The Set Point Theory of Weight

Getty Images/Chris Bernard

The set point theory is something that was floated some time ago suggesting that each of us has an established, normal body weight, a kind of metabolic thermostat that regulates our body fat and weight.

Theory also suggests that some people have a high setting some people have a low setting, with the body pulling you back to your set point weight, which might explain why some people gain weight back after losing it.

Is Set Point Theory True?

It's very true that our bodies have a biological urge to regain weight and experts think there are a variety of physical, emotional and physiological reasons behind that annoying urge.  Here's what one study, published in The American Journal of Physiology the had to say:

"The preponderance of evidence would suggest that the biological response to weight loss involves comprehensive, persistent, and redundant adaptations in energy homeostasis and that these adaptations underlie the high recidivism rate in obesity therapeutics. To be successful in the long term, our strategies for preventing weight regain may need to be just as comprehensive, persistent, and redundant, as the biological adaptations they are attempting to counter."

While that may be true, is it true that our bodies will fight to stay at a certain weight?  One thing we do know is that when we go on a diet and restrict foods, our bodies do have a hissy fit.  They simply can't tell the difference between dieting and starving - If you're on a diet, you probably can tell the difference either.

Too much restriction can actually backfire, causing your body to hold onto all your fat for dear life.

The truth is, there's no consensus that set point theory is true. One article, "Etiology of overweight and obesity: set point or settling point?" informs us that studies using mostly dietary restriction decreases fat free body mass (or muscle) and that it can also decrease your basal metabolic rate.  And severe calorie restriction can decrease metabolism by as much as 45%.  That's your body on a diet.

Another study, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found no evidence that set point weight is the reason some people gain weight after losing it.

So, How Do We Lose Weight and Keep it Off?

That's the real question - Why do we lose weight only to regain it?  There are so many factors that go into weight loss, that there's no easy answer to this question.

If you look at the behavior of successful weight losers, here's what they do:

  • They Exercise - Most of them exercise for about an hour a day.  More about How Much Exercise You Need to lose weight.
  • They Eat a Low Calorie Low Fat Diet - Some followed a commercial diet and others did it on their own.
  • They Weigh Themselves Every Day - Self-monitoring means you know when you start to gain a little weight and you can take steps to avoid it.
  • They're Consistent - They don't do the yo-yo diet or the yo-yo- exercise thing.  They exercise and eat healthy most of the time.

If there's a real key to losing weight, I think it's making small changes that you can manage on a daily basis.  That process is slow, but it's much easier to handle small changes than trying to overhaul your life overnight. 

It's also not about restricting your food which, obviously, doesn't work, at least not for the long term.  Try adding things to your diet - More fiber, fruits and veggies, rather than taking things away.  Ditch the diets and work on your life the way it already is and you'll find much more success.