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Measuring Progress in Recovery

Measuring your progress in recovering from an eating disorder can be perplexing: Are you going nowhere if you just had a whopper of a binge or went on a one-day fast for quick weight loss? Do you have to be symptom free to be moving ahead? Should you be focusing on the times you eat “normally” or the times you don’t?

Progress can be measured in three ways. The first is by the duration of the dysfunctional behavior, that is, how long it goes on. Say, for example, your usual binge lasts for hours. Or, conversely, when you’re in self-denial mode, you can go nearly all day insisting that you’re not hungry enough to eat. You’re making progress in the first instance if you binge for 20 minutes, catch yourself, then stop. You’re making headway in the second instance if you force yourself to eat after an hour of self-imposed starvation rather than hold out for six more.

A second way to assess progress is through intensity, that is, how thoroughly absorbed you become in the behavior. Let’s say your binges are generally ferocious and you only realize you’ve been gorging after you’ve finished all the food in your house. Or you’re so totally in the grip of obsessing about weight loss that you’re high from not eating all day. You’re making progress if, in the first case, during your binge you remain aware that what you’re doing is self-destructive and don’t go “unconsciousness.” In the second case, you’re inching forward if you struggle with whether or not to eat, even if you lose the debate and continue to refuse food.

The third way to measure progress is by the frequency of undesired behavior. Maybe you used to binge every day and now only do it once a week. Maybe you used to calorie count every morsel you ate and now only do it after you’ve overeaten. The goal is to lengthen the periods of normalcy between bouts of dysfunctional eating. The more you stretch out the time between incidents of disordered eating, the more you’re retraining your brain to re-regulate appetite appropriately.

You may have difficulty evaluating progress if you fail to recognize when you’re eating “normally” and focus only on relapses and dysfunctional episodes. To accurately measure progress you must take into account when you’re eating functionally and when you’re not. Charting your progress will help you accentuate the positive and defocus on the negative. It will also help you opt out of all-or-nothing thinking and give you a context to recognize that recovery is a process, not just an end point.