What is my Set Point Weight and How do I Maintain It?
What is set point weight?
In order to talk about set point weight, we first have to talk about how remarkable our bodies are. While we’re busy with jobs, school, sports, family, and relationships (just to name a few), our bodies work hard to maintain all the functions that keep us alive and well. Our lungs breathe, our heart beats, our stomach digests, our liver detoxifies, our kidneys filter– ALL of which happens without our knowledge or direct control. With each of these processes working optimally, our body maintains physical and chemical balance, thereby achieving homeostasis.
Our bodies also have mechanisms that help us maintain a healthy weight! This weight is called our “set point weight.” Our set point is actually more like a weight range– typically between 10-20 lbs for most people– not a static number. At our set point weight range, our bodies are able to support optimal physical and mental function, so we can lead full, active, and healthy lives.
How does your body maintain your set point weight?
Just like the feedback systems our bodies have in place to monitor and maintain temperature, pH, blood sugar, or blood pressure, the body also uses a feedback system to monitor and maintain set point weight. Picture the thermostat in your home: When the temperature falls too low, the thermostat senses changes and turns on the heat.
Your body’s weight control mechanisms work like that thermostat. Body fat stores send messages to your brain, communicating even slight fluctuations. When fat stores fall too low, your body increases appetite and metabolic efficiency to encourage you to eat more and replenish.
Now, you may be wondering “But what happens when my weight goes ABOVE my set point range? Why does it seem so much easier to gain weight than to lose weight?” The answer is this: Your body cares more about protecting the lower end of your weight range than it does the higher end. Why? Because evolutionarily, starvation was a much greater threat to survival than 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.
How does your body know what your set point is?
We carry information about our set point in our genes. Conservatively, research estimates at least 30% of the factors that impact our set point weight are carried in our DNA (although some studies place that number higher, between 50-90%!). This means that our weight– and the way our bodies distribute that weight– is heritable, just like skin tone, eye color, or dimples. Lifestyle factors like diet and exercise actually account for less than 25% of what affects our weight when both genetics and environment are considered!
Is set point weight the same as BMI?
No! Your healthiest weight as determined by 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 with diets and weight loss?
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.
What diet culture conveniently leaves out is that conventional weight loss through restrictive diets or excessive exercise is neither normal nor healthy. Decades of weight loss research show that diets fail for upwards of 95% of people– not because of lack of willpower, but because our bodies are genetically programmed to protect against weight loss.
Let’s return to the idea of our bodies’ internal weight thermostat. Dieting creates an energy deficit that forces your body below its programmed healthiest weight. While your body may be able to maintain this lower weight for a short period of time, it will eventually activate mechanisms to recover and restore lost weight.
These mechanisms might look like increasing your hunger and appetite, especially for energy dense foods (re: foods high in fat and sugar). It may also look like decreasing fullness and satiety signals, encouraging you to eat more than normal. If these cues are ignored, your body takes additional measures to slow your metabolism, meaning it dedicates less energy to power the systems that regulate temperature, digestion, breathing, etc in order to conserve energy in the form of fat stores.
If you’ve dieted for weight loss in the past, you may already be familiar with this chain of events which results in short term weight loss, and long term weight regain. What’s more, because your body cannot tell the difference between dieting and actual starvation, your body uses this opportunity to store additional weight to safeguard you from future times of famine. Thus, dieting in an attempt to lose weight actually drives your set point weight up over time.
What do you need to do to maintain your set point weight?
The answer may be more simple than you think! All you need to do to maintain your set point weight is:
Dieting drives set point weight higher, not lower! Ditch diets that have you investing precious time and energy into cutting our food groups or burning calories– they just aren’t worth it.
Intuitive eating is different from dieting because it 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.
Exercise doesn’t have to feel like a chore! 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 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.
Self care regularly.
Chronic stress has been shown to increase cortisol levels in our bodies which can in turn increase our bodies’ tendency to gain weight and experience inflammation. Adding regular self care to your routine is an important part of maintaining your set point weight.
Your body requires very little intervention from you to maintain its set point weight! At your set point weight, your body can function optimally. Those who follow an intuitive eating pattern instead of dieting for maintaining a healthy weight have improved cholesterol levels (and decreased cardiovascular risk), greater body satisfaction and self esteem, decreased stress levels, increased energy, and decreased incidence of eating disorders.
Want more information about how to achieve a healthy weight without dieting? Check out the resources below and consider making an appointment with one of our knowledgeable dietitians who can guide you on your path to intuitive eating.
Body Respect by Lindo Bacon & Lucy Aphramor
Health at Every Size by Lindo Bacon
Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Anti-Diet Approach by Evelyn Tribole & Elyse Resch
From our blog:
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.