Overshoot in eating disorder

How to Prepare a Person for Overshoot in Eating Disorder Recovery 3


Note: I have been writing and talking about “overshoot” a lot. While I used this term because it has already been established, I do not think that the term overshoot is ideal to describe the process of establishing a recovery weight. The term overshoot implies that you went too far. I would much prefer to use the term “recovery weight” instead.

What is “overshoot?”

I wrote a full post on this previously, but in short it is the process of a person in recovery from an eating disorder exceeding their pre-eating disorder or “normal” weight when they start to eat again. Most sufferers exceed the target weight and in do so come much closer to full recovery because the body has additional resources to repair itself with.

Most sufferers also return to their pre-eating disorder weight within two years of reaching their recovery weight (overshoot weight) naturally without having to reduce the amount of calories that they are eating.

Tl;DR Overshoot in eating disorder recovery is the (often temporary) additional weight that a sufferer needs to put on in order to allow the body to repair. 

 

Why do we need to prepare for overshoot?

Because we need to stop people restricting when they hit it!

I have to admit I have been guilty of avoiding the topic of overshoot with people who have just started recovery due to concerns that the thought of going past their pre-eating disorder weight will scare them too much. No more. I believe that learning about overshoot and the importance of it in recovery is crucial. I’m going to explain why in this post.

There are many facets to eating disorder recovery. One of them is replacing eating disorder affected neural pathways and thought processes in the brain with healthier ones. This is the basis of CBT. The eating disorder has been creating and strengthening thoughts that are fat-fearing, food-fearing, and starvation gratifying. Those need to be replaced with thoughts that are fat-loving, food-loving and life enhancing. One thing that most of us who have lived though an eating disorder remark is that any non-eating disorder concept has to be told to us a hundred times or more before we begin to believe it.

For that reason, each non-eating disorder thought has to be thought by us hundreds of times before even the ghost of a neural pathway that fires that thought is created.

CBT for eating disorders is rather like breaking the camel’s back one straw at a time. Each individual straw has a minuscule impact, but over time, the combined effect results in a win.

What has this got to do with overshoot?

Okay, so someone has taken the brave steps and embarked on an active recovery path. That’s a huge deal, and recovery is hard. I totally see why the last thing that you would think to tell that person is that in order to fully recover it is highly likely that they will have to put on more fat than they had on their bodies even before they lost weight. That would seem like far too much for a person to handle.

Maybe, maybe not.

I actually think that the sooner we can start talking about hitting a recovery weight, the sooner we can normalize the idea of it in the person’s brain. Say, for example, if we can give someone who is underweight in recovery a daily mantra that says “I need to aim to overshoot in order to recover. My recovery weight is healthy for me” then by the time that they actually get there, they are not going to be taken by surprise by it. They might even have internalized that this additional weight is to be considered a recovery trophy.

 

Why do we need to prepare for overshoot?

Because the body heals faster than the brain does!

Just when you thought that an eating disorder couldn’t get meaner … it goes and proves you wrong by throwing this nasty little spanner in the works: the body heals faster than the brain.

The body starts to put on weight but the brain still has a very active eating disorder generating all manner of weight-gain anxiety.

It is not the case that when I person gets weight restored that they no longer have an eating disorder. They do. There is a lag between the body gaining weight and the brain being accepting and okay about that weight gain.

In order to help the sufferer manage this weight-gain anxiety, they have to know that gaining weight was part of the plan. They have to know that gaining more weight than they wanted to was part of the plan. They have to be actively and aggressively reassured because they have a mental shit storm going on.

They also have to know that staying put at this higher weight is part of the plan. This is crucial. I cannot empathize enough how important it is that a person recovering does not restrict food or do anything to lose weight while their brain is still catching up with healing — If they do the brain will never wholly get there. I have been in that place of intense anxiety and wanting to restrict again. But, I can also tell you that because I did not restrict and decided to be brave and keep going, my brain caught up and the eating disorder thoughts ceased.

 

Why do we need to prepare for overshoot?

Because it is easier to know that getting fat is part of the plan!

This sounds messed up — but you should be used to that by now as eating disorders are all kinds of messed up. It is easier for many of us to come to terms with gaining to the point of being a bit fat, than it is to come to terms with gaining just enough weight to be considered “perfect” in the eyes of our stupid cultural idea of what a body should look like.

Gaining “just enough” weight brings with it all sorts of anxiety. “What if I go over?” being the main one. Here is something a sufferer said to me in an email recently:

“When I had it in my head that the plan was to go over, I let go of some of the anxieties I had around gaining too much weight. In order to recover, I had to put myself in a body that my eating disorder was terrified of. If I had only gone as far as to put myself in a body that was slim-yet-not-dead I would never have learned to fully love my larger body.”

Ironically, for most of us that make it to that recovery weight of plus 10 percent on whatever we think we ought to be, once we have stayed there a while, once the brain has caught up in recovery and the eating disorder thoughts are no more, then, only then, we stop giving a shit about that 10 percent at all! 

 

Why do we need to prepare for overshoot?

Because it is brings fat acceptance!

Nothing like being in a body with fat on it and staying there to make one come to terms with having fat. Eating disorders create an intense and irrational fear of fat. Most of us are resistant to the thought of having fat on us. A human needs fat on their body. Every human needs this. Many of us simply have to learn to overcome this fear. For me, having fat, getting used to having fat, knowing that to have fat was to have recovery — all that was key for me learning to love fat (Ha, see … I even called my book “Love Fat”).

An eating disorder is never going to choose to allow a sufferer to have fat on their body. When we plan to overshoot, we are planning to accept fat as part of us — and a vital part at that!

 

How to Prepare with Target weights:

 

I actually think that target weights should take overshoot into account — hence the reason I don’t think it should be called “overshoot” at all!

We know that most people need to go over their pre-ED weight by about 10 percent in order to allow the body excess fat stores which it can then use to repair the damage done by the eating disorder. I think that a target weight should actually be considered a minimum weight, and that an optimal recovery weight should be at least 10 percent over that target weight. Hence, recovery weight.

Pre-target weight time can be used to prepare for overshoot

Because it is going to take weeks or months to get a person from a state of being underweight to a state of overshoot, there is time there that can be used to prepare that person for overshoot. If we can talk about it we can support it, we can answer questions, and we can give reassurance.

If I had been told the day I committed to recovery “Okay, if you want to fully recover, you absolutely have to put on fat and you absolutely have to reach a weight that is higher than you have been before. ” Would I have baulked? Yes. Would I have continued with recovery? Yes.

Why? Because at that point being even weight restored let alone over weight restored seems so far away it’s a bit like committing to a baby shower sometime next year that I don’t want to go to (I hate baby showers). Things often seem too far away to be real, so we commit to them anyway.

The thing is, if from day one in recovery I had the thought in my head that overshooting my target weight is a good thing, by the time that I got there, I would have been mentally prepared enough to deal with it. I would have heard that it is a good thing so many times that my brain would have turned that thought or story into a reality.

The alternative is that we don’t talk about it and hope for the best. In reality, what happens then is that sufferers get to target weight, and they want to keep eating, but they freak out because they don’t know overshoot is even a thing so they stop eating as much. That is really bad result. They are unprepared mentally for the additional weight they they need physically in order to make a full recovery. They stop too soon, and they do not make a full recovery as a result.

 

Why do we need to prepare for overshoot?

Because sufferers freak out when they get there if you don’t!

It’s rather like my “Fat Tummy” blog which remains the most read and visited blog on this site. Sadly most sufferers only find that blog post because they Google search “fat belly in anorexia recovery” and land on it. If they are Google searching that, they are already there physically, and they are already freaking out. I know that they are freaking out because they write to me about it. Many sufferers have written to me and said they wished they had been prepared for the belly bloating that is a normal part of recovery sooner.

TL; DR: Preparation is key for recovery success. 

Questions on overshoot welcome. I am very happy to talk about it.

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About Tabitha Farrar

I work as Head of Marketing for a software startup in Boulder. As a recovered Anorexia sufferer, I advocate for proper understanding of eating disorders in my spare time. On that note, I wrote a book about my own journey into eating again called Love Fat.


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3 thoughts on “How to Prepare a Person for Overshoot in Eating Disorder Recovery

  • Megan

    Yes, yes, yes!!!! No one knew of this “overshooting” when I began my recovery journey. Due to decisions I made, because my journey had been so long and tumultuous so I knew where my breaking points were, I was dropped by my treatment team at a pivotal time. I knew however, that it was the opportunity to either recover or fall prey to what every professional who’d ever interacted with me expected, to remain a chronic eating disorder. I wanted to wallow in pity, but I chose to take control of my recovery instead; I’d been in treatment enough times and long enough, that I had the skills, but I’d never really had to rely on them. Alas, I used them and indeed, they worked. Having been starving for years, my weight definitely overshot, but I made a promise to myself to live in my body for a year before going back to my behaviors. I figured I knew what to expect if I went back to my eating disorder, but I didn’t have any idea what life was like without the disorder. If life in recovery was really that bad, I gave myself permission to go back after a solid year at whatever healthy weight my body settled at…. I never went back and that was 4-5 years ago after battling eating disorders for over half my life. Since, I have graduated with my BSN, am a pediatric RN and have an amazing almost 4 year-old daughter. What I’m trying to say in a very wordy way, is that preparing people in recovery about the overshoot is critical. It is normal, it is okay. It may not feel okay, but ride the wave, it truly does get better.

  • Blake

    Hello Tabitha,

    Interesting website! Nice to find new resources.
    I am wondering if I can ask you for an opinion or advice on my own overshoot.

    Myself and a few others I know have been recovering from anorexia nervosa for five and a half years or so, and we’ve mostly gotten very, very fat – I may be the lightest at BMI 35.

    We’ve all been stuck at these weights for years – I’ve been stable at this high weight for two and a half years now. But none of us have any family predisposition to be so heavy, and we’re all way heavier than our pre-ED weights and our growth records – I overshot by 100 lbs – and our frames are very restricted in movement thanks to all the fat, which makes us think that we aren’t at a comfortable set point weight for our bodies.

    What do you think is preventing any kind of tapering or a return to normality here? Do you have any experience with massive overshoot? Thanks!

  • Cat

    I’ve gained 1.5 stone in 3 months of recovery. I was not underweight but a normal weight before I started recovery but have a history of AN then BN where I gained weigh then orthorexia (this was over a 20 year period). I’m really struggling to not quit now my weight is so high. I’ve never been fatter than this and can’t bear to get any bigger. Please tell me it will stop.