Set Point Theory & The Limits of Weight Loss
Updated: Sep 15, 2020
If you’ve worked with a personal trainer, nutritionist, chiropractor, or naturopath, you’ve almost certainly been asked what your goal weight is. NO NO NO! The idea that you can manipulate your body to achieve an arbitrary desirable weight is highly problematic.
The diet industry is worth over 70 billion-dollars annually.
Friends. There's a multi billion dollar industry using it's influence to convince you that, simply by force of will, you can shrink your body indefinitely. The truth is each of us has a different weight at which our bodies function optimally. This easy-to-maintain weight is your set point. And, despite what the diet industry tells you, it's not sustainable to force your body below its natural weight.
Set point theory is supported by numerous animal and human studies demonstrating that bodies have a predetermined weight at which they comfortably settle. A person’s weight may fluctuate by 10 to 20lbs within his or her set point but, as weight dips below the set point, the metabolism slows as a protective mechanism to guard against starvation. If you’ve ever experienced a weight plateau while dieting, you’ve likely bumped up against the lower limits of your set-point.
Maybe this sounds familiar:
"Three years ago I lost about fifteen pounds just by paying a little more attention to what I was eating and walking more. But then I decided I really wanted to lose another fifteen pounds. So I went on a super strict diet and starting working out six days a week. I lost ten more pounds but never achieved my goal weight. After a few months I gave up on the diet and I ended up gaining back all the weight I lost and more. Now I would give anything to be back where I started three years ago.”
This experience of weight loss that feels easy at first, then challenging, and ultimately results in weight gain perfectly exemplifies set point theory. Remember your body doesn’t care about BMI. It doesn’t care what the current “ideal” frame is. Your body cares about preventing starvation! When your weight drops below your set point, your body panics and release a cascade of hormones to slow your metabolism and amplify your hunger cues.
Ok . . . so how do I know what my set point weight is?
There’s no equation to calculate your set point weight. You probably won’t know your set point until you’re there. Even so, the following considerations may offer some insight.
Are you above your set point?
If you answer yes to some or most of these questions, you may be above your set point weight.
Do you frequently eat to discomfort?
Do you find it difficult to stop eating, even when you’re full?
Do you skip meals or restrict food during the day to “be good” only to find yourself overeating at night?
Do you notice yourself eating in an out-of-control manner either before starting a new diet or after giving up on a diet?
Do you use food as a coping mechanism to manage stress, loneliness, or fatigue?
Are you below your set point?
If you answer yes to some or most of these questions, you may be below your set point weight.
Are you often preoccupied with food, thinking about your next meal, or calculating calories/macros in your head?
Do you notice yourself feeling very hungry throughout the day?
Do you participate in high intensity physical activities multiple times per week? (Especially activities that leave you feeling very hungry or worn out afterwards)
Do you have infrequent periods? Exceptionally light periods (1-3 days of light flow)? Or do you miss your period all together?
What is your set point?
In the last 5 years, has there been a weight you were able to easily maintain, without using restrictive diets or intense physical activity? This may be your set point weight.
Have you always had a bigger body? Were you bigger even as a child or teenager? Are most of your family members at higher body weights? If yes, you may have a naturally bigger body.
Have you always had a smaller body? Are you able to find clothes that fit you at brick and mortar stores? Have most of your family members maintained a smaller size as they’ve aged? If yes, you may have a naturally smaller body.
Have you experienced significant weight fluctuations (+/- 75 lbs, with or without weight loss surgery) multiple times throughout your life? If yes, your set point weight may be difficult to estimate.
Are you taking medications such as anti-depressants or corticosteroids that cause weight gain? If yes, your set point weight may be difficult to estimate.
Remember human metabolism is highly nuanced and complex. Your set point is not an exact weight, rather a range, and it may change over time. While there is much we still need to learn about the neurological and hormonal pathways that regulate metabolism, one thing is clear: fighting against your natural set point leads to weight gain, food obsession, and body dissatisfaction. Let your body set its own goal weight and discover the ease that comes with living at the size that’s right for you.