Do you ever feel like no matter what you do, your weight stays within the same 10-15 pounds? Or you diet and lose weight, but your weight always goes back to where you started (or a bit higher)? This isn’t some flaw or glitch in your system. Set point theory explains why this phenomenon happens to so many of us.
What is Set Point Theory?
Set point theory (or set point weight theory) is the idea that our bodies have an internal fat (or weight) regulation system. We are hardwired to fall into a certain weight range, the same as we are destined to be a certain height.
You may have seen this theory proven true in your own life, as you attempted to diet (or maybe even to gain weight) and despite your best efforts, your body just went back to the same weight it was. Maybe the number on the scale even crept up a little higher.
How is My Set Point Determined?
Ever wonder why height, body size or shape, eye color, hair color, and a slew of other traits seem to run in families? It’s genetics. Just as you might get your blue eyes or your tallness (or lack of) from your mother’s side, you might also receive the genes for a certain weight range or body shape.
When you impose restriction or an over abundance of energy on your body, either by lifestyle decisions or through no fault of your own (think famine or other environmental conditions out of your control), your body will respond. The response is such that it will do whatever it can do get your body weight back into a range that it can function optimally and keep you alive.
When we look our bodies from an evolutionary standpoint, it really has only been the past few hundred years that food has been readily available. Our bodies react to periods of restriction (or starvation) by decreasing the rate at which we burn energy and increasing our hunger and drive to eat. Your body wants you to survive. For all it knows, the next famine is right around the corner, when in reality, it’s just your next diet.
How Does My Body Maintain This Constant Weight?
Even if you don’t weigh yourself or make any conscious effort to maintain a certain weight, your body has you covered. All without you knowing these pieces are hard at work trying to maintain your own set point weight.
There are over 50 years of studies that support this idea that your body will try to maintain your body fat levels at a range that your body functions best (not the level you want it to be). This is controlled by a small area of the brain called the hypothalamus.
The hypothalamus does several things to keep us functioning properly, but its main job is to keep our bodies in a state of “sameness”. This means regulating body temperature, fluid levels, and of course, weight. Below are some ways that it achieves this set range, despite our best efforts to change it.
One way that your body attempts to keep you at a stable weight is by changing your metabolic rate, or the rate at which you burn calories, to offset the weight change. When you have a decrease in energy intake or increase in expenditure that causes your fat levels to drop out of its desired range (keep in mind: this is your body’s desired range, not the range you or your doctor desires), your body will rebel. You become much more efficient in your energy expenditure, burning less calories and storing more fat until your weight range is restored.
Note that this can happen the other way around as well- if someone is making huge efforts to gain weight outside of their set point, their metabolism will increase in an attempt to decrease their weight and fat stores back down.
The hormones that control our hunger and fullness are controlled, in part, by the hypothalamus. Leptin (also known as the fullness hormone) and Ghrelin (known as the hunger hormone) are the biggest players when it comes to how much we want to eat and how full we feel.
Leptin is an interesting hormone that I think deserves a bit of attention. Your fat cells are full of leptin. The bigger your fat cells, the more leptin you have. When you lose fat cells, you lose leptin, increasing hunger, and therefore often resulting in weight gain. Ironically, it doesn’t work as effectively when you flip the scenario around. More weight means more protection for your body during the next famine (diet) so it will always favor a higher weight over a lower one.
It is super important to note that this concept with leptin is just ONE part of the puzzle. Our sleep, movement, stress, emotions, and overall lifestyle impacts the release and recognition of the hormones that play a part in hunger, fullness, and overall weight regulation.
How Do You Know If You Are At Your Set Point Weight?
Knowing what the healthy, natural weight is for your individual body can be frustrating, but it doesn’t have to be! To know if you are at your set point weight, ask yourself:
- Has my weight remained the same for the past 6 months (within 10-20 pounds)?
- Am I eating “normally” (in response to hunger and fullness, without restriction). Am I including variety in your meals and snacks?
- Do I exercise or move my body in a way that feels good?
If you said YES, then you are likely at or close to your set point weight. If you answered no, then you might be higher or lower than what your body naturally wants to be.
Can You Change Your Set Point Weight?
The question everyone wants to know! If you don’t like it, can you change it? When you actively try to change what your body is comfortable and biologically happy being, it will always be a struggle. Actively trying to lower this set point by dieting and restricting often results in a new set point that is higher than the one before.
It is NOT your body trying to make your life miserable, but really just trying to keep you alive and prepare for the next diet that is to come. Extreme restriction can have a lasting impact on your body.
We see this impact through the Biggest Loser Study, where 14 of the contestants were studied at initial weight loss and then again 6 years later. They had lost over 100 pounds (many of them), but had a drastic decrease in their leptin levels (leading them to be ALWAYS hungry), as well as a severe decrease in their metabolism.
Six years later, when most regained their weight, their leptin levels and metabolism did not come back proportionally with the weight gain. Instead, their weight increased, while leptin levels and their resting metabolic rate (energy burned at rest) remained lower than baseline.
Are You Unhappy With Your Set Point Weight?
If you answered yes to the questions above; you are eating intuitively, moving your body regularly, and have maintained stable weight but are NOT happy with where you are at, your unhappiness will unlikely be cured by weight loss itself.
If you feel like you are not at your set point weight, and have been fluctuating, restricting or in the diet/binge cycle, you have the power to change your behaviors and mentality around food.
Shifting the focus from the number on the scale to your relationship with food and your body is the first step in making REAL positive change in your life. My BEST advice is to stop working against your body, and begin to work with your body. After all, it’s the only one you have.
Your Next Step
Are you ready to stop losing weight only to gain it back plus more? Stop the dieting cycle and start your journey to a healthier and happier you that can be sustained.