questions, and if you already have stuff that talks about it, please point me towards those posts.
    Short history – I’m 36, have weighed 180-225 since I was 14 (where I gained 50 lbs in one year), and find it very difficult to lose weight. Only in the last five years have I realized that “eat less, weigh less” is a bunch of crap, and have been eating 1200-1500 cals a day for pretty much the last 15 years. I don’t do it on purpose any more, but that’s where I tend to default to. I’ve started tracking my calories so I can see where I am, so I can start increasing.

    I wrote half a damn novel, and am editing so I don’t put y’all to sleep.

    So, questions – how the heck do you eat more food? Right now, I already feel full usually (although, reading “hungry and full” elseblog nearly made me cry… that’s usually where I am, but I thought, I still have food in my stomach, and I feel full, how can I feel hungry ), and that’s my cue to stop eating. Can someone point me towards resources for good ways to incorporate more calories into my diet? I currently avoid gluten, dairy, corn, soy, refined sugars, as per various doctor’s orders over the years. I fudge here and there with them, to the point I’m comfortable (as in, doesn’t make me feel like poo), although gluten seems to always make me feel horrible. I put sheep’s milk feta in my eggies, or fresh berries and a little fresh whipped cream and chocolate ganache, or gf toast slathered in butter and jam. I have read your views on restricted foods, and am trying to assimilate it and see how to make it work for me.

    I just finished my first (and probably only) whole30 and am thoroughly disillusioned by other people telling me what to eat. With my current diet, it only succeeded in taking out the foods I really enjoy now. I’m doing the reintros to see if I have any latent sensitivities I don’t know about, and then plan to go back to my normal normal. I didn’t really lose weight, and the only difference was that my massage therapist said I had less inflammation and was able to work more deeply on me (which is good, but not everything, you know?).

    So, if you please, info on how to eat more (as I often feel overwhelmed with food amounts as it is, but am working to eat more frequently), and any other info you think might help me. :)

    As I just landed here today, I am… doing my best to not be overwhelmed by the fact that I may have some sort of ED. I had already thought about finding a nutritionist or dietician, although that’s kind of scary, because what if they say “gee, 1500 cals a day is just fine, you’re just lazy or lying”. But I’m thinking on it.

    (guh, it ended up being a novella, despite my best efforts, sorry)

  16. What is your take on people going on restrictive diets for things like Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth, or food intolerance’s/allergies? I have ALWAYS had digestive distress, literally as long as I can remember. I was in the first grade and had a doctors note saying I didn’t have to ask to go to the bathroom because my bowels were THAT screwed up already. I started going on restrictive diets about 7 years ago to combat this, and while it’s gotten MUCH better I’ve yet to actually TRUST that I’m healthy with a robust digestive system that functions correctly I think a LOT of this is tied up in restrictive-eating anxiety and has produced lots of other problems, cue my recently diagnosed paranoia disorder. I’m so confused! If what and how much we eat does not cause the problems then what the heck causes all these gut issues?! Just stress' I can’t imagine how GMO’s, pesticides, overly-processed foods, trans fats and refined sugars would NOT cause digestive distress and/or weight gain. Or do you agree that those things are not things we should consume and we SHOULD be concerned with ingesting them….we should focus on eating whole foods and as much whole foods as we need? Is that the whole idea? I’m getting lost in all the scientific information everywhere, haha.

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