Fitness Articles

Is It Possible to Fight Back Against Our Body's Set Point?

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It's no secret that our bodies are made up of smart, complex systems. That concept doesn't stop when it comes to weight management. These internal controls are often responsible for the dreaded weight plateaus that many dieters experience.  Those plateaus—which occur so often as the result of the calorie restriction and extreme exercise requirements of mainstream diets—can leave even the most determined dieter feeling like there aren't many options.
 
This is where the set-point theory comes in. The concept revolves around the processes that your body performs on a deeper, metabolic level. Described as an internal mechanism that regulates your weight, it proves that there's more to our health than the conscious mind. Whether you're trying to lose weight or nudge the scale in the right direction again, taking a moment to learn about the set-point theory can help shift your approach as you continue on your life-long journey to a healthy weight.

What Is the Set-Point Theory?
 

Driven by the body's talent to control internal processes, the set-point theory is the concept of a "preset" weight range, according to the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. It speculates that your body's interior system works to maintain this range by controlling the way you gain (or lose) weight. It all comes down to a feedback control mechanism involving pathways that moderate food and energy intake, shares The Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology Journal. And, like most aspects of the human body, that weight range is unique to each person.
 
This theory is thought to be the reason why dieters eventually reach a weight plateau. It may also explain why people "bounce back" and regain weight after dieting. The set-point theory points a finger at your body's established way of regulating weight before you even begin thinking about it. Basically, it's already two steps ahead of you.
 

How It Works
 

So why does this theory matter? If the body has an internal control system for body fat, trying to lose weight can present a tricky situation. And if you've experienced a stubborn weight loss plateau, you're probably on the hunt for more answers. It's enough to make anyone's head spin.
 
Here's the thing: The set-point theory is resistant to conventional dieting. Traditionally, most diets call for limited calories and endless exercise. While this might seem like an easy weight-loss formula, your body has other plans on the agenda. "Set-point can't tell the difference between hunger and starvation during caloric restriction," explains Katerina Melekos, RD, a registered dietitian in New Jersey. As a result, your body begins to adjust to the starvation it thinks you're experiencing.
 
At first, it's not uncommon to see the pounds melt away. However, Melekos shares that your body eventually goes into protection mode, working harder to save fat for your body's fuel reserves. According to The Center for Health Promotion & Wellness at MIT Medical, your body has several ways of protecting itself. The internal control system regulates your metabolic processes to work with the new caloric intake. Even when you do burn calories, the process is much slower. In time, a caloric diet becomes enough to sustain weight. Cue the weight plateau.
 
"Think of set point as an internal thermostat," shares Natalie Robertello, MS, RD, CDN, a registered dietitian in upstate New York. "When you reduce calories, your body becomes more efficient at performing basic functions at that lower caloric level." In fact, MIT Medical even shares that mood is programmed to be at its prime when a person is at their set-point weight. It just goes to show how interrelated our body's functions truly are.
 

How Do You Change It?
 

Don't let the theory of set point discourage your path to successful weight loss. Just because your body tries to hover around the same weight doesn't mean that it's impossible to reach a new, healthy weight. It's all about how you apply this information. Use it as a reminder that there is more to losing weight than simply cutting back on calories. The set-point theory emphasizes the importance of working with your body beyond the calories on your plate.
 
Mark Washco, CPT, RD and founder of Mark Washco Fitness in Miami Beach, Florida, believes that it is totally possible to adjust your set point. He attributes the most successful weight management to an increased metabolism—not caloric restriction paired with extreme exercise. "Eating less and running often is a recipe for disaster," warns Washco. "You're actually slowing down your metabolism and encouraging your body to hold on to current body fat." Again, there's that starvation mode coming into play. This is where you come in.
 

What Does This Mean for You?
 

Understanding the metabolic background of set point can help shift your approach of healthy weight management. "Adding lean mass is the key to maintaining a healthy weight and low body fat," shares Washco. He explains that it's crucial to pay attention to your fat percentage. In other words, what type of weight are you gaining? Is it body fat or lean muscle? Think of weight loss (and gain) on a more specific level. Like calories, not all weight is equal.
 
When you gain muscle, you automatically reap the benefits of losing body fat. It doesn't stop there, though. "When you increase muscle mass, you also increase your caloric burn at rest," shares Robertello. Washhco adds that every pound of lean muscle burns 50 calories a day. "Strength training is the holy grail of the type of weight loss most people strive for," says Washco.
 
Remember, it's never too late to begin a strength training regimen. You don't need to be an experienced lifter, either. Don't know where to begin? The SparkPeople message boards are a great platform for connecting with fellow exercisers in your age group with similar skill levels. It's also a wonderful way to find encouragement and support as you learn about resistance exercises that work best for you. If you belong to a gym, set up a personal training session with a staff trainer or seek out information on how to build an effective strength-training program.
 
Improving your metabolism doesn't stop at the exercise. "Diet and fitness is a packaged deal," says Robertello. Remember that filling up on nutrient-rich foods will provide your body with the necessary tools it needs to maintain that healthy weight, she says. Furthermore, eating fiber, lean protein, fruits and vegetables will increase satiety and diminish cravings.
 
Melekos echoes a similar concept. "The calories from one slice of cake can be equivalent to three healthy nutrient-dense meals," she says. It just goes to show that it's not just about counting calories, but paying attention to where those calories come from. By doing so, you'll be more likely to adjust your set point in a desirable way. Melekos adds, "We don't put bad fuel in a car—so why would we put bad fuel in our body?"
 
Remember, weight maintenance isn't encapsulated in a single habit. It is a lifestyle embodied by lifelong habits. If the set-point theory holds true, you must work with our bodies to achieve that goal weight. With some hard work and dedication, you can work past that plateau once and for all.

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Member Comments

  • Key Insights I Got:
    Mood is programmed to be at its prime when a person is said to be at their set-point.
    There is more to losing weight than just cutting back calories. Know that your body is trying to hover around the same weight.
    Strength Training to build lean muscle mass is key to leaving the plateau zone.
  • Understandable yet complicated.
  • It is true that your body can get by with fewer calories without losing weight. I actually started losing weight again when I ate more calories. I had gone from around 1600 calories to 1800 calories. I find it helps to eat plenty of protein, and to monitor that throughout the day. It gives me energy, so I can be more active, and helps me sleep at night. I also get all of the vitamins that I need, which also helps. You don't have to be under 1200 calories to go into starvation mode. I know, because 1600 wasn't enough for me.
  • Oh, so unless we choose to be Arnold Schwarzenegger we'll never lose weight. What a load of crap.
  • AZURE-SKY
    Like most theories, this one has a lot of holes.

    It basically ignores any person who is unable to exercise. If the above theory were true, then no one who is can't exercise could lose weight and keep it off by diet alone. There are other schools of thought that say that weight control is 80% diet, 20% exercise.

    There are many people who start out very overweight and unable to exercise until they've lost a tremendous amount of weight. You can find some very inspiring Sparkpeople members who have done just that. Check out Indygirl, for one example.
  • The article assumes that everyone approaches weight loss in fad diet mode. Many try a more balanced approach of cutting a few hundred cal per day and exercising regularly over months, yet still encounter set point resistance. Few eat so sparingly that "starvation mode" comes into play.
  • I use Sparkpeople as a tracker only because every time I venture into the actual articles I read bogus stuff like this article. Set point theory is in no way true and blaming a fake mechanism does not help some one achieve their goals and a healthy weight. I wish my database in the tracker was not so large so I could move to another service without losing so much history.
  • LILYOFVALEE
    I've seen this through my own experience. I have had several set points in my weight loss journey and have learned not to get frustrated about it. Once I reach one, I live with it a while, assess where I'm at and see what changes need to be made. Small changes over time have been very effective.
  • In his lectures on YouTube, Jason Fung M.D. explains how we can adjust our "set point" and he says it takes a year after reaching our weight loss goal to keep at that weight so we have the new "set point." 95% of people go back to eating "junk food" and thus regain the weight. It is a lifestyle change and it takes daily work, since junk food contains chemicals that make us crave the food and thus buy it making the food industry, & medical complex rich.
    Jason Fung M.D. is a kidney specialist who wanted to know why most of his patient with kidney failure had Type 2 diabetes and he began research. His book "The Obesity Code" is very informative.
  • This may be true in terms of weeks and months,
    but in the long run it is possible to change the set point, and not only upwards.
    6 years ago mine was around 160 pounds, bounced up and down around it for years.
    in 2011 I learned to do and love daily exercise, sleep enough, drink water, eat well... and my set point went down to 136 pounds.
    2 years ago I did cognitive behavior therapy to improve my eating habits further, and now my set point is 130 pounds. I'm sure I have more muscle now than I had at 160.
    It is possible through continuous learning and practice.
  • This just makes sense and resonates with me...especially since I appear to be constantly trying to adjust my set point. Frustrating, YES! Empowering, absolutely...than
    ks for my lightbulb moment.
  • Electric cars seem to be very quiet. I love this article. Thank you!
  • It seems very true. Very good information
  • Informative! However, you might want to edit that part at the bottom on page 3 about putting gas in a car. I'm sure it was meant to read, "We don't put bad fuel in a car.....etc." instead of as it reads currently, which doesn't make sense. :)
  • This felt for me to be one of the most depressing and probably true articles I have ever read on this site.

About The Author

Kirsten Nunez Kirsten Nunez
Kirsten Nunez is a health and lifestyle writer, editor and author. She has a Master of Science in Nutrition and is currently based in New York. Kirsten spends her days writing articles and dreaming up healthy recipes.