What is weight set point theory?
What the heck is weight set point theory? You may have heard about this after you have started intuitive eating. It sounds like a technical, scientific term, but in reality it’s quite straight forward.
Let me explain (I promise I won’t baffle you with loads of science!).
By the way, if you would like to listen to this one as a podcast episode you can do that here…..
How do we regulate our weight set point?
Your body has a really sophisticated system that helps you to maintain a stable weight. This involves various hormones that communicate with the brain in order to regulate your appetite, decide how much energy you use, how much fat you store etc.
Leptin, known as the satiety hormone, signals when we’ve had enough to eat, and ghrelin, the hunger hormone, stimulates appetite and makes you hungry when you are running low. Then there’s insulin, a hormone involved in glucose metabolism, which also plays a role in regulating body weight. These are 3 of the big names in the game, but there are obviously others. This isn’t a biology lesson though, so let’s not get into that too much!
Your weight set point range is a weight range that your body sees to be a comfortable natural balance. It’s the weight that your body strives to maintain. You may have periods of short-term fluctuations in weight for many reasons, like illness, changes in eating habits, change in your lifestyle etc, but your body will always try to come back to this weight set point.
Every person has their own unique weight set point range, so your body’s ideal weight will be different to someone else’s. You can never really know exactly what that is, and yes, it will change over time.
There’s a lot that influences the weight set point range. Internally, your systems change, and there may be changes in your hormones, your metabolism, your eating habits, your physical and mental health. Externally, your lifestyle, eating habits, and physical activity, environment etc also change and impact your weight set point.
Also, as if that wasn’t enough, your body is genetically programmed to be a certain shape and size. You have over 100 genes that have already determined this before you were born, so even if you could control the internal and external factors, you can’t do anything about your genetics. You can’t really permanently mess with your weight long term all that successfully with all of that at play.
While weight set points are generally stable, they are not fixed forever. As life goes on changes happen to your eating habits, your level of regular physical activity, your stress levels, and the way the body works changes with these, so there is the possibility that your weight set point will change over time for you.
How does dieting affect your weight set point?
When you try to deviate away from your weight set point range, your body responds by making metabolic adaptations (big words, I know!). This basically means that your body will make changes to your internal systems to make its use of any energy supplies the most efficient it can be. Your body truly is an awesome machine.
These adaptations aim to restore the body to its set point weight. For example, when you restrict calories for weight loss, your metabolism may slow down to conserve energy, making weight loss more challenging. This is why you might recognise that the longer you are in a restrictive diet, the harder it is to keep losing weight, and you have a weight loss plateau. You can’t seem to lose weight no matter how perfectly you stick to the diet.
Similarly, weight gain can lead to an increase in metabolism to return to the set point range too, so this isn’t biased towards weight loss only. This weight stability mechanism acts as a defence mechanism. Your body knows that you’re at risk of harm and is protecting you.
Unfortunately, you’re probably correct in thinking that all the dieting has had an impact on your weight set point. Weight set point theory says that your body has a natural tendency to resist significant and sustained weight loss or gain, so each time you try to lose weight your body is going to fight back. This fight back also protects you from future dieting. Here’s what the cycle looks like:
You lose weight on the diet, your weight plateaus, you give up your diet, the weight comes back on, plus a little more. So you get back on the diet, lose weight, weight plateaus…… and on it goes!
This will explain why it feels like you lose weight and then gain it back, plus a bit more.
“If I’d known I’d increase my weight set point I’d never have dieted”
I know. I absolutely understand. It sucks. It really does. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, and if we all knew before we started a diet what the consequences would be the world would be a very different place.
Diet clubs everywhere would fold and be no more.
People would understand why people chose not to diet.
You would have more compassion for yourself and know that you didn’t fail, the diet failed you.
The really important thing is to not beat yourself up about this. You were not to know what difference it would make, and feeling guilty or shameful for that will do nothing positive for you. Let that go, and move forward now.
Have some comfort in knowing that it is not your fault if you have gained weight after you stopped dieting. You didn’t give up, fail, have a lack of willpower, or no self control. Your body just fought hard to look after you, and is simply returning it to a place of safety and optimum functioning.
Weight set point and body acceptance
Embracing weight set point theory can actually lead to greater body acceptance and improved well-being. It encourages you to let go of unrealistic weight loss goals. If you know that your body will always fight back against weight loss maybe you could see that to force it by dieting is a fruitless task. The body is incredible. It will always win!
Body acceptance is hard when you feel angry at dieting for essentially creating the body that you have now, but try to be kind to yourself.
Could you see, accept and appreciate that your body is unique and capable of awesome things? You can start by just being grateful for what your body does for you. From here you can work on having a more positive body image, better self-esteem, and better mental and emotional health.
Start small, start with appreciation, and it can build over time into maybe starting to like yourself.