Disclaimer: I am not a doctor! This information is based on advice I received while recovering, studies I have independently researched, and anecdotal evidence from my own recovery.
When recovering from an eating disorder it is common to think that if you allow yourself to gain weight then it will never stop. You may continue to gain weight until you become morbidly obese! Well, my dear reader, if you have these thoughts I am here to prove them wrong. I’d like to introduce you to a little concept called set point theory.
Set point theory was originally developed in 1982 by Dr. William Bennet and Joel Gurin as a way of explaining why dieting is overall unsuccessful in sustaining long-term weight loss. They stated that every person has a pre-determined weight range at which their body runs optimally and will defend itself to stay at. The metabolism will speed up or slow down to keep you stable at your set point range. If you are at your body’s set point and begin to crash diet your body perceives this as starvation and will trigger feelings of hunger so it can remain at its ideal weight. The more you “starve” the body through crash diets or calorie restriction your body’s metabolism will continue to slow down making it harder and harder to shed the weight. Once you go below your body’s set point range, your metabolism restructures itself to conserve the calories it already has on board. This is why your core temperature drops and why many people with eating disorders are constantly cold. It is also why menstruation will eventually shut down in women’s bodies. The reproductive system stops working because the body knows it could not endure a pregnancy. This is also why people with eating disorders will binge or have strong urges to binge. The body is begging for more food to get it back to its set point range.
Now, while the metabolism will slow down when the body is below it’s set point range the opposite will occur once the body goes above it. Your metabolic rate will heighten to help fight against weight gain over the set point range. Your core body temperature will be warmer as your body attempts to burn off the unwanted calories. The only hold up here is that if you have kept your body in a sustained starvation mode for a very long period of time you will need to overfeed your body to return it to its stabilized condition. This was studied in the Minnesota Starvation Experiment. When the subjects were told to re-feed many ate more daily calories than they had eaten before the experiment. Their eating patterns looked like binging but the over-feeding ended up being necessary to re-building their metabolism. Once their body was at the ideal weight the metabolism kicked in again to help normalize each person’s appetite and weight.
This phenomenon is exactly what I witnessed firsthand in my own recovery. According to the Minnie Maud guidelines (now called the Homeodynamic Recovery method) that I was following I re-fed myself by not limiting any calorie consumption and remaining as sedentary as possible. I avoided weighing myself completely. After several months of eating more than I ever could have imagined I had mended my metabolism and my weight gain tapered at my set point. I have determined that my body’s set point range is between 145-155 lbs. I can eat all day long and not move a muscle and my body will stay at 155 lbs. I know this because that is precisely what it has done for the past year and a half and also because that is the weight my body maintained happily before I was ever sick. If I chose to eat healthier foods and get off my butt every now and then I would possibly eventually drop down to 145 lbs but once I lost weight below that point my metabolism would slow down and send me the signals that it is not happy. I think of my metabolism as my internal furnace. All day it is burning – even when I am just sitting at my desk. I need to continue to fuel my furnace by eating regularly so that it continues to keep my body functioning properly.
So, to my dear reader who is afraid to recover because of the fear of infinite weight gain – I am here to show you that it will all be okay. You will not gain weight forever. Once you have re-fed your body will trust you once again and your metabolism will fight to keep you at a stable weight that works for you. Keeping in mind that everyone’s set point range is different and that is okay. Understanding the science behind what determines body weight helped me mentally accept the changes that recovery brought. Understanding that each and every one of us is beautiful no matter what, but that we are all the most beautiful at our happiest was a breakthrough I needed. The weight that anorexia wanted wasn’t the weight that my body wanted and my body keeps me alive so I bravely decided to honor it and make myself happy and you can too.