In eating disorder recovery, we often use the term ‘overshoot’ when it comes to weight restoration and it is a concept that fills people in recovery, who are already terrified of weight gain, with a deep sense of dread.
Unfortuntately, I do think that the dreaded overshoot in recovery, if we want to get to a state of full mental and physical health, free of the eating disorder, is a necessary part of the deal. In fact, I think that allowing overshoot gives us our best chance at getting over this illness once and for all and who doesn’t want that?
Overshoot seems to me, to be the way our body ensures it can fully repair and heal every last bit of us, inside and out (more about that later).
Firstly though…. In order to understand what the term ‘overshoot’ refers to, it is necessary to understand the concept of ‘set point weight’.
What Is Set Point Weight?
Set point weight theory is the pretty much indisputable fact that every human being on this planet has a unique to them genetic set weight range at which their body functions at its optimum.
Just as we are all different heights and shoe sizes and these things are decided by our genes, so too is our weight and shape. The body knows what this set weight range is and it will use all sorts of very clever mechanisms to try to defend that weight range and keep itself there (e.g. changing our metabolic rate, using hunger signals, shutting down less than essential functions if our weight drops too low etc).
We cannot change what our genetic set point range is. We can force our body below it but it will make us unhealthy and our body will fight to get back to where it wants to be and the same too if we force ourselves above it… We might not like what our genetic set weight is because it might not fit nicely into a BMI category that we or society deem acceptable but we also know that BMI is bullshit and if our set weight is meant to be at a higher BMI then that really is the healthiest weight for us and Mother Nature probably knows better than society.
Yes, we can hold our weight below our natural set point range, but to do so, we would need to continue to restrict and / or compensate for eating (as most of us have for years with a restrictive eating disorder) and live in a body that only functions in survival mode. I think most of us can testify to the fact that that is a pretty miserable way to exist.
The approach to eating disorder recovery that I follow is not to achieve a ‘target weight’ set by a treatment provider who knows nothing about where my body weight naturally sits… (tried that more than once and that did not end well). Instead I know that to recover fully, it is necessary to allow my body to gain to reach its set point weight, determined by my genetics.
I know that if I eat unrestrictedly and rest too that my body will lead me to health. Eating a lot of food and resting will give my body the best chance to gain weight and when it is at a weight that it is happy and can heal fully at, it will do clever things, like change my metabolism and change my hunger signals so that it then defends that weight and does not keep gaining forever. This weight might be higher than I want, but it will be a weight at which I am confident I will have the best physical health and mental freedom and so I say, bring it on!
BUT, as this post is also about overshoot, I must first speak more about this and before I allow my body to settle at its genetic set point weight, I will be expecting and as I wrote about before, even AIMING for ‘overshoot’.
What Is Overshoot?
So, if we accept that our body has this genetically determined set point weight range; in recovery from starvation and malnutrition, it is very often found to be the case that initially the human body, if trusted and allowed to do what it needs to do, will gain ‘over’ that set point for a time.
A human body, in recovery from starvation, will store additional fat supplies in the short term and then come naturally back to the set point weight range when it has finished doing all the healing it needs to do.
And it is not just people recovering from eating disorders who experience this. When we look at the men who were part of the Minnesota Starvation Study in 1944, when allowed to eat freely again (and most of them when permitted then ate thousands of calories a day for months), it was noted that nearly all overshot their pre-starvation weight by on average 10% and over the course of the following 12 months, their bodies came naturally back to the weight range they were before the experiment began.
It would seem that a human body needs to store excess energy as fat for a time post starvation and if you think about it, that makes sense.
Firstly, as far as our body is concerned, we have been through a starvation period for a long time… it does not know why or if there will be another period of food scarcity coming and so initially it is going to store any excess energy it is given as fat in a way that it can access it again quickly if it needs to when the next famine strikes. At this stage, most of us experience a greater proportion of fat distribution around our mid-sections (the belly and butt) and for a time we have what might be described as a ‘toddler body’!
If the body finds it has been getting more than adequate fuel for a while with no signs of another famine, then it will start to feel a bit safer to use some of that excess energy stored as fat to do more internal repairs to the body parts that have suffered in the time of being underfed.
It will slowly start to use some of the excess energy stores to repair internal organs, build more heart muscle and produce hormones. But some of the repairs it needs to do will require a lot more energy at once and it cannot do all those repairs if it does not have enough building blocks.
So, just like you cannot build a house from only half the bricks you will need to complete it and you might wait until you know you have all the bricks to build the house first, the body will want to ensure that it has enough building blocks in terms of stored fat to build everything else that needs repairing in us before it starts actually using those fat stores and doing the internal work.
If we have trusted our body enough and allowed it to keep gaining weight to the point it wants to gain to (overshoot) then it will really trust us in return and start to use any excess fat stores to repair everything inside of us that we might not even have realised was broken.
As the body uses the excess energy stored as fat over time to repair and fully fix, our weight might start to drop back slightly or redistribute more evenly and settle at the genetic set point range that is the weight at which our body is then able to function optimally and where we are at our healthiest.
There is also significant anecdotal evidence from people who have been through the stages of overshoot and fully trusted their bodies in recovery from an eating disorder, that when they hit ‘overshoot’ and their weight finally settled, the eating disorder thoughts and any residual fear of weight gain also dissipated. It would therefore seem that the the body needs energy surplus and complete physical healing in order for the eating disorder from a mental health side to also completely fade away.
When we do finally get to this point in recovery (note when and not if!) we are the same as every other human on the planet… at a genetic set point weight that our body will then fight to maintain and really, we need to respect it for that and let it maintain it because if we don’t and we try to bring it lower again we risk very certain relapse back to eating disorder hell.
The thing is, we won’t recover from an eating disorder unless we allow our body to gain weight, not just to a low end ‘healthy BMI’ point but to a point that is genetically optimal for our body and unique to us.
And very often, in recovery from starvation, we might well need to allow our body to ‘overshoot’ our genetic set weight range too for a time (possibly a year or more) while it does all the amazing healing and repairs that it is desperate to do to get us as healthy as we can be.
If we want to fully recover and not stay in quasi recovery misery forever more then we have to trust our body to know what it is doing and what weight it needs to be at… And the harsh truth is that that weight is likely not going to be that of a super model.
But as I say to people, if you think about dogs and you compare a whippet and a pug… they are both dogs but you are not going to expect a pug to be the weight and shape of the whippet because genetically it just isn’t! And same too with humans… we are all supposed to be different shapes and sizes and if you are meant to be a pug and not a whippet, well there is nothing wrong with that so embrace it and be proud of it!
I would also brutally question any internal resistance you might be experiencing to the idea of gaining to overshoot. If your brain is now screaming at you a million reasons why gaining to a higher weight is a bad idea, just stop and think about it logically for a minute. The alternative to gaining a bit of weight and living in a bigger body is staying ill with an illness so miserable you are spending time reading this post. The resistance you are feeling is really only the paralysing fear of weight gain that is illogical and caused from the illness – the very thing we need to overcome (through hitting our set point weight and possible overshoot!).
For me, I think that the body is really bloody amazing and ‘overshoot’ might be terrifying but it is also almost certainly the only way through recovery to reach both FULL physical and mental health. And so, I am aiming for overshoot because I don’t want a quasi recovery… I want to be as sure as possible that I have given myself my best possible chance of a full recovery. I am not settling for less and nor should you.