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Learn more about the results we get at Within

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Eating disorder recovery and meaningful living

Eating disorder recovery is an incredibly personal and vulnerable journey, and everyone’s process may look different. But the most important thing when recovering from disordered eating habits is healing a troubling relationship with food, eating patterns, body image, and movement. And recovery is often a time for self-discovery, with many people finding new sources of joy and meaning in eating disorder recovery.  

 minutes read
Last updated on 
October 27, 2023
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In this article

What does it mean to "recover" from an eating disorder?

People in eating disorder recovery are in the process of healing from an eating disorder—this may involve weight restoration as well as normal eating and movement patterns, but that’s just part of it. Many eating disorder experts agree that recovery ideally includes psychological, physical, and behavioral elements, although not all professionals take this approach.1

The reality is there is a lack of consensus in the eating disorder field about what constitutes eating disorder recovery. In the past, providers tended to focus too much on the physical aspect, such as a return of menses and weight restoration, which is only a piece of the puzzle.1

Behavioral components tend to include the absence of disordered eating behaviors, such as:1

And psychological aspects might involve the absence of obsessive thoughts about eating, food, and body image, self-criticism, negative self-talk, subscribing to diet culture, equating body weight and size with self-worth, and body dissatisfaction. The psychological component is important because, often, these thoughts and beliefs are precursors to relapse.1

Ultimately, recovering from an eating disorder is a lifelong process full of challenges and victories, and everyone may define their own recovery differently.

Person watering a plant in a pot

Is full recovery from an eating disorder possible?

It’s not possible to answer this question without defining what “full recovery” is or what it looks like, which can be difficult. When it comes to recovering from an eating disorder, a person’s lived experience is important to consider and respect.2

Research indicates that one definition of eating disorder recovery doesn’t take the wide range of human experiences into consideration. A mindful and empowering definition of full recovery is patient-centered and multi-faceted.2

Keeping that in mind, many people with eating disorder behaviors are able to heal their relationship to food, eating, and movement, drastically improving disordered eating symptoms and maladaptive thought patterns.2 Even if there is no “cure,” people in eating disorder recovery can live joyful, healthy lives. 

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What does the recovery process look like?

Many people struggling with an eating disorder benefit from a professional eating disorder treatment program, which can occur in many settings, such as:3

  • Inpatient
  • Residential
  • Partial hospitalization programs
  • Intensive outpatient programs
  • Standard outpatient

In addition, virtual and remote treatment options are available, which can provide patients with more flexibility in their eating disorder care. 

These eating disorder treatment programs create individualized treatment plans tailored to meet each patient’s needs. Treatment plans may include various types of individual therapy, group therapy, family therapy, psychiatric medications, trauma-specific therapies, support groups, nutritional counseling, and more from a dedicated treatment team, including mental health professionals.

Individuals who are on their recovery journey may exhibit many signs and changes, including:1,2

  • Weight restoration (if applicable)
  • Menses (if applicable)
  • Absence of disordered eating behaviors
  • Using healthy coping skills and mechanisms when triggered
  • Practice intuitive or mindful eating
  • Practice joyful movement instead of compensatory exercise
  • Not obsessing about weight, size, or shape
  • Viewing food as fuel and energy

This is by no means a comprehensive list of signs of eating disorder recovery; different people may have different goals or priorities. 

Practicing meaningful living in eating disorder recovery

Although eating disorder recovery can be incredibly trying at times, it can also be very powerful and enriching. Many people take this time to discover meaning in new avenues, such as:

  • Chanting
  • Getting a pet
  • Meditating
  • Connecting with people
  • Practicing mindfulness
  • Yoga
  • Keeping a gratitude journal
  • Starting a garden
  • Listening to or making music
  • Reading
  • Playing a sport (if approved for exercise)
  • Volunteering in the community

Not only can these hobbies provide people in recovery with healthy outlets for emotions and stressors, but they can also help recovering individuals deepen their relationships with themselves and others. Remember that recovering from an eating disorder takes time, but it is possible.

Disclaimer about "overeating": Within Health hesitatingly uses the word "overeating" because it is the term currently associated with this condition in society, however, we believe it inherently overlooks the various psychological aspects of this condition which are often interconnected with internalized diet culture, and a restrictive mindset about food. For the remainder of this piece, we will therefore be putting "overeating" in quotations to recognize that the diagnosis itself pathologizes behavior that is potentially hardwired and adaptive to a restrictive mindset.

Disclaimer about weight loss drugs: Within does not endorse the use of any weight loss drug or behavior and seeks to provide education on the insidious nature of diet culture. We understand the complex nature of disordered eating and eating disorders and strongly encourage anyone engaging in these behaviors to reach out for help as soon as possible. No statement should be taken as healthcare advice. All healthcare decisions should be made with your individual healthcare provider.



What is eating disorder recovery?

Eating disorder recovery is very personal and may differ between people, but generally, recovery means that someone with an eating disorder like anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating disorder has made meaningful behavioral changes and stopped engaging in disordered eating behaviors.

How long does eating disorder recovery take?

Everyone’s eating disorder recovery timeline is different. Some experts say as few as eight weeks, while others define recovery as one year or more without behaviors or symptoms.1

Can you exercise in eating disorder recovery?

It depends on you, your challenges, your health, and your treatment plan. Always follow your treatment team’s recommendations. And if you are told that you may exercise during recovery, it’s important that you engage in joyful and mindful movement.

Further reading

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The importance of intersectionality in eating disorder treatment and research

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How to find a binge eating disorder treatment plan

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Further reading

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