What I Wish I Had Known about Weight Overshoot in Recovery
If you are in recovery from one or more restrictive eating disorders, you’ve probably heard of the term “overshoot” weight. It’s a term I’ve mentioned in my blog post about experiencing Extreme Hunger While Being Weight Restored as well as one that I thoroughly unpack in my upcoming Extreme Hunger Course! I also frequently get asked how long overshoot lasts and how to lose overshoot weight, which is why I wanted to write a post answering all those questions! You’ll learn what overshoot is, why it’s an important part of recovery, as well as mindset shifts that will make this process of weight gain (and loss?) easier.
What is Overshoot?
First thing’s first: what is overshoot? Simply put, body fat overshooting is the phenomenon of putting on more weight than your pre-ED or “target” weight in recovery. There’s a lot to unpack when it comes to defining how much “extra” weight defines “over” shoot, so I’ll start off by stating that the weight you were at before you started messing with your food is completely arbitrary RIGHT NOW. As most of us know and have experienced, an eating disorder often starts in early teenage years. So, if you were to return to your pre eating disorder weight right now, that would make your weight that of a child…a weight you probably SHOULD NOT return to if you want to achieve full recovery! I use the word “probably” here, as I am fully aware that some people’s pre-eating disorder weight may have been higher than their ideal body weight. This leads me to my next point, which encompasses ideal body weight, set point theory, and target/goal weights.
Set Point Theory
The set point weight theory states that each of us has a genetically programmed weight range that our body will try to maintain in order ensure optimal biological functioning. It explains why some people are naturally leaner, while others are healthier at a higher body fat percentage. In essence, the set point theory vindicates body diversity and is the central pillar of the Health at Every Size movement, which preaches this idea that ideal body weight has no one size. Thus, your ideal body weight is the weight range in which your body naturally settles when you are engaging in a lifestyle that supports your optimal level of health and will be different from person to person.
What about BMI?
As with many things in life, your ideal body weight or set point weight cannot be determined by anyone other than your own body. Just like your height, the size of your hands and feet, or the color of your hair, your body decides what you look like! Unfortunately, we live in a society where people believe they constantly must micromanage everyone and everything, including our own bodies. We dye our hair to “look better” and buy uncomfortable shoes to become “taller” and “more attractive”. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with these things – if they help you feel more confident, you do you –however, there definitely IS something wrong when we start putting our health and happiness in the hands of people that can and never will possess the knowledge of our uniquely capable bodies.
As I write in my post The Simple Truth about BMI (also available as a podcast!), BMI does not embrace body diversity in any way, shape, or form (pun intended!). It was a system invented in the early 1800s by researcher Lambert Adolphe Jacques Quetelet, who, notably, was nowhere near a medical doctor! Quetelet’s desire to define the measurements of “l‘homme moyenne” (meaning “the average man” in French) resulted in his invention of the Quetelet Index, which was later renamed Body Mass Index in 1972. Quetelet based his findings of human proportions and measurements solely on those of white European men, meaning BMI was never even meant for the general population! Women, people of color, immigrants, poor people, and disabled people were completely left out of Quetelet’s studies…so WHY is it that health “professionals” are still using this system today???
Defining Your Target Weight
What’s even worse, is that healthcare professionals often use your BMI in combination with your pre-ED weight to define your “target” weight or “goal” weight in eating disorder recovery. Besides the fact that neither BMI nor your pre-ED weight are reliable factors in determining what you should weigh now, ANOTHER pair of factors that most “professionals” conveniently leave out in their calculations is the concept of energy deficit and energy debt. If you are unfamiliar with these terms, I encourage you to check out my post The Biological Importance of Honoring Your Extreme Hunger, in which I describe how one gets into energy deficit and how prolonged energy deficit leads to the buildup of energy debt. If you want to go even further and want an A-Z to guide how to FINALLY stop obsessing over food & TRULY feel satisfied, my Extreme Hunger Course is for you! Now back to the topic of energy debt; once you understand the damage it causes, you can maximize your understanding of overshoot – and why it’s so damn important.
Why is overshoot important?
Overshoot is a prerequisite to allow complete physical recovery of your body. When you have spent years undereating, overexercising, or a combination of both, the body goes into a negative energy balance and must turn to internal sources for energy. This means your body will literally eat itself up as it leeches energy from your organs, bones, and important biological systems to ensure your survival. Of course, this energy must be paid back at some point, which our beautiful friend Extreme Hunger helps us with! There’s so much stigma around needing to eat a lot of food in recovery from restrictive eating, but what people often forget is that you have so many calories TO MAKE UP FOR!!! Not only do you have to make up for all the calories you MISSED due to underfueling, but you also need to consume extra calories to ensure that there is enough energy available for the reparation of internal damage done due to energy debt. These “extra” calories are all ON TOP OF the calories you ALREADY NEED to eat to support your daily life, even if you never restricted your food in the first place! So in a way, it’s almost like you’re eating for three people, which completely “justifies” eating upwards of 9,000 calories per day, assuming your baseline daily caloric needs are around 3,000 calories.
The importance of paying back of energy debt is directly correlated to the importance of overshooting your weight. Just like you need to consume “extra” calories for a consistent period of time to pay back energy debt, you will also need to carry “extra” body fat for a sustained period of time to ensure optimal healing circumstances. You know how when babies are born, they’re all cute and chubby and fat? Or how kids gain a lot of weight during puberty, and then suddenly shoot upwards during their growth spurt? Biology has not done this for shits and giggles (although looking back at chubby photos may be funny now, haha!). Fat storage is absolutely essential for growth and repair of any kind. So no, you may not need to gain in height anymore, but all of the internal damage that you cannot see must have sufficient energetic reserves to be repaired!
How long does overshoot last?
Okay, so now that you know just how IMPORTANT it is to honor your extreme hunger and allow yourself to gain a lot of weight, you may be wondering: how long will I have to carry this extra weight? The simple answer is: as long as it takes for your body to fully pay off energy debt. Once you have repaired all of the internal damage and are no longer in energy deficit, the body has no reason to store additional energy and will naturally settle within your ideal body weight range, as previously explained by the set point theory. I know this is probably not the answer you want to hear, but again, no one else can determine the look or duration of your healing process besides your own body. Unfortunately, this lack of clarity about how long overshoot lasts is also where most people go wrong in recovery.
When will I lose my overshoot weight?
What often happens, is that someone will be doing REALLY WELL recovery-wise; honoring all forms of extreme hunger, allowing themselves to rest, and accepting natural weight gain. When they continue to gain weight and then go into overshoot, however, the unhelpful comments may start and said recovering individual may feel uncomfortable and fearful that they will stay at this higher weight forever. The saddest part of all of this, is that healthcare “professionals” may even RECOMMEND weight loss because overshoot often results in a BMI that is higher than the “healthy” range…so the person who was doing SO WELL now actively tries to lose weight again. THIS IS SUCH A SHAME!!! After ALL the hard work they’ve done to challenge their eating disorder both physically and mentally and literally being SO CLOSE to the finish line by allowing FULL healing by going into overshoot, all of this hard work is undone the moment they start to lose weight again. Why? Because weight loss that has NOT been initiated by the body, signals to the body there are not enough resources available to heal. And what does the body do when it believes there is lack of abundance? It starts to conserve energy, and the whole process off distrust starts all over again. All that said, if you want to reach true, full recovery, you must LOSE this mindset of wanting to “lose” your overshoot weight. I know this is SO difficult as it means fully surrendering to the process and your body, but surrender is the only way through.
Poststarvation hyperphagia and body fat overshooting in humans: a role for feedback signals from lean and fat tissues: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/9062520/
Role of set-point theory in regulation of body weight: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/2253845/
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