Set Point Theory: Weight & Finding a Balance

Set Point Theory 101

If you’ve ever tried to lose weight, you know how utterly difficult it is. Weight loss seems an almost impossible task for most people and there’s actually a reason for this. Your body is trying to protect you and is trying to function normally. When you attempt to lose a significant amount of weight your body actually wants to hold onto it in order to maintain homeostasis. The body wants homeostasis. It likes to maintain a temperature of 98.6. Additionally, the body wants to maintain a healthy blood pressure. If the pressure goes up, the heart slows down. If it goes down, the heart speeds up to try and compensate. Lastly, the body breathes all on its own. The nervous system maintains breathing patterns to ensure the body gets enough oxygen.  The body wants to maintain a healthy balance, keeping things just as it likes.

Our bodies are smarter than we give them credit for. They’re able to regulate hunger/fullness, fat, and weight all by themselves without our intrusion. Specifically, they do this by holding a weight range where the body functions optimally. The range, called the set point, could vary by 10-20 pounds and at any given time you can be somewhere on the spectrum. This is important because many people spend their time controlling their food, exercising to burn fat and calories, and overall obsessing about what they’re consuming. If they understood a bit more about the set point theory, they may act kinder to their bodies. Here’s an introduction to the idea according to researchers from MIT Medical:

“There is a control system built into every person dictating how much fat he or she should carry – a kind of thermostat for body fat. Some individuals have a high setting, others have a low one. According to this theory, body fat percentage and body weight are matters of internal controls that are set differently in different people.”

This thermostat is self-regulating. The body controls it without much effort. Unlike BMIs that are generalized crap, the thermostat depends on an individual’s circumstances. BMIs are used to measure body fat. They’re bad for a variety of reasons, one being that the person who created the BMI specifically said it should not be used to measure body fat. Another being it “does not take into account muscle mass, bone density, overall body composition, and racial and sex differences,” according to researchers from the Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania. Instead, this thermostat (or set point range) is far more useful.  It depends mostly on genetics but also on some lifestyle choices and environmental factors. Everyone’s thermostat is different.

While it self-regulates there are also other functions going on in your body. Linda Bacon, discussing the digestive track, sleep patterns, and emotions, says in her book, Health At Every Size, that:

“Your brain assimilates this wealth of information and, in response, produces chemical messengers and nerve responses that regulate your appetite and metabolism, affecting not only when you experience hunger but also what foods appeal to you and how much food it takes to make you feel full.”

Some people are more in-tune with these cues than other people. A Cornell study found that in France they say that the way they know they’re done eating is when they’re full. Americans, on the other hand, say they’re done eating when their plate is clear. Americans are depending more on external cues rather than the important internal messages.

Many people, especially those who’ve dieted, aren’t at all in tune with their cues. In fact, they’ve completely cut themselves off from them by letting themselves go hungry or by binge eating after a restriction. Their connection to their body gets destroyed by feeding into diet culture—a culture that tells them to manipulate their body and obsessively listen to external cues like calorie numbers or weight watcher points. Doing these things leaves people extra hungry.

The reason we get ravenous instead of being able to gracefully resist a juicy burger is because of our history as humans. Thousands of years ago our ancestors hunted for food. Every few days they would hunt and kill something to eat. They’d eat as much as humanly possible to stay alive. Now, we may not need to do that anymore, but our bodies still react in very similar ways. When we don’t have food for a while we gorge when we do have it so that we’re protected and okay. Our bodies want the best for us, yet many people leave their bodies starving in the name of weight loss. This is when your set point range is affected because your body is going to store fat and your set point range is going to go up.

Difficult to accept, the set point theory requires some open-mindedness in order to wrap your head around it, especially in this diet-ridden culture that we live in. Many people push back against the idea (despite the scientific backing) because we’ve been told that weight loss is possible and is exactly what we should strive for. I’m here to tell you that this is bullshit. Let me explain further.

Attempts At Weight Loss

diet-culture.jpg

45 million Americans go on a diet each year. They’re most commonly done to try and lose weight. Despite their soaring popularity, they don’t work. In fact, dieting has been considered the greatest predictor of weight gain. Anyone who’s tried to lose weight knows how absolutely grueling the process is. Even when you do lose weight, you’re almost guaranteed to gain it back (plus more).

In the book Body of Truth: How Science, History, and Culture Drive Our Obsession with Weight – and What We Can Do About It, author Harriet Brown cites statistics that show “Over 45 million Americans will go on a diet at some point each year. All but 5% of them will gain the weight back in a year, and all but 3% of them will gain the weight back plus some extra in three years.” Those are pretty stark statistics.

Fighting back by trying to lose weight is a losing battle. Dieting and restricting food only backfires. A packet compiled by the University of Guelph explains that “The set point, it would appear, is very good at supervising fat storage, but it cannot tell the difference between dieting and starvation.” So when someone’s holding back on eating ice cream every single day while also not consuming enough calories the rest of the day, they’re going to be ravenous. The body is going to go into starvation mode and desire every calorie in sight.

Calorie deprivation on a long-term basis signals to the body to turn down metabolic rate. Your hypothalamus in your brain is informed that the lower level of your body fat storage has been reached. Then calories are burned more slowly, making weight loss incredibly difficult. As a result of this, people often plateau and/or gain weight.

I can’t emphasize enough that attempts at losing weight ironically almost always lead to weight gain. The body defends much more against weight loss than weight gain, due to evolutionary causes like dropping below a set point could mean famine whereas it’s not such a big deal to go above. This is why when people lose weight there’s a tendency to gain it back.

How To Find And Work With YOUR Set Point

Now that we’ve talked all about what set points are, how do you find yours? Well, there isn’t a simple answer, rather a collection of small ideas. To get started I’d pick up copies of the books Health at Every Size by Linda Bacon and Intuitive Eating by Elyse Resch and Evelyn Tribole. They’ll help you begin your journey listening to your body.

According to a paper called Role of set-point theory in regulation of body weight, there’s a range that your body desires to exist in. When beginning to eat intuitively, your body is likely to change. This means tuning into those hunger and fullness cues, rejecting the diet mentality, and honoring your feelings without using food. These are just some examples, find all 10 principles of intuitive eating here.

You may gain weight or you may lose weight, but the key is to try to keep weight out of the picture altogether. Don’t try to manipulate your weight. Rather, let it be what it’s going to be. Allow your body to return to homeostasis by putting down the dieting for good. Pay attention to restrictive thoughts in your mind as those can be just as damaging as restrictive actions. Stop labeling foods as “good” and “bad.” If it’s fitting, get a nutritionist or dietician. Join a community of Health at Every Size people who are working to free themselves from diet culture. Do all of this as gently as you possibly can.

It takes approximately a year of “normal” eating (i.e. no dieting) to even begin to find your set point range. Normal eating involves following those intuitive eating principles. At that point, it’s far more healthy to maintain your weight than it is to try to make it lower. Meaning, you can be healthy at just about any size as long as you’re not putting your body through the trauma of dieting.

Acceptance And Self-Love

Acceptance is way easier said than done. It sounds like such a simple concept, but in practice, I know that it’s very difficult. My weight has gone up and down over the years, at many points being on the higher end of my set point range. No matter where my weight is I’ve found it challenging to accept my body. Especially in this toxic diet culture we live in, accepting and loving your body are radical acts. Letting go of the thin version of yourself that you have floating around in your mind will free you from the totally exhausting expectations of yourself.

Note that a set point is not quite a weight goal. The problem here is attempting to control your weight at all. It’s a mourning process, but you’ve got to let go of the desire to lose weight and change your body. Only in doing this will you begin to find peace. Instead, turn your focus to your health if that’s something you care about. Focus on the way your body moves rather than working out. Focus on eating to feel good rather than to lose weight. You may even ironically lose weight, though this shouldn’t be a focus. You’ll be able to meet your body where it’s at and break free from the chains of diet culture. You’ll enjoy that piece of cake without guilt, you won’t feel inferior around someone who’s smaller than you, and you’ll love yourself enough that you’ll believe you deserve love from someone else.

I know set point theory is a hard pill to swallow, especially when you’ve been conditioned to believe in weight loss like it’s a coming savior. It’s worth it to let go of trying so hard to control your weight.

I’ve experienced returning to the lower end of my weight set point, meaning I’ve lost a decent amount of weight. This doesn’t say anything about my worth as a human being, it’s just saying that my body is adjusting itself to where it wants to be. Because the truth of the matter is I didn’t lose weight by starving myself or going on some crazy diet, it happened through intuitive eating and unlimited permission to eat what I desire. The irony is that I eat way more french fries and far more sweets. It’s amazing. My body is smart, it knows where it wants me.

I work to accept myself. Though I acknowledge that I have the privilege of being thin, I still struggle with self-hatred and thoughts of not being good enough. This may never go away, but what I have is a way of living that is infinitely more freeing than the way I was before. If I do gain weight again, as my body may change where it wants me in my set point range, then I’ll work to practice acceptance, tolerance, and love. I’ll know that trying to lose weight is a losing battle.

So, set point theory is just an idea about how to maintain your weight in a healthy way rather than going on yo-yo diet after yo-yo diet. It’s meant as a reference point rather than something set in stone. It can help you begin to escape from the idea that dieting and weight loss will solve all of your problems. It’s freedom.