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Why does overfeeding work? (an alternate theory)

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  • #13175
    David
    Moderator

    Because of my own experience, and because of the experiences of so many others on this site, I cannot deny that overfeeding can be very effective, even for those who are already overweight. In my own situation, it improved mood, induced relaxation, and nearly eliminated a chronic pain issue along the medial trigeminal nerve of my face. Overfeeding also seems to be useful in reducing anxiety and obsessiveness, particularly food obsessions.

    Why is this? The dominant theory here at 180 seems to be that the increased calorie consumption speeds up the metabolism, and that increased metabolism is responsible for the positive effects. However, I would like to suggest an alternate explanation, which seems to fit my own experience more accurately.

    If increased BMR was the cause of my improvements, I would expect that metabolism-boosting drugs would have similar effects, but this is not the case. Neither thyroid hormone nor stimulants work for me–and in fact they make me feel much worse very quickly.

    Additionally, BMR is strongly associated with body size, so it’s possible that the metabolic advantages of increased calorie intake are mainly the same BMR increases you would see from simple weight gain. BMR naturally increases with increased BMI. Getting fatter makes your metabolism run more quickly.

    My own hypothesis for the positive effects of overfeeding is that the brain is responding to an influx of pleasure-inducing neurochemicals. Our body rewards us when we eat delicious, calorie-rich foods, and these “pleasure chemicals” can have a powerful anxiolytic, antidepressant, and analgesic effect, which would explain improvements in relaxation, mood, and pain tolerance. This is the drug effect of food. Because of this, the overfeeding strategy seems like a useful tool in periods of high stress or depression. I know that in my own experience, it helped me become a happier and more productive person, and I don’t regret that I did, despite the unwanted weight gain.

    This weight gain is the most obvious side effect of overfeeding, and honestly, it’s probably less serious than the side effects of many of the pyschoactive drugs used in psychiatry. Unfortunately, the weight gain can eventually lead to multiple health problems over the long term, including increased risk of heart disease and diabetes. There are also short terms problems. I found that my breathing became worse after a few months and my capacity for physical activity decreased.

    If you’ve read any of my recent posts, you will know that I am currently cutting calories and exercising (60% cardio, 40% resistance) in order to lose weight. Interestingly, I have also been enjoying some of the same mental benefits that I experienced when I was overfeeding. I feel calm, I have become more sociable, and my facial pain is greatly reduced. At the same time, I am losing weight rather than gaining it, my breathing is improving, and my body is adapting to much higher levels of physical exertion.

    If my hypothesis is correct, exercise is stimulating the same (or a similar) cocktail of neurochemicals as overfeeding did. That means that I can experience the same benefits without all the food, with a much better set of side effects and a long-term prognosis for robust health.

    To be clear, I am not discounting the usefulness of overfeeding in many situations, especially in case where a quick solution is needed. The benefits of exercise accumulate only gradually, and there can be a period of increased fatigue as one adapts to the increased activity. However, as a long term solution, regular exercise seems like the superior choice, at least if your issues are similar to my own.

    *NB- For those who are underweight or recovering from an eating disorder, obviously overfeeding would be a better solution than exercise. But for those who are overweight (or even normal weight), it is worth considering exercise as an alternate solution, if you dislike the weight gain induced by overfeeding.

    #13196
    Dutchie
    Participant

    @David The problem’s that overfeeding doesn’t necessarily mean raising metabolism (much).
    I think to succesfully raise metabolism,you have to remineralize/get the correct mineralbalance and figure out which ones you need and if you’re low in certain nutrients. This is a problem I’m still trying to figure out.
    Metabolism is a complicated thing.
    But,interesting written piece.:)

    #13198
    David
    Moderator

    Hi Dutchie–The first part of what you said was part of my point, but I may not have explained myself well. It’s not the overfeeding, per se, that increases BMR, but the resulting weight gain. I think most people will gain a combination of fat and lean tissue from overfeeding, and these are the two greatest factors in explaining an individual’s BMR (from the paper I looked at–http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/82/5/941.full).

    Even if we just gain fat from overfeeding, that fat alone will increase our metabolism. However, our fat-free mass (mainly muscle, I suppose) is five times more metabolically active, so increasing muscle mass will have an even greater effective on BMR.

    Of course, it’s much harder to build muscle than accumulate fat. An increase of 2-3 pounds of muscle in one month would be a great achievement, while gaining 10-15 pounds of fat isn’t really all that difficult. So the “easiest” way to increase one’s metabolism is just to eat until you get fat.

    Not that that’s a good thing! I’m not convinced that metabolic rate is all that significant for our well-being, except in extreme cases of hormone deficiencies or starvation. But these situations can easily be reversed by hormone replacement or eating. Normal dieting does lower metabolism, but that can be explained simply by the fact that thinner people have slower metabolisms than bigger people! That’s the opposite of what many people expect, but that’s confirmed by research on BMR.

    Dieting that burns muscle will lower metabolism even more than just fat loss, so of course that should be avoided. Resistance training while dieting can help maintain lean mass, and adequate protein is also important.

    #13205
    hazmatt
    Participant

    i think that while neurochemical reactions certainly play a role in the positive effects of overfeeding, the aim of overfeeding is to induce a deeper “metabolic” change. not metabolism in the conventional sense of energy consumption, but metabolism in the sense of superior physical functioning. the improvement in your trigeminal nerve issue reminds me of matt’s improvement in tooth sensitivity. i haven’t paid too much attention to whether my teeth have become less sensitive, but i know for sure that when i’m using stimulants or caffeine chronically, my teeth are much more sensitive. i think we underestimate the global impact of elevated stress hormones on our physiology, and many of the improvements seen by those who overfeed are simply reversals of the damage done by being in a stress hormone dominant state, and not simply a neurochemical numbing effect.

    as for the improvements seen with your exercising, endorphins are released during exercise, and there’s also a lot of evidence that exercise makes your brain more resilient to stress. i think exercise is a vital part of any and every lifestyle, and the intensity should match your current level of health. however, i don’t think the same mechanism is at work behind overfeeding and exercise.

    #13207
    David
    Moderator

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. You’re probably correct that the underlying mechanisms are not exactly the same, but for me, the central effects–improved mood, increased relaxation, reduced pain–have been remarkably similar.

    There’s no guarantee everyone would experience the results I did, but I think it’s at least worth considering adopting a cardio program, for those who are frustrated with the weight gain from overfeeding. It’s possible they can achieve the same goals without falling into a poor state of physical conditioning.

    Your point about chronic stress hormones is a good one. Corticosteroids (such as prednisone) often worsen my trigeminal pain, which makes me think the nerve might have become sensitized to stress. It may be that exercise also has an anti-stress effect–I’ve heard that suggested before–and helps control stress hormone production as well as overfeeding. I find that I need to keep my runs at any easy pace to benefit from them, while running hard will often produce a reappearance of symptoms. So intense exercise may increase stress, while slow, steady exercise reduces it.

    #13208
    IsleWalker
    Participant

    Yes, David, I agree with Hazmatt. Both thyroid medications and caffeine or other stimulants stress your system at the same time they are supposedly providing you more energy (i.e. higher metabolism). It is higher at a cost–and that’s how most of us got here in the first place!

    I am having my own doubts about whether this will work for me. I’ve been doing it about 3 weeks, but it hasn’t yet touched my nighttime cortisol levels (reversed from normal). I load and load. I eat at 7pm, 10 pm. I finally started keeping eclairs or Hohos (as these seemed to work for some time) at the bedside, but I still can’t seem to get through the night without bad effects (pressure/pain in eyeballs, stiff muscles) which have been symptoms of a low metabolism for me. Matt doesn’t really address it in his book (at least the one I got).

    Anyway, just feel the real answers take time and not medication or stimulation. That’s forcing the body to do what it is already telling us it doesn’t want to (or else we’d have the energy).

    #13210
    David
    Moderator

    I’m not a fan of stimulants either, and I’ve given up on a medical solution to my issues (and by “medical” I mean “pharamaceutical,” which is practically a synonym).

    When I finished my overfeeding period (at which point I was eating 5-6k calories a day), I had almost no energy for exercise, and my appetite was bigger than ever. Unfortunately, all those calories deprived me of physical energy, rather than providing it. This is the opposite of my experience with running, which has increased my daily energy levels, even though I’m burning more calories than I consume.

    I recognize that overfeeding is helpful for many people at certain periods in their life, but it’s not a long-term solution. It can help a person through a health crisis, but if it’s kept up too long it leads to obesity and inactivity, which bring problems of their own. At least that was my experience.

    #13221
    Leighton
    Participant

    For whatever it’s worth, I just wanted to say that my experience has been very similar to David’s. I started playing around with this 7 years ago (long before I found this wonderful site), and I have found the same thing regarding the effects of both overfeeding and exercise. (Keep in mind I have never had an eating disorder or purposefully dieted.) I experienced great benefits from overfeeding, but at a price. Some existing problems got better, but I developed new problems in the process (that did not subside over time). I strongly believe that everything in life is cost/benefit–risk/reward, and I got to a point where it was no longer worth it to the extent that I was taking things. Enter exercise. For me, this filled the void that not overfeeding day in and day out left behind. I still often eat until it hurts when I am extremely stressed, but fortunately I no longer have to do this everyday (year after year) to feel calm and to have a decent amount of energy. (Yes, I realize that overfeeding is only meant to be temporary.)

    Damn, I’m glad that it’s Friday. Hope everyone has a great weekend!

    #13222
    IsleWalker
    Participant

    Leighton–

    Just curious why you began the refeeding if you hadn’t had an eating disorder or purposefully dieted. What prompted you to do it?

    I guess I could put myself in that category too, but I had extreme metabolic things going wrong–for years, decades even.

    I have/had been a runner for 35+ years and it has been a way for me to pull out of depression. But I did take to heart what Matt talked about in his book that I was training my body to lower my metabolism, create organs that were smaller and required less to function. What does a runner do after 5 miles? 6 miles, then 7, etc.

    Of course that depends on what you do with the running. I never pushed myself–always refused to time myself after learning the hard way what it did to me to push and overdo. But even though I didn’t push more and more distance, I pushed to do the same distance more often. I was trying to do 100 days is a row of my 5-mile up a mountain and running down. I got to 63 and felt disappointed in myself.

    Knowing that I enjoy running but that it is not exactly an exercise that leads to strength training (the way I do it), I’m really not sure what exercise I want to do. I hate, HATE the idea of weight training. I don’t have any upper body strength, I hate being in sweat-soaked gyms, I use poor form. It’s just not my thing. I think doing handstands (when I feel like it) will be the best I can do. [I should say that I’m 61, so no spring chicken. ]

    I too am questioning the refeeding since I don’t have more energy since I’ve been eating so much–I have less. But my temps are better. I am not able to eat “regularly” since regular was way too little food. So it’s all new, all filling. I just thought I’d wait until I could maintain the temps and warm hands/feet 24 hours, but that might take a long, long time the way it seems to be going.

    I will watch how you all solve your eating/exercise questions. THanks for the discussions.

    • This reply was modified 8 years, 11 months ago by IsleWalker.
    #13227
    emcee314
    Participant

    I believe like all things – balance is key. Finding that happy medium, while overfeeding certainly feels great and service it’s purpose short term, the same can be said about increasing exercise to gain energy, either way your body will strive to find that ideal balance where it functions best, just my two cents

    #13230
    David
    Moderator

    Great comments, everybody! I appreciate the receptiveness to new ideas at this site.

    @Leighton- It does sound like we’ve had a very similar experience, and I agree with your take on it. Occasional feasts with the objective of “taking the edge off” seem to me like the best way to approach overfeeding. Long-term hypercaloric diets, for those who aren’t recovering from an eating disorder, are also likely to cause long-term problems. I’ve been kind of amazed at how well exercise replaces the good feelings of a binge, but with the benefits increasing over time rather than decreasing. I’m still not as fit as I was in my early 20s, but I’ve never had the same level of commitment to exercise. I think it’s reasonable to aim to be in the best shape of my life, even as I approach my mid-30s.

    @IsleWalker- I know you addressed your comment to Leighton, but I though I would respond too, since I also started the overfeeding process without having an eating disorder. Or at least I didn’t have a conventional eating disorder. I did obsess off-and-on for many years about finding the “perfect diet” that would deliver me from my health issues, and I looked at overfeeding as another one of these diets. Amazingly, it worked better than any other diet had–it did resolve my pain issue, so there’s clearly a therapeutic effect. And the pain came back when I gave up the diet, until I discovered that regular exercise–not half-hearted, like my usual practice, but every day–was just as therapeutic.

    That’s incredible that you’ve run for so many years. I wouldn’t think that weight training is unnecessary if you don’t like it. If you’re concerned about keeping building muscular strength, body-weight exercises are also very effective. A basic starting routine might include push-ups (or modified push-ups), body weight squats, and sit-ups, with other exercises added as you like. If you can do a handstand, you must have pretty good arm strength. If you can do handstand push-ups, you will get amazingly strong shoulders!

    @emcee314- Good point. Exercise can be overdone just as much as overfeeding. I have an extreme personality in some ways, so I’ll sometimes push myself too hard before I’m ready. That inevitably results in a return of my fatigue, sleep problems, and pain. Thankfully, as I get older I’m getting better at moderation, and I’ve been pretty successful at make gradual improvements lately, rather than letting my ego take over and working out so hard I regret it.

    #13238
    Leighton
    Participant

    IsleWalker-

    I’m sorry, I thought that I responded earlier, but I cannot find my post. I now probably have some obscurely placed response somewhere on this website (I know I wrote it).

    Anyway, I started overfeeding because I essentially emotionally and physically broke. It was absolutely not on purpose. My body took over, and fortunately I just went with it. Initially, I was overfeeding because I literally could not stop. Then, I kept overfeeding because I secretly hoped it would help some long withstanding health issues I had/have. My main complaint being mad bad fatigue. I have some chronic issues with my neck as well. I should say that I don’t know what my temp. was before I started all this–I never thought to check. I can’t imagine that is was good. Frankly, it still sucks.

    Exercise. My only criteria is that it feel good to my body. It took me awhile to realize (and be ok with) that this is forever changing. Personally, I hate running. I’m good for like 2 whole minutes at a time. Also, I hate sustained cardio. Maybe, what you are doing no longer benefits you like it has in the past? I think that’s ok. Maybe, there is something that would now suit you better? Just a thought.

    Great discussion, and all the best! Thanks everyone for their experiences!

    #13245
    IsleWalker
    Participant

    Leighton–Yes, you did answer me elsewhere. It’s all good. I see lots of parallels in our experiences.

    I’ve just decided this morning that the refeeding phase is done. This isn’t fun. I will take onboard what I learned about what the food does to my temps (and cold hands and feet) and still feed that the right way. But I’m no longer going to force feed.

    I realized I’ve had a long pattern of underfeeding as the day goes on, so I will gradually fix that. I need more proteins too.

    As for the exercise, I experimented once in the last few weeks with a walk. I got my “dead time” back–those three hours in the middle of the day when I’m just zonked. I think maybe that the 2-3 hours of energy I feel in the morning isn’t yet the cortisol phase (which is actually a good thing if you’re looking at when it hits. It’s designed to provide nutrients to your body during it’s highest need.) I think I still have the cortisol trying to produce at night, which just physically tears the body apart at a time when it should be repairing. I’m still not sure how to work at that except with later eating.

    I always had resumed exercise when I felt reasonably well. I would do it during my “good” 2-3 hours in the morning. I will have to experiment to see if that is just burning the only energy I have.

    Sorry–kind of talking out loud to myself. David–All of your experiences are making me reevaluate a lot of things. But that’s what this is all about, right? Letting your body lead and following with the right type of nutrition at the right time?

    Thanks for all the comments.

    Lora

    #13247
    David
    Moderator

    Lora,

    I wish you the best of luck with any changes that you make. My advice would be take it very easy at first, because your conditioning and fitness level can deteriorate quickly if you haven’t exercised in a while. The good news is that the body strengthens itself almost immediately in response to any activity. I’ve been reading about physical changes that accompany running, and they include the growth of new capillaries to facilitate blood flow, both in the muscles and the lungs, new mitchondria and enzymes in the individual cells, a stronger heart, reduced visceral fat around the organs, lower blood pressure (because the blood vessels lose their stiffness), stronger muscles and connective tissue, and denser bones. It’s amazing to me that our bodies adapt so efficiently. I find it very exciting to think of my body remaking itself day-by-day as I gradually improve my distances.

    I also hated cardio–detested it!–for the first few months. I would pant, my legs and back would hurt, and sometimes I dreaded the thought of ever running again. I still felt good after a ran, but maybe I pushed myself too hard, too soon. Still, in the last few weeks I’ve reached a new level, where I can go out and run 30-40 minutes (at a slow pace) five times a week, and it doesn’t feel like such hard work anymore. I still get sore legs, but it’s a small price to pay for my improved mood and enjoyment of life. Not to mention my improved waist line. I still have some weight to lose, but I’m looking pretty good in my autumn sweaters!

    I only mention running because that’s my exercise of choice, though I do hit the weights a few times a week so I can maintain and build muscle. My own opinion is that all exercise is good, as long as it’s something that you wouldn’t mind doing on a regular basis.

    #13248
    Linda
    Participant

    David, I don’t suppose steadily walking would be good enough for cardio, would it? I have never been a runner, don’t see me running in the future & since I hurt my foot walking is the best I can do. We’ve been talking in my “impatient” thread. I am starting to feel much more energetic now. I don’t know if it’s the supplements I am taking, but I really feel like moving.

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