What is set point weight?

 

Set point weight theory suggests that your weight is predetermined and programmed into your DNA from birth. Your set point is the weight your body tries to maintain and will defend against weight loss and weight gain.

 

Set point weight is not a static number and more like a weight range– typically between 10-20 lbs for most people. In your set point range, your body is able to support optimal physical and mental function, so you can lead a full, active, and healthy lifestyle.

 

How does your body maintain your set point weight?

 

Your body’s set point weight control mechanism works like a thermostat. The thermostat responds to changes in your body’s fat stores. Fat cells in your body send messages to your brain, communicating even slight fluctuations, both up and down. 

 

When fat stores dip lower than your set point, the thermostat kicks on to increase your appetite, slow your metabolism, and increase nutrient absorption so you consume more food and burn fewer calories. This typically produces weight gain.

Is your set point weight too high?

 

So what happens when you exceed your set point weight?

 

Your weight thermostat is less sensitive to your body going above your set point. This might be why it feels easier to gain weight than to lose weight. 

 

Why? Because evolutionarily speaking, starvation is a much greater threat to survival than gaining a few extra pounds. Your body is more willing to allow weight gain over your set point than it is to allow weight loss below your set point. 

 

When your body goes above your set point, it might respond temporarily by decreasing hunger signals and increasing your metabolism in an effort to reestablish your original set point.

How does your body know what your set point is?

 

You carry information about your set point in your genes. Research estimates at least 30% of what impacts our set point are carried in your DNA (although some studies place that number higher, between 50-90%!). 

 

This means that your weight– and the way your body distributes that weight– is heritable, just like skin tone, eye color, or dimples. Lifestyle factors like diet and exercise account for less than 25% of what affects your weight when both genetics and environment are considered!

Is set point weight the same as BMI?

 

No! Your set point may not fall in the “healthy” range on the BMI scale. This DOES NOT mean that it is not a healthy and appropriate weight for you. 

 

BMI is a poor measure of health, and cannot account for the genetic and environmental impacts on our weight. If you have ever felt pressured by a healthcare provider to lose weight to be “healthier,” please know that you have the right to advocate for yourself and demand better care.

Can you change your set point weight?

 

Maybe there have been times in your life when you wished your body was a different size or shape. This is understandable. We all live in a culture (re: diet culture) where thinness is equated with attractiveness and value, and where weight loss is considered a normal and healthy pursuit. 

 

Trying to lower your set point weight with diets and excessive exercise may actually drive your set point HIGHER over time. How can this be??

 

We already discussed how your body increases appetite and slows metabolism in response to weight loss. This combination leads to weight regain over time. 95% of dieters experience weight regain anywhere from 6 months to 2 years after going on a diet.

 

In two thirds of cases, dieters gain back more weight than they started with. This higher weight becomes your body’s new set point. Regaining more weight than you lost is your body’s insurance policy against future weight loss, which your body perceives as a threat. 

 

Every time you diet, lose weight, and gain it back drives your new set point higher. It also sends signals to your body to be even more protective of your set point weight, making future diets less effective.

 

This is why you may notice your weight creeping up over time, despite going on diet after diet. This is also why with every new diet, it feels harder and harder to lose weight.

 

This whole time you’ve been blaming yourself for failing diets– but the diets were actually failing you!

How do you know you’re at your set point weight?

 

Everybody’s set point weight is different. Body diversity is real! There is no one “right” weight to be happy and healthy.

 

You’ll know when you’re at your set point when:

  • Your weight stabilizes over a 10-20lb range without you “trying”
  • Hunger and fullness feel predictable and manageable
  • Your digestion, menstruation, energy levels, and mood normalize
  • Your relationship with food feels peaceful

 

It’s important to note that your set point can and will change over your lifetime. This is a natural part of the aging process.

 

Your set point may also change in response to life events or your environment. Stress, trauma, pregnancy, hormonal imbalances, menopause, chronic disease, and some medications can change your set point weight.

What do you need to do to maintain your set point weight?

 

As a dietitian, I see many clients who want to lose weight and lower their set point. Most of these clients have followed low calorie, low carb, or low fat diets to lose weight, only to find them unsustainable and ineffective.

 

Here’s how I teach my clients to achieve and maintain their natural set point weight:

 

Stop dieting.

Dieting drives your set point higher, not lower! Cutting calories eventually sends signals to your body to increase appetite and slow your metabolism, making weight loss nearly impossible. 

 

Eat normally.

Instead of dieting, I recommend intuitive eating. Intuitive eating focuses on honoring your body’s internal cues for hunger, fullness, and satisfaction to guide food choices, which has been shown to regulate weight better in the long term.

Intuitive eating is healthy! Those who eat intuitively show improved cholesterol levels, decreased cardiovascular risk, greater body satisfaction, higher self esteem, decreased stress levels, increased energy, and decreased incidence of eating disorders.

 

Move consistently.

Exercise has a host of physical and mental benefits, including (but not limited to) supporting your body’s set point. Moving your body more throughout the day, whether it’s taking the stairs, playing with your kids, taking dance lessons, or going to the gym has been shown to improve mood, sleep quality, and weight management.

 

Sleep adequately.

Sleep and rest both have a big impact on your metabolism as well as your hunger and fullness cues. Getting enough quality sleep on a regular basis is critical to maintaining a healthy weight. Did you know that sleep deprivation can increase hunger and cravings for sweets by as much as 30%!?

 

Self care regularly.

Chronic stress will raise cortisol levels in our bodies which increases inflammation and can lead to weight gain. Adding regular self care to your routine is an important part of maintaining your set point. Self care isn’t just bubble baths and face masks– it’s also prioritizing meals, drinking water, having a bedtime routine, going to therapy, spending time outdoors, and more!

Summary

 

Your set point weight is predetermined in your DNA. It is not the same as your BMI. Your body has a thermostat that keeps your weight in check if your weight goes above or below your set point.

 

Dieting will not lower your set point in the long term and may actually drive it higher. You’ll know you’re at your set point when your weight remains stable without you having to “try” to maintain it.

 

The best things you can do to support your body in maintaining your set point are stop dieting, eat intuitively, engage in joyful movement, get enough sleep, and manage stress.

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Kristin Jenkins, MS, RD is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist. Kristin specializes in eating disorders and intuitive eating, and is an advocate for weight-inclusive care for all her clients.