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Set Point Theory - Fact or Fiction

You might have heard of set point theory, and either know what it is or have no idea at all. I’m here to help, explain the theory a little and explain why it may be useful for you - even just in giving yourself permission to be as you are.

What is set point theory?

Simply put, it's the idea that our bodies have an approximate weight range that it likes to sit at, and we fluctuate around this range without you having to carefully monitor it. It’s often thought that this is due to our genetics mixed with some evolutionary pressure.

When we cut out food e.g. dieting our body lowers our metabolic rate, body temperature, affects our hunger hormones etc. to keep us as we are and when we eat a large meal the opposite occurs so we stay roughly the same. Often people lose weight, plateau and gain it back to their original weight - or even gain more back. With this being due to the evolutionary risk of starvation.

Apparently the theory started when some researchers ran a study on rats in 1979 (Rothwell and Stock) which found that low calorie diets = weight loss and high cal = weight gain BUT often they returned to their normal weight when put back on normal food.

So no humans then?

Alas, there’s a real lack of human evidence. Some of that comes from different terms - settling point, natural point, set point etc. being used which makes it hard to find. But also there’s a real lack out there.

That’s why it’s still called the set point theory and not renamed to something else. It’s a theory. The reason being there’s so many factors that will affect your weight on a daily, weekly, monthly, yearly basis.

What’s the evidence?

Below is a snapshot into some evidence but what you’ll probably find is anecdotally it might help change your approach to food.

  • Lamiquiz-Moneo et al 2019 - 50-70% of variance in BMI (although a flawed metric but..) can be attributed to genetic differences = 1996 twin study by Allison et al

  • 2015 review (Greenway 2015) found that weight loss = burn fewer calories and burn less stored fat for energy while fullness hormones decrased and hunger hormones increased

  • Identical twins tend to have similar BMI values

But I know someone who lost the weight and kept it off - that disproves set point right?

Actually the opposite often occurs. Dieting / restriction makes our body think we’re starving so the set point may be raised for perceived future famine / starvation. It therefore becomes harder to maintain this new low weight - there’s a classic Biggest Loser study which showed that their metabolisms were majorly affected 5 years after the show ended…

A lot of influencers, fitness professionals etc. may project the image that keeping the weight off takes little effort but the inverse is often true. Many of the people I originally followed for #fitspo on Instagram many years ago have now moved away from the space and reflect on their disordered eating and the struggle to maintain it

And Weight cycling can increase your set point - as you gain the weight back and more. See our recent article on Weight Cycling here.

What affects set point?

Set point is affected by a whole range of factors including:

  • Food insecurity

  • Changing environment

  • Trauma

  • Chronic stress

  • Illness - especially any involving hormones including PCOS, Addison’s etc.

  • Medications

  • Age

  • Pregnancy

  • Stress

Our bodies are amazing at adapting, and some things above you can modify. Others you can’t.

More importantly, what does that mean for me?

It’s all well and good me explaining the above but what does it mean for you. One or more of the following might occur:

1. You may have found your weight has fluctuated then plateaued - and if weight loss is your focus then you’ll naturally feel a little stuck. But now biology has come to your aid. You have a reason and can take a breath.

2. Maybe it relieves a little of the stress - As above, if you’ve been putting undue pressure on yourself to lose weight or look like someone you see online then know that your body might have its own unique set point.

3. Use the theory as you need to in order to help find body acceptance - maybe it’s relieving stress, pressure etc. but use it to be a little more at peace with your body. Body acceptance > body love.

4. Know that the only constant is change - age, location etc. all have a huge impact on your set point - feeling a bit meh about your body or your eating etc. know that so many factors may be affecting you. Take stock - how’s the stress, life changes, medication use etc. and take this into account.

5. Your body works best at it’s set point - so ditch the weight cycling - I have an article on this on my website if you want to check it out but weight cycling isn’t very good for you. In fact lots of the negatives linked with dieting are actually due to weight cycling.

How do I know if I’m at my set point?

There’s no test to know you’re at your set point. But the idea is you’re not restricting or micromanaging what you eat etc. So if you are doing that - you’re likely not at your set point.

A note here that your set point is meant to be internally controlled and stop you from obsessing - if you’re trying to stay at one weight because you’re determined it’s your set point then you’re using it as a stand in for a ‘goal weight’ when dieting.

  • Are you at a weight where you’re not preoccupied with food

  • What weight feels natural for your body

  • Have you in the past found your weight settles at a range of certain weight

It’s not the weight, it’s how you feel in your body. Set point is a byproduct of living your life and listening to your body, not the focus. If in doubt, ditch the scale.

How to find your set point weight?

  • Stop dieting and extreme exercise

  • Embark on your IE journey - it puts how your body feels as the focus and helps you find what is comfortable for your body in the long term

  • Maybe set a time frame where you ditch the diet, scale etc. and see how it feels in your body

I’m at my set point but it’s higher than I want it to be…

That’s something you might need to work through - in yourself, or with a professional to move away from weight as an indicator of health, morality etc. If you’re worried about a genuine health issue then seek out a professional but as someone who is HAES aligned your health > body size.

Some alternatives

  • Settling point theory - you have more than one steady body weight state - referred to as the settling points

  • Dual Intervention model - your natural body weight has an upper and lower boundary rather than a set point, and that this happened for evolutionary reasons 2

Want to listen to this article - I've recorded it as a podcast here.

Overall I tend to use the set point theory as a way to back up what I feel in my body, not as a hard and fast rule - because we're talking tools not rules here.

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