What Is the Set Point Theory?

set point theory definition

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The set point theory states that the body maintains its weight and body composition through internal regulatory controls. According to this popular theory, we all have different settings that impact our usual body weight. The theory holds that some people have a higher setting, meaning they naturally hover at a higher weight, whereas others have a low set point, which keeps them at a lower average weight for their height.

The Set Point Theory Definition

If you've ever been faced with the challenge of maintaining a lower weight after weight loss, you may be familiar with the forces behind an internal set point. The set point definition simply states that our bodies fight to maintain a given weight range, even if it's higher than recommended by health professionals. Despite our best efforts, it can seem impossible to keep the extra weight off.

Proponents of the set point theory believe that our bodies have an internal "thermostat" that regulates our usual body weight. If your thermostat is set high, you may be destined to carry a higher body fat percentage—even if you try to lose it. If your thermostat is set low, you may have an easier time losing weight or avoiding weight gain.

Arguments for the Set Point Theory

Proponents of the set point theory cite the following supporting facts as evidence of the theory:

  • Weight loss lowers metabolic rate. Some studies have shown that your metabolic rate decreases after you lose weight to a rate that is even lower than that of a similar-sized person who has never been overweight, which would mean that a formerly overweight person has to eat less or do more daily exercise to maintain the same body size.
  • Ghrelin increases after weight loss. The hunger hormone ghrelin increases after you lose weight. Ghrelin has many functions in the body. One of them is providing hunger cues. People who have lost weight usually have higher levels of ghrelin, so their hormones are signaling them to eat more often.
  • Exercise needs to increase after weight loss. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends that people get 150 minutes of exercise per week to maintain good health. People who are trying to lose weight or maintain weight loss are advised to get 250 minutes or more.
  • Stories from people who have lost weight. The most prevalent argument for the set point theory comes from the fact that many people struggle to maintain their weight loss. The frustration felt by those who have worked hard to lose weight only to regain it certainly appears to provide compelling evidence for the set point theory. Statistics support this experience, showing that only 20% of overweight individuals are successful in maintaining long-term weight loss.

Arguments Against Set Point Theory

While there appears to be some validity to the set point theory, it is not the sole determinant of our destiny. According to the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center at Harvard: "Your heredity and your environment—starting back at the moment of your conception—determine your set point. Over the long term, excess food and insufficient exercise will override your body's natural tendency to stay at its set point and lead to a higher, less healthy set point."

The primary risk with the set point theory is that it may discourage some from making healthy exercise or dietary changes either when it seems that weight loss is out of reach or when it appears that these healthy habits are unnecessary to maintain a healthy weight.

In reality, it's a combination of factors including our social environment, food habits, genetics, hormones, and set point that all play a role in regulating body weight.

How Exercise Can Help

To successfully lose weight and keep it off long term, the role of physical activity should never be underestimated. Physical activity combats many of the metabolic slowdowns associated with weight loss that is achieved through dietary changes alone.

Studies have shown that exercise keeps your metabolic rate from dipping after weight loss and suppresses your ghrelin levels. Indeed, exercise may hold the key to reset your set point.

A Word From Verywell

Instead of letting the set point theory discourage you from making healthy changes, enroll the support of your doctor, a dietitian, and a personal support system to effectively lose weight and keep it off. Include physical activity in your journey to maintain a healthy weight.

Although nutrition plays a large role in weight loss, exercise might make it easier to feel like you're fighting a winning battle—and it comes with a bunch of other great health benefits.

Even if your body weight doesn't exactly reflect the recommended weight for your height, losing a small percentage of weight can still improve your risk of several chronic issues related to weight. Following a healthy lifestyle offers several health benefits beyond the number on the scale. Be kind to yourself and keep the focus on progress, not perfection.

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Article Sources
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  3. Donnelly JE, Blair SN, Jakicic JM, et al. American College of Sports Medicine Position Stand. Appropriate physical activity intervention strategies for weight loss and prevention of weight regain for adults. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2009;41(2):459-71. doi:10.1249/MSS.0b013e3181949333

  4. Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. Week one: The science of set point. Published October 12, 2017.

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