Are you naturally curvy? Or have a number on the scale that doesn’t meet society’s standards? Maybe you’ve tried to lose weight for years, with no success.
Your experience can be explained by the Set Point Theory.
The Set Point Theory suggests your body weight is a predetermined and preferred physiological state of your body.
Through internal controls, your body will fight to stay at your set point weight. This can happen even when your weight is higher than what is considered a “healthy weight.”
Read on to learn more about your set point weight and how it impacts weight loss.
- Evidence for the Set Point Theory
- How do I know my body’s set point weight?
- How can I change my body’s set point weight?
- Embracing your set point with the Health at Every Size (HAES) Theory
Evidence for the Set Point Theory
The set point theory argues that you have internal controls your body uses to maintain a preferred weight.
It uses these controls to adjust how much you eat and how you use energy. These internal controls include hormones, metabolism, and genetics.
Here are some ways your body fights to gain the weight back after weight loss:
- Leptin is a hormone that lowers appetite. When you lose fat, leptin is blocked, causing you to feel hungrier.
- Ghrelin is a hormone that stimulates appetite. When you lose weight, ghrelin can increase, causing you to feel hungrier.
- Your metabolism helps burn calories. When you lose weight, your metabolic rate slows down.
- Genetics influence your metabolism. You can have genetic variations that increase your natural tendency to be overweight. Maybe that’s one reason why if you have at least one parent who is obese, you have a 50% chance of becoming obese as well. (1)
How do I know my body’s set point weight?
You can know your body’s set point weight by regularly weighing yourself. It is the weight you normally hover around when you are not dieting.
You may be a couple of pounds below or above your set point at times, but generally, it should be fairly stable.
Another way to know is if you’ve ever lost weight only to regain it again. The weight your body went back to is considered your set point.
A helpful hint is to look at your parents, grandparents & siblings since genetics is an influence.
If you are a woman, see if the women in your family had similar weights at your age. If so, this is likely your natural, set point weight.
Keep in mind you can have multiple set points during your lifetime. If you regularly eat more than what you need, over time, your body will naturally adjust to a higher set point.
How can I change my body’s set point weight?
Your internal controls are only one factor in the complicated endeavor of weight loss. You can change your body’s set point by controlling other factors involved in weight loss, such as your habits and environment.
Let’s think about how a set point could become higher since we’ve seen this case often. Think about a young adult who has a low set point but starts to become regularly less active and eat more calorie-dense foods. Because of this, they become overweight.
By keeping up these unhealthy habits, over time their body will adjust to this higher set point. When they decide to diet to reach their younger weight, it will be much more difficult because their body has adjusted to a higher set point.
In the same way, be encouraged that if your body is at a higher set point, it is possible to have healthy habits that overtime will help you maintain a lower weight.
But it will probably take more effort and take longer than you think.
You’ll need to exercise…a lot
A high level of activity is an essential habit for effectively dropping your set point.
It’s advised people get at least 150 minutes of physical activity every week. This level of activity is enough for you to lose weight. (2,3)
But get this, after you’ve lost the weight, you have to exercise even more to keep it off.
To maintain your new lower weight (reaching a new set point), you’ll need to exercise for greater than 200 minutes every week. (2,3) Part of why high levels of activity are necessary is because it helps keep up your metabolism.
Get a good night’s sleep
Sleep can affect your metabolism and hunger-related hormones. So you’ll want to ensure you get proper sleep every night, in both length (7 to 9 hours) and quality.
Lack of sleep is associated with increased fat storage and weight gain due to its adverse effects on metabolism. (4)
Do you remember I mentioned at the beginning that your body lowers leptin and increases ghrelin when you lose weight, causing you to feel hungrier?
Well, sleep loss will do the same thing to these hunger hormones! (5) Get the rest your body needs so you do not compound the issue.
Maintain healthy habits
In addition to exercise and sleep, follow a reduced-calorie diet, eat mindfully, and check your weight regularly.
To learn more about how to lose weight when you are stuck at a set point read Try These Lifestyle Hacks When You Can’t Lose Any More Weight.
Don’t lose the weight too quickly
The best way to lower your set point is to lose weight at a slow and steady pace. If you lose weight too quickly, your body will fight hard to gain the weight back.
Drastic weight changes cause drastic responses from your body.
Like I talked about in the blog post, Why So Many Dietitians Are Against Actual Diets, a perfect example is what happened to contestants of NBC’s reality show “The Biggest Loser.”
The average contestant on the show lost almost 10 pounds per week. Some even lost up to 20 to 30+ pounds in a week. This is extreme weight loss.
Most of them have regained the weight they lost, and some are even heavier now than when they started the show.
Why did they regain the weight? A research study on them found their metabolism slowed and their leptin levels dropped drastically. (6)
These body changes will cause someone to always be hungry and put on pounds easily. Their bodies were fighting to get back to their set point.
This reaction will happen with anyone who loses weight, but it is much less extreme when you lose weight at a slow and steady pace.
Your weight loss goal should be to only lose 5 to 10% of your current body weight. Then, maintain it for 6 months before trying to lose another 5 to 10%. (7)
In addition, you should only lose 1-2 pounds per week. This is the best way to help the body adjust to lower set points.
Embracing your set point with the Health at Every Size (HAES) Theory
If your natural set point is higher than what is considered a normal BMI, you may not need to worry about losing weight.
The Health at Every Size (HAES) Theory argues that you can be what is considered overweight or obese, and still be a healthy person that lives a long life.
As long as you have healthy habits, you can embrace your size and know you are healthy.
HAES cites research that reveals people who are overweight but have a healthy lifestyle can improve their blood pressure and cholesterol without losing weight. (8)
Also, in research, when controlling for factors such as eating habits, the risk for disease in overweight people who have healthy lifestyles is much less than what people think.
As Linda Bacon says in her HAES manifesto, “humans come in a variety of sizes and shapes.” (8) Healthy habits are more important than a number on a scale.
If this post helped you in your weight loss journey, remember to pin it or share it with friends on your favorite social media platform!
1. Obesity Causes. UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Website. Link
2. Donnelly JE, Blair SN, Jakicic JM, et al. American College of Sports Medicine Position Stand. Appropriate physical activity intervention strategies for weight loss and prevention of weight regain for adults. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2009;41(2):459-71. Link
3. Jensen MD, Ryan DH, Apovian CM, et al. 2013 AHA/ACC/TOS guideline for the management of overweight and obesity in adults: a report of the American College of Cardiology/American Heart Association Task Force on Practice Guidelines and The Obesity Society [published correction appears in Circulation. 2014 Jun 24;129(25 Suppl 2):S139-40]. Circulation. 2014;129(25 Suppl 2):S102‐S138. Link
4. Li A, Li X, Zhou T, et al. Sleep Disturbance and Changes in Energy Intake and Body Composition During Weight Loss in the POUNDS Lost Trial. Diabetes. 2022;71(5):934-944. doi:10.2337/db21-0699 Link
5. van Egmond LT, Meth EMS, Engström J, Ilemosoglou M, Keller JA, Vogel H, Benedict C. Effects of acute sleep loss on leptin, ghrelin, and adiponectin in adults with healthy weight and obesity: A laboratory study. Obesity (Silver Spring). 2023 Mar;31(3):635-641. doi: 10.1002/oby.23616. Epub 2022 Nov 20. PMID: 36404495. Link
6. Kolata G. After ‘The Biggest Loser,’ their bodies fought to regain weight. The New York Times. May 2, 2016. Link
7. Target Levels for Weight Loss. Guidelines on Overweight and Obesity: Electronic Textbook. NHBLI, U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. Link.
8. Bacon L. The HAES Manifesto. Excerpt from Health at Every Size: The Surprising Truth About Your Weight. 2010. Link