Weight overshoot is a part of recovery

Updated: Jan 11

Weight overshoot, then settling down to stable weight, is typical and often necessary for eating disorder recovery.


The 1950 Minnesota Starvation Experiment by Ancel Keys is a seminal study on weight recovery. The starved subjects were all male. When they were allowed to eat again, all overshot their pre-study weight by around 10 percent. They all returned to their pre-study weight after that, mostly within 12 and 16 months. This was a spontaneous process.


Keep in mind these subjects were not purposefully targeting their pre-study weights; rather, they ate ad libitum according to their hunger. So weight overshoot is healthy and natural. It makes sense the body would like extra energy and fat storage to repair itself and make sure it's protected in case famine is still present.


Weight is largely genetically determined, so it makes sense it'll eventually settle to some point. People tend to overshoot by different amounts.


Overshooting should not be prevented. After all, the “goal weight” is just an educated guess. It is optimal to overshoot so one can "settle down" at one's healthy weight. The alternative - ceasing the high-calorie diet once one reaches the theoretical goal weight - invites the possibility of constraining oneself to a goal weight that is too low to be healthy.


Decoding Anorexia has a great analogy about reaching one's goal healthy weight. One trying to restore weight to the healthy point can visualize it as trying to reach the peak of a hill. If one stops right below the peak, they'll backslide and never get to the peak. One must go all the way to the peak to recover. And I'd argue one doesn't know where that "peak" of body set point weight is until they cross it a little (weight overshoot).


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The Decoding Anorexia excerpt:


"​​Woodside’s years of clinical experience have also shown him the importance of maintaining a healthy weight. “In our research, getting all the way to a normal weight is a requirement for a good outcome at a year. People who fall short of that definition of treatment completion, even by a small margin, are extremely unlikely to maintain their gains,” Woodside said. He wasn’t exaggerating when he said “small margin,” either. Falling short of their target weight by even one kilogram (2.2 pounds) dramatically decreased a person’s likelihood of recovery.

Imagine recovery like trying to bike up a steep hill, Woodside said. Stopping even just a little short of the hill’s crest means that you will start rolling backwards because you’re still on the incline. “There’s a profound difference from having your bicycle at the top of the hill and having your bicycle 20 feet from the top of the hill,” he said. That one kilogram difference, he said, is what pushes a person to the top of the hill.

That last kilogram is often the hardest bit of weight to put back on. I had long since started to look healthy and normal, and my behavior was evening out, too. Since I was already at what the BMI charts told me was a “healthy” weight, I saw no need to add those last few pounds. After all, plenty of people weighed less than me and no one was telling them to consume high-calorie nutritional supplements every day. Plus, I was tired of treatment and weight gain and consuming vast quantities of food every single day. I had little energy left and just wanted to stop pedaling. And so the slow slide back to the bottom of the hill would begin, again and again and again.

The top of the hill was scary for me as well. It meant having to live without an eating disorder, something I hadn’t done for over a decade. It meant giving up the only way I knew to manage my anxiety and depression. It meant relinquishing the constant praise about my small size, seemingly impeccable eating habits, and draconian exercise regime. And I couldn’t yet see the benefits that lay just on the other side of the hill.

“What being at the top of the hill means in anorexia recovery is complicated. It’s the physiological and biological meaning of being at a normal weight. Your body functions differently when it’s at a normal weight. It’s also the psychological meaning of being and staying at a normal weight. That’s what being at the top of the hill means. Twenty feet down means that you’re holding something back. There’s something you’re not giving up, something you’re protecting,” Woodside said.

What I wrote to a client afraid of overshoot:


You know your metabolism is especially slow because you’ve been starving yourself, and that eating more will speed it up.


Also, weight doesn’t magically overshoot just overnight. You can’t wake up tomorrow at X lb. That’s not possible


You’ll continue incrementally gaining weight. So as we approach your goal weight, you have control over your weight


I had no super concrete “goal weight” in mind, I just wanted to get my period back. So I just ate naturally following my hunger drive. My weight naturally overshot and floated back down.


Don't be scared of possible overshoot (say, 5 lb) if it’s just temporary and could be necessary to recovery. So what if you’re X lb for 1 month? Why is that a disaster?

If it's just temporary?


Eating according to my hunger, which is the way you should eat too (since you’re ravenous right now), made me naturally overshoot. And naturally when I overshot my hunger went down a little I bet, and so my weight might have also gone down by a subtle but gradual calorie intake decrease. Caused by natural hunger decrease.


If one overshoots, their hunger will go down. Their appetite won’t stay enormous forever. The whole reason you have extreme hunger right now is because you body needs you to eat. When you’ve had enough, you won’t be so hungry. And will naturally decrease calories


People who have enough calories and energy in them, when eating natural foods, won't binge. You feel like binging now because you have SO many calories you need to take in. And that's why you should binge. But if you overshot, you wouldn't feel the urge to just keep binging and binging. Your hunger would instead decrease and bring you eventually back to your ideal healthy weight.


I agree that if you overshoot (which the majority of people do, and yes overshoot is good for you), it’s best for it to happen sooner. Another reason to get this whole process done faster. At the end of the process you will be at your healthy weight. You won’t “end” the process having overshot and being permanently in an “overshoot” body.


Whatever length of time you need to take to recover, it’ll be faster if you EAT MORE and

DON'T RESTRICT.


From the Minnesota Starvation Study data, "Fat is restored first, but extreme hunger will continue until fat-free mass is restored. And because your body has a basic fixed proportion of fat to fat- free mass, this means you have to let your body gain more fat to finish off the process. The size of the overshoot may increase the more severe the preceding starvation was (Dulloo et al., 2017).” That last sentence I highlight because it’s basically suggesting that the more you starve yourself, the higher overshoot may be. So you need to stop starving yourself NOW, which you are


Calorie counts are inaccurate anyway


The client wrote: "as long as one satisfies the hunger (whether it be cake or carrots) which would be drastically different calories, the hyperphagia is satisfied"


I responded:


This part is incorrect. Your hunger can only be satisfied by enough calories. You can't satisfy the hunger without eating enough calories. If the 1 piece of cake and 10 apples are the same amount of calories, this comparison still doesn’t work.


2 reasons:

  1. Calorie counts on packages can be about 25% inaccurate (https:// tabithafarrar.com/2017/05/anorexia- recovery-adult-nutritional-science/ (see this article's "And the problem with calories...." section).

  2. You know that calories in doesn't equal calories used by the body. The 10 apples are giving you fewer calories than 1 more processed cake, because the 10 apples use up so much more energy to digest.

This is why I tell you to ballpark to get AT LEAST your prescribed 4000 calories in, but really there’s no point in stressing about exact calorie counts anyway


Right, you have way more important things to be doing than dealing with anorexia recovery. So you have to recover ASAP.


Eat ad libitum and eat whenever you’re hungry and/or think of food. Focus on eating dietary fat. Follow this all, and you’ll recover in no time. The more you resist, the more you drag out this process.


You’d rather be done with this now than have to worry about this every again. The more you shy away from food, the harder it is to recover. And according to that Dulloo et. al., 2007 study I just quoted, the more you restrict, it’s likely your overshoot could be higher. So just stop restricting NOW and eat to abundance NOW. You don’t need to overthink anything, just follow the rules laid out.


Worrying about exactly what weight you’ll end up at and how much overshoot could be, how fast you could get back down to set point weight, etc. is all a waste of time. Worrying won’t change the actual outcome of whatever happens, and instead worrying just scares you into wanting to eat less. Which is the exact OPPOSITE of what you should do in order to get the fastest recovery and least amount of overshoot, if it happens.


Instead of fretting over possible overshoot and what will happen at your goal weight, just eat.


if you might have to overshoot anyway, better to get it done sooner than later.

to recover. It can be just part of the weight gain process. It doesn’t make sense to just quit recovery just because you are scared of what it entails and a temporary process (overshoot) that could happen during it.


At your goal weight you’ll have a faster metabolism than you have now, and at least some more redistribution going on,


if you accepted weight gain as necessary to recover, you wouldn’t be scared of overshoot by little. You know the overshoot is temporary if it happens anyway.