Whether or not you have overshot your set point weight in eating disorder recovery or you are just afraid that you might, this post is for you. The fear of weight gain and particularly overshooting and the “unnecessary” weight gain is in the back of the mind of many people who are trying to eat enough, stop exercising or compensating in order to recover their body.
Overshooting does not happen in all cases of recovery but when it does, it is needed. However, this doesn’t mean the weight will never come down to the normal set point.
If you are not familiar with the concept of set point weight and how our body maintains it then you can read more here: Why Diets Do Not Work & How Set Point Weight Works
Yo-yo-ing Between Recovery And Relapse
In my opinion, what interferes THE MOST with this process is not our body’s lack of knowledge or ability to return back to its set point but more the fact that as human beings we tend to interfere this process with your mind too much. We over think, over analyze, panic and then try to control what’s happening. But this is exactly what your body doesn’t need right now! In fact, THIS is why you had an eating disorder in the first place!
Let’s say an animal is starved for a period of time and then they are allowed as much food as they want. They WILL overeat and binge. This is a scientifically proven fact. And they will rapidly gain weight. There is a study done on mice who were starved and then allowed to refeed in an uncontrolled fashion and they binged on food. But, as they didn’t interfere this process with their mind (didn’t panic about the weight gain and didn’t relapse back to restriction) their appetite returned back to normal and they restored their normal weight. (1)
So with this is mind I want to say that for the weight to stabilise at our set point and our appetite to return back to normal it’s crucial that you trust your body and do not go back and relapse over and over again.
What relapsing back to restriction in recovery does to your body is essentially the same what happens with people who try to lose weight by dieting. They will eventually get hungry, understandably because they are starving, then they binge eat (normal reaction), gain the weight back very rapidly (panic sets in) and they go back to dieting once again only to get hungry soon after. This is the start of an endless cycle of yo-yo dieting. And by studies this has shown to be a recipe for gaining back more weight and fat than they originally started with.
“One study, published in the journal “Evolution, Medicine and Public Health”, showed that repeated dieting could be interpreted by the brain as short famines. Due to this, the brain urges the body to store more fat for future “shortages”. This makes repeated dieters gain more weight compared to those who never diet.”(2)
Or let’s take another study done in the University of Geneva (3). It involved three groups of rats, all eating the same quality of food.
- Normal Group: Adult rats eating normally.
- Eat Less Group: Adult rats temporarily losing weight by eating less.
- Naturally Skinny Group: Young rats who naturally weighed about as much as the adult Eat Less Group immediately after the adult rats were starved.
I want to give you a comparison to humans and dieting so it will be clearer to understand:
- Normal Group: People who eat normally without counting calories, listen to their hunger cues, and have a normal and healthy set-point weight.
- Eat Less Group: People who diet and cut calories to lose weight. They were at their normal set-point weight to begin with but wanted to be even skinnier to fit within today’s societal norm of the perfect body type.
- Naturally Skinny Group: People whose set-point weight is naturally lower, but they also eat based on hunger cues and don’t count calories.
For the first ten days of the study, the Eat Less Group ate fifty percent less than usual while the Normal Group ate normally. On the tenth day:
- The Normal Group kept eating normally.
- The Eat Less Group stopped starving themselves and started eating normally.
- The Naturally Skinny Group ate normally.
This continued for twenty-five days. The study ended on day thirty-five.
At the end of the thirty-five-day study, the Normal Group had eaten normally for thirty-five days. The Eat Less Group had eaten less for ten days and then normally for twenty-five days. And the Naturally Skinny Group had eaten normally for twenty-five days. Which group do you think weighed the most and had the highest body fat percentage at the end?
The Naturally Skinny Group seems like an easy “no” since these rats were naturally thinner than the other rats to begin with. Traditional fat-loss theory (calories in, calories out) would say the Eat Less Group is an easy “no” as well since these rats ate fifty percent less for ten days. So the Normal Group weighed the most and had the highest body fat percentage at the end of the study, right?
The Eat Less Group weighed the most and had the highest percent of body fat. Even though they ate less for ten days, they were significantly heavier than those who ate normally all the way through.
Eating less caused metabolic adjustments that led the rats to gain – not lose – body fat after returning to normal eating. So this is the side-effect of typical crash-dieting: more fat gain. Eating less is actually WORSE for our body than doing nothing at all.
When you relapse over and over again in recovery your metabolism doesn’t even get the chance to speed up. After being through starvation (read: dieting) and then re-feeding (bingeing, overeating or just eating as much as you normally did) your body wants to store more fat and keep the metabolism slower in a case of future famine. But if you allow long enough period to be passed, while continuing to eat enough and not compensating, your body sees that “ok, I’m sure the starvation is over now. Let’s start working normally again. Let’s speed up the metabolism, decrease hunger and go back to our set point. The threat has passed, we are safe!”. But if you continually relapse…then this can’t happen. Instead, what happens is that your body will continue to stay in a suppressed mode. Not trusting and thinking that you will be starving again soon. It’s a protection mechanism. Also known as adaptive thermogenesis (4)
”…body fat distribution seems to normalise after long-term maintenance of complete weight restoration. This finding, if confirmed, indicates that the preferential central distribution of body fat is a transitory phenomenon associated with the acute phase of weight regain.” (5)
Even the men in The Minnesota Starvation Experiment temporarily overshot their weight by 10% and also had increased fat levels, but after allowed to refeed (some men ate up to 11,000 calories a day) over a course of 12-18 months they started to reach their previous weight and fat levels with no restriction or dieting (6)
Not Eating To Full Hunger And Compensating
Another mistake people do in recovery is that they still try to suppress their appetite and do not follow their full hunger. They might increase calories but they keep them low hoping that it will help them to not gain too much. Or they continue to “eat enough” but still compensate their calories through exercise, giving the body no rest and putting it through even more stress. But this interferes with the recovery as well because if your body still feels that the energy demands are not met it will not speed up the metabolism or recover your normal hunger cues.
You may still feel like you are never satisfied with foods, you always obsess about foods and every time you eat a little more you only seem to gain more weight. This, however, makes you feel like you have to restrict even more. You are still in the cycle! This is not recovery!
This is why I recommend following the MinnieMaud Calories Guidelines, or as it is called now – the Homeodynamic Recovery Method (HDRM) (7). Because, if I just say “eat as much as you want” many end up eating too little, consciously or unconsciously restricting their intake. 2000 calories a day is not enough to recover from and eating disorder (8). Yes, you can gain weight on this amount and you can even overshoot your weight because your metabolism stays in a suppressed state and you always feel like still wanting to binge! This is because your body doesn’t get what it needs – an adequate amount of calories to restore itself and relax!
“Furthermore researchers have shown there is a significant increase in trunk adiposity (fat deposits around the mid-section of the body) in recovery and this fat mass is evenly redistributed in the optimization period after weight restoration only if the patient continues to eat in an unrestricted fashion.
In other words, the initial trunk adiposity and disproportionate fat mass ratio in the early period of re-feeding may not resolve unless and until a patient successfully supports the period of hyperphagia [excessive eating, increased hunger] that is part and parcel of the process of reaching a healthy remission. We also know that trunk adiposity in particular is correlated with cardiovascular disease in older men and women which is all the more reason to encourage those in recovery to allow their bodies to complete the re-feeding process fully to allow for a return to optimal fat mass to fat-free mass ratios.
The overshoot in weight during a re-feeding process is not present for all patients, but it is assuredly temporary for those who do experience it.” (9)
In other words, you must eat unrestrictively to let your body heal and reach to a optimal set point weight for your body. Going back and forth with recovery and relapse only further increases your chances of overshooting your weight due to metabolic suppression and other protective mechanisms. Even when you overshoot your weight in time you will go back to your healthy set point weight but this can only happen when you don’t interfere with your body’s recovery processes.
- Hagan And Moss, “An Animal Model of Bulimia Nervosa”
- Nature World News, “ALERT: Repeated Yo-Yo Dieting May Only Lead to More Weight Gain”
- J. Bailor, “A Calorie Myth: How to Eat More and Exercise Less with the Smarter Science of Slim”
- M. Rosenbaum, Rudolph L. Leibel, “Adaptive Thermogenesis In Humans”
- M. El Ghoch, S. Calugihttp et al., “Anorexia Nervosa and Body Fat Distribution: A Systematic Review”
- Follow The Intuition, “Minnesota Starvation Experiment and Eating Disorders”
- Ed Institute, “I Need How Many Calories?”
- Ed Institute, “Gaining Weight Despite Calorie Restriction”
- Ed Institute, “Binges Are Not Binges”