Changes in the body's shape after dieting and eating disorders

People who decide to turn their back on dieting, food restriction and/or eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder or orthorexia, can experience weight gain due to their slowed-down metabolism, imbalanced hormones and malnourished body in general.

However, with weight gain many people, as well as many of my clients, report also a change in their body’s shape compared to the shape they used to have before going on a diet or developing an eating disorder. This change in the body’s shape is also called a “phenomenon of the disproportion of the body after calorie restriction”.

What are the signs of weight disproportion after calorie restriction?

People who go on diets, weight loss or fitness programs, or people who develop an eating disorder (anorexia, bulimia, orthorexia or binge eating disorder) often face fast weight gain after leaving calorie and food restriction. A large number of people also notice a change in their body’s shape besides the weight gain. These changes, also called as “disproportions”, mainly occur in the are of the hips and upper body, such as the midsection, breasts, chest, arms as well as the face.  

There are several reasons why someone experiences disproportions in their body’s shape after recovering from dieting and/or an eating disorder. In this article, I am addressing the common causes for this occurring, however, I want to emphasize that biochemically everybody is very individual and unique and therefore it can be that your changes in your body’s shape have their own individual causes. If that is the case, I recommend working with a professional (coach, therapist, doctor or other professionals) to help you with your individual situation. 

The common reasons for experiencing weight disproportions in the body’s shape are:

1. Water weight

The first step after calorie restriction is for the body to gain water weight in order to achieve normal hydration. Proper hydration is very important for an optimally functioning body and therefore it is common for people after dieting and in eating disorder recovery to gain several pounds of water weight. This can be an immediate and even uncomfortable experience because the body tries everything to protect itself. The most important area for the body to protect is the upper body, especially the midsection and our head. All our life-sustaining organs, such as the heart, the lunges, the stomach, and our intestines, as well as our brain, are located in the upper body. For this reason, the body will automatically start to store most of the water weight in these areas. 

Most people start to worry about this occurring and the sudden change in their weight and shape, however, it is a very normal and necessary process for the body to fulfill its main task which is to keep you healthy and alive.

Dehydration resulting from dieting threatens our health and our body’s main task to keep us healthy and alive. Therefore, the body needs to act quickly and wisely. Dehydration can occur for many reasons, such as laxative or diuretic abuse; a decreased intake of glucose, protein, and electrolytes; a reduction or even refusal to drink water; as well as excess consumption of protein or caffeine intake, or excessive overexercising. 

2. Hormones

Something very relevant that the diet and fitness industries don’t tell people is that calorie restriction, weight loss programs and overexercising bring a lot of chaos into someone’s hormonal health. Hormones are one of the most important contributors, particularly when it comes to a healthy weight, hunger, appetite, reproduction ability, vitamin and mineral absorption, and optimal mental health. 

There are 7 important hormones when it specifically comes to our weight. These are namely; Ghrelin, Thyroid hormones, Insulin, Cortisol, Leptin and our sex hormones (Testosterone and Estrogen). In this article, I want to address the hormone Cortisol. I have also written an article about Leptin which you can read here in case you are interested in. 

Cortisol, also named as the “stress hormone” in our body since it is released during times of when we experience stress. It is produced in our glands and its function is to help our body control blood sugar levels, regulate our fat and carbohydrate metabolism, to control salt and water balance, as well as blood pressure. 

Since Cortisol regulates our fat and carbohydrate metabolism for fast energy, it means every time we experience stress, it releases sugars and fats into our blood to be utilized by our muscles. This process occurs in every stressful situation no matter if it’s physical or mental stress because our cavemen brain is not able to distinguish between stress coming from us running away from a dangerous animal or just us worrying about the piece of cake we have eaten in the morning. 

changes in hormones after dieting and eating disorders

Studies have shown that elevated cortisol tends to cause fat deposition particularly in the abdominal area rather than in the rest of the body. This is the reason, why in recovery from dieting or an eating disorder such as anorexia, bulimia or binge eating disorder, people tend to gain the most weight in their upper body.

(Mental) Stress has massive consequences for our bodies. It decreases our growth hormone level which means it blocks our body’s ability to build muscle which in return leads to a decrease in muscle mass and a slower metabolism. Stress also causes our Thyroid level to drop and increases our Insulin levels which again lowers our metabolism and contributes to weight gain and water retention. 

We can clearly see now that every single thought of us worrying about weight, food and outward appearance has a tremendous negative effect on our physical and mental health, as well as our body weight and shape. 

3. Psychological State

Our psyche plays a tremendously important, but unfortunately a very underestimated, role when it comes to our weight. If someone experiences weight disproportion in their body’s shape, it can be a sign that this person deals with some psychological stress. Even the stress coming from worrying about the disproportion itself can make the disproportion persistent in itself. 

Working as a Coach for people who struggle with eating and their body, I can observe that most people who experience persistent water retention and weight gain in their upper body and weight disproportion in their body still deal with some underlying psychological issues. Very often it is the unacceptability of a curvier and heavier body and they are still in that state of missing and desiring their old and thinner body. This happens especially when someone started to restrict their calories in their teenage years and started to eat normally again in their adult years. These people still tend to live in their teenage bodies and haven’t fully stepped into their more mature and adult body.

mental stress after weight loss and eating disorders

It also happens when people leave their dieting lifestyle and/or start eating disorder recovery with the expectation of going back to their pre-dieting/pre-eating disorder body. There is a certain study called the “Set-point theory” (click here to read the article about the Set-Point theory) that shows everyone of us has their individual weight range where our body functions optimally. However, most people don’t consider that our set-point can be changed and for this reason, it doesn’t have to be the case that the pre-dieting/pre-eating disorder weight is still our body’s ideal weight. 

Every single body on this earth is biochemically unique and there is no single study available that shows how much we ought to weigh at which time! Therefore it is highly recommendable to focus on health rather than on weight and certain body shape. This will not only help you in de-stressing your body and balancing out your hormones but also to accept the body you’re in at the moment. 

4. Slow metabolism

A slow metabolism can also be the cause of the occurrence of a disproportion in the body. A slow metabolism means a low energy-burning efficiency of the body which is the result of calorie restriction. As I’ve mentioned above, calorie restriction in any form (under-eating, leaving out important nutrients or overexercising) disturbs our hormonal health. Our body starts to decrease our growth hormone level which is necessary for maintaining and growing muscle mass. Our body does this in order to save up energy since muscles are able to burn many calories. 

When our body decreases muscle mass, it also affects our heart muscle which is the most important muscle of the human body. This process not only weakens our heart but also our whole metabolism and can lead to water retention, weight gain, and weight disproportion in the body. 

I want to emphasize that this procedure can happen to anyone regardless of how long they have been dieting and restricting their calories, or if they have developed an eating disorder such as anorexia, bulimia or binge eating disorder or not. Calorie restriction is a severely threatening situation for our body and therefore it doesn’t matter if someone restricted their food just for a couple of months or for many years. Our metabolism will always be affected in some way regardless of the duration of food restriction. 

These were a few of the most common reasons why someone experiences a disproportion in their body’s shape. Please again, keep in mind that these reasons are general reasons and don’t particularly consider your individual situation. 

I hope that this article was helpful and informative for you. If you have any questions, please write them down in the comment section below and I will be happy to answer them.

You may also be interested in the following articles:

Article about The Set-Point Theory 

Video about The Set-Point Theory Of Hunger And Weight Loss

Article about Extreme Hunger After Dieting – Leptin Resistance 

Article about Weight Gain in the abdominal area

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