I want to talk about a subject that is on my mind often these days, a subject that many people who are embarking on restrictive-eating-disorder recovery will likely be Googling in moments of panic, like I’ve been doing on a daily basis: weight set-point overshoot, and whether it’s temporary or not, and how not to go utterly insane about it or allow it to cause full or partial relapse.
I’ve been trying to figure out how long I’ve truly been in recovery. In early 2018 I discovered The Fuck It Diet and was first exposed to the liberating and relieving idea that my binge-eating and feelings of being out of control around food were, in fact, a direct result of restricting. In fact, if I looked back on the majority of my life, I could easily categorize large chunks into “restrictive phases” and “reactive phases.” My weight fluctuated because of this chronic restrict-binge-sometimes-purge cycle and I never fully allowed my body (and mind) to heal and recover after a reactive phase long enough to know where my natural weight wants to settle.
In the past, whenever my hormones began to balance out and my binges started to dissipate, I’d take advantage of the trust I’d finally earned from my body and then betray her again by rigidly dieting and obsessively exercising. To be honest, it usually started as “intuitive eating,” because my body would downgrade from the “extreme hunger phase” and just start feeling naturally less hungry. This is your body’s way of naturally regulating your weight to its “set point.” But I’d always intervene.
If I wasn’t hungry at meal time, I’d just simple not eat. This almost always resulted in weight loss (due to a return of a fast metabolism after a year or two of eating large amounts of calorie-dense foods). I was diving right back into the arms of the monster, but what’s interesting is that each time I returned to restriction, I was sure this was the time it would stick. Add the compliments and the thin privilege, and it’s easy to see how dieting and restriction in our society is addictive.
Lather, rinse, repeat, and in another year or two, I was back to binge-eating and blaming myself on a moral level. “If I was just a stronger person, I could maintain the weight loss and resist these urges.” I will be eternally grateful to Caroline Dooner (creator of The Fuck It Diet) who was the first person to tell me that it isn’t my fault. This reaction is simple biology. After a certain period of restriction and starvation, your body will fight till the death to get you to find food. And my rebound during each subsequent “reactive phase” led to a higher and higher weight. This is why there are statistics out there that people who diet are more likely to be overweight.
[Super-cool side story: We spent this past Thanksgiving in Swarthmore, and it was such a pleasant trip for me because I felt so relaxed around food and simply allowed everything; I never felt out of control or tempted to restrict or compensate before, during, or after the trip. Nick, Barbara, and I spent a day in Philadelphia to go to the museum and shop for a few things. That morning I’d thought to myself how I need to pre-order my copy of “The Fuck It Diet” book, because I finally felt like I was “all in” with my recovery process. We made an impromptu decision to have lunch at a place we’d never heard of before, and the only other people there were Caroline Dooner and her parents. I sat through our entire lunch deliberating whether I should talk to her or not. In the meantime, we ordered a giant piece of chocolate cake to share. It was delicious but I didn’t feel the need to finish it (we left some on the table). At the end of our meal, after realizing the strides I’d made even in just that meal alone, I went up to her and told her how she’d changed my life. I don’t think I’ve ever been so nervous to speak to someone. We hugged. It was pretty magical.]
There are a variety of research studies about weight overshoot in anorexia recovery, and at this point, at least from everything I’ve read, it feels like it’s only a matter of opinion whether or not the findings apply to chronic dieters or people who’ve restricted and loss a certain percentage of body mass but who do or did not meet all of the DSM’s requirements for anorexia (basically: people who didn’t get “thin enough.”) I am by no means an expert, but instinctively I believe that the DSM’s requirements are just extreme ends of a restrictive spectrum and that the reasons for overshoot for any amount of weight loss achieved by restriction are the same. The reasons for overshoot don’t matter. What I’m trying to say here is that overshoot is normal and natural, and “fighting it” with reactive behaviors is a Sisyphean effort.
Once you’ve overshot your pre-eating-disorder weight, your body has already begun its return to health and will fight back with unrelenting food thoughts and uncontrollable binges. It will literally hijack your brain to force you to gain weight, not only to restore your pre-restriction weight, but to go above and beyond that to heal (like I said, the biological and chemical specifics about why weight overshoot is necessary aren’t important to me at this time). Overshoot is integral to the process, and while I’m not an expert, I have interpreted my experience with overshoot thus far as a spiritual one.
Here are three tenets of my overshoot philosophy.
1. Overshoot is the physical manifestation of your body’s lack of trust.
When is the last time you prioritized your body’s biology over its appearance? When is the last time you worked to earn your body’s genuine trust? My guess is that it’s been a long time, or never. Chronic and/or yo-yo dieting (even restrictive thoughts, like “I really shouldn’t eat that,”) like I’ve done for almost 20 years is not healthy; it’s toxic and abusive. Just like leaving a toxic and abusive relationship, your psyche (and your loved ones) might not trust that you aren’t just going to run back to your abuser. You’ve conditioned your body to see you (but, really, your eating disorder) as the enemy. Overshoot is protection against a future betrayal.
It’s time to respect your body’s history of abuse and its fear of a recurrence. It’s time to prove to your body that you won’t ever hurt it again, and in my case, earning back 20 years’ worth of trust is going to take more than a couple of months. But when you truly start to care about “her,” a divine shift starts to happen and it bleeds into other aspects of life. You start setting boundaries and checking off all the boxes of Brene Brown’s Anatomy of Trust, for and to yourself. Whereas before “taking care of yourself” was making sure your body fit external standards to be worthy of love … now you’re saying that you’re worthy of love no matter what. You’ve graduating from manufactured, superficial self-care to the real and messy stuff.
2. Overshoot is here for your mental health.
Overshoot might be necessary for physical healing years’ worth of damage and deficiencies, but it’s also necessary for mental healing.
This is where I get all cliche and start borrowing quotes and mixing metaphors, but whatever: Everything you want is on the other side of fear. You must do the thing that scares you.
This is also where I get woo-woo. I truly believe that there is a simple law to the Universe when it comes to fear: You must do the counterintuitive thing. If I’m deathly afraid of gaining weight, then I’ll be stuck in this tortuous restrict-react cycle for the rest of my life. So I must gain weight, and not just a comfortable amount; I must gain more than I’m initially willing to gain. I must also have no guarantee that it’ll ever go away. I must make peace with my biggest fear and let go of the illusion of control. This is the gift that overshoot has already begun to give me. It is liberating.
3. Overshoot has nothing to do with being done.
Weight restoration has no correlation with being recovered or “healed.” It is only a step of lifelong remission, and many times, your body is still healing in ways you cannot see or understand for years afterward. Gaining beyond a BMI of 20 (or whatever is considered “restored”) might just mean that the weight you’re supposed to be at is simply higher than what you weighed before you ever got into this mess (I was a growing teenager, so yeah, perhaps my ideal weight as an adult is going to differ).
I am still experiencing binges and “brain hijacks,” as I call them, but the amount of time between them is lengthening. I also see these episodes as desperate cries for trust-building, and I honor them without judgment (as much as I can). I haven’t weighed myself in weeks (maybe even months), but I know I’m at least at the weight I was before my last restrictive phase, possibly more. Even as recently as October I was having mini-relapses, so in essence, while my body has rebounded with weight gain, it’s only been in a nontoxic environment for two months. I’ve only just begun my journey into recovery, and overshoot is probably here to stay for a long while, possibly forever, and the evidence of true healing is going to be no longer resisting that possibility.
The only way out is through.
When you boil it down, my approach to overshoot is to do all the necessary work to fully accept yourself at the weight you’re at now and to become a genuine caretaker of yourself. Gaining may be scary, but we soothe ourselves with the concept that it could be temporary. That’s not fully committing to “doing the scary thing.” The scary thing is that it’s not temporary. If you are going to stay at your overshoot weight for the rest of your life, won’t it be easier to let go and move on to other pursuits, like doing things you love and perhaps finding hobbies that bring you joy versus doing them because you think they’ll help you lose weight?
You’re still going to have doubts.
Just because I have committed to recovery doesn’t mean it has magically become easy. Like I said in the first paragraph of this post: I’ve been Googling “overshoot in eating disorder recovery” in moments of panic on a daily basis. This has actually helped me tremendously. Constantly reminding myself of how overshoot is normal has kept me from relapsing dozens of times.
Before I sign off, I want to leave you with some resources that have kept my mind at ease whenever I feel anxious about my overshoot and whenever I feel tempted to restrict or compensate. I also recommend following body-positive people on Instagram; it has helped me tremendously.
My favorite restrictive-eating-disorder recovery resources:
The Minnesota Starvation Experiment
The Fuck It Diet
The Eating Disorder Institute
The Free Eater
Follow The Intuition
The Eating Disorder Institute
Own It Babe
Damn The Diets