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Do you feel like, despite all your best efforts to lose weight, you always seem to gain it right back?
Well, it may be because of the set point theory, according to which your body has a genetically determined weight range that it will fight to maintain.
So, does this mean that you’ll never be able to lose weight no matter what?
Here’s the science on the set point theory and what it means for weight-loss.
What is the set point theory?
Simply put, your set point is the weight your body wants to be at without making any particular effort to maintain it.
The set point theory suggests that your body has a biologically and genetically determined weight range. This preferred bodyweight is regulated by a feedback control mechanism .
This means that if your weight starts to fall out of this range, your body will fight to get it back in there. This range is usually around 5 to 20 pounds. Indeed, some people have a very fluctuating weight while others remain more or less the same weight: this depends on the width of the range.
When your weight falls within your preferential range, you are able to maintain it without much effort as your body won’t fight against any minor changes. However, when you push your body out of this set point, its survival instincts will kick in and it will do everything it can to get back to its “optimal” weight.
HOW DOES THE SET POINT THEORY CONTROL YOUR BODY WEIGHT?
Your set point weight range is regulated by biological signals and a feedback mechanism. Information regarding your body weight is sent to your brain, specifically your hypothalamus.
These signals then modulate your food intake or energy expenditure to correct any deviation from your set point . This process involves hormones such as leptin, ghrelin, and insulin. It’s also been shown that the interaction between leptin and the expression of a specific gene dictate your body weight set point .
So basically, if you lose enough weight to exit your set point range, your body will try to compensate. It can do so in one of two ways, or both of at once.
One option your body has is increasing your appetite, causing you to consume more calories and therefore gaining the weight back. Another option is lowering your metabolism, so that if you continue to consume the same amount of calories for body maintenance, you will start to gain weight.
This system causes your weight to shoot right back up into your set point range. Your weight may fluctuate temporarily, but ultimately it will always return to its normal range because of this signaling and feedback system.
Does it also work this way for weight gain?
Well, regulation of body weight is asymmetric, being more effective in response to weight loss than weight gain.
But ideally, if you occasionally eat too much, the same mechanisms will apply in reverse: your hunger will decrease, and your metabolism will increase to burn the extra calories.
However, if you ignore these signals, you’ll end up over-powering the set point mechanism and gain weight anyway. The mechanism is much harder to over-power when it comes to weight-loss.
Perhaps because, from an evolutionary standpoint, it is seen as riskier to lose too much weight than to gain too much? This regulation may also be masked by Western diets, which cause people to be out of tune with their hunger cues and where the abundance of calorie-dense foods alter biological control .
How to find your set point weight.
There’s no test to tell you exactly what your set point is, but there are a few ways to allow yourself to find it naturally.
First of all, you need to move away from diet culture and wanting to lose weight at all costs. You need to accept the idea that your natural weight may not be your desired weight. You need to focus on building a healthy relationship with food without letting your weight interfere.
Here are a few articles I wrote that may help with you with this:
- How to ditch diet culture
- Dangers of the all-or-nothing mentality
- How to deal with food guilt
- How to end food obsession
It’s also essential to turn your focus to mindful and intuitive eating. Intuitive eating is an evidence-based way of eating that promotes a healthy relationship with food. It focuses on your body’s internal hunger and fullness cues instead of outside rules and restrictions.
It’s a personal process of honoring your health by listening to your body’s signals in order to meet your needs. It is NOT a diet or food plan but rather a way of life that aims to free you from diet culture. You can learn more about intuitive eating and its principles here.
Intuitive eating also means eating mindfully in order to regain control over your eating habits. It means being aware of what you eat, and eating consciously in a healthy and balanced way in order to rediscover taste, flavor, and pleasure.
The goal is to listen to what your body needs and to know when you are hungry and when you are full by tuning into your hunger cues. It involves eating slowly and doing so without any distractions, focusing on appreciating your food.
Here’s more information on how to practice mindful eating if you’re interested.
Once you free yourself from countless dieting cycles, build a healthy relationship with food, and turn to more mindful and intuitive eating, you will naturally find your set point weight that doesn’t require any effort to maintain.
It may fluctuate a bit depending on certain circumstances, but should always stay within that optimal range rather effortlessly.
Can you change your set point?
The case might also be that you’re not interested in finding your current set point, but are wondering how to lose weight despite it. The answer for long-lasting weight-loss would be to change your set point— but is that possible?
Here’s some good news: it’s actually is! It may take some time and effort, but you can lower your set point if you’re trying to lose weight. In order to do so, you need to lose weight slowly, over a long period of time, so that you’re not working against your body’s natural tendency to maintain it.
It’s recommended not to lose more than 10% of your bodyweight at a time— lose more than that and your body will start to fight back . Your metabolism will slow down and your hunger will increase, making it very difficult for you to maintain the weight you lost.
The recommended  safe weight-loss rate is around 1 to 2 pounds a week, which is great to aim for. If you want to know all of the reasons why you shouldn’t lose weight too fast, check out this article I wrote on the subject.
In order to change your set point gradually, losing one pound a week and being persistent in maintaining that weight is much better than losing 5 pounds a week for 3 weeks, finding it too difficult, and quitting the whole process.
You also need to give yourself time to adjust your eating habits gradually. You can’t go from living on mountains of processed foods to having salads twice a day.
In order to succeed, the best thing you can do is to learn the basics of nutrition, make home-cooked meals with healthy and nutritious ingredients, eat mindfully, and care for your body.
Exercise is also very important during this process as it will help boost your metabolism. Here’s an article I wrote on how exercise influences nutrition and weight loss for more information on the subject.
Make sure to also check out my healthy eating for beginners article! It covers all the basics on nutrition, healthy eating, and building a great relationship with food.
Set point theory in conclusion.
The set point theory states that you have a biologically and genetically determined weight range within which your body functions optimally, and that it fights to maintain. This makes losing weight pretty difficult.
However, it is possible to change your set point by losing weight slowly and gradually. You can do this by learning the basics of nutrition, making home-cooked meals with healthy and nutritious ingredients, eating mindfully, and exercising!