Setpoint: Understanding your setpoint and learning to STOP
The human body is a wonderful, complicated machine.
Your digestive system, your brain and your fat stores all work together through a highly complex biochemical interaction to help you maintain a stable weight. These different parts of your body communicate with one another through various feedback mechanisms in an effort to coordinate the various activities that maintain your weight at a specific level. That level is known as the setpoint.
Think of your setpoint as a thermostat. In your home, you set your thermostat at the temperature you most enjoy and expect your heating or air conditioning system to respond to outside conditions and maintain your home at that temperature. By the same token, your setpoint raises or lowers your appetite and metabolism--the rate at which your body burns calories--in response to how much you eat.
You may now ask the obvious question: "If my body is designed to maintain a stable weight, then why did I gain weight and why is it so hard to lose it?
Back to our thermostat analogy. Let's say that the outside temperature is 85 degrees and you want your home's cooling system to maintain an indoor temperature of 72 degrees. No problem. Your air conditioner won't have to work too hard to cool the outside air by only 13 degrees.
But let's throw in a heat wave when the outside temperature climbs to a sweltering 110. No matter how hard your AC struggles, it won't be able to maintain that desired 72 degree temperature. The gap is just too big. So what does it do? It maintains the lowest temperature it can, but it will still be higher than 72 degrees!
That's what happens with your setpoint. If, over a long period of time, you develop a greater gap between the calories you eat and those you use up in exercise, your body's weight regulation system will adjust upward. Your body then settles in to maintain that higher weight.
That answers the first part of your question, but what about why it's so hard to get the weight back off?
When you start to lose weight, your body's metabolic alarm goes off. It alerts your body--which strives for equilibrium or that stable status quo--that you are not eating as much as usual. In turn, your body demands more food. It's a survival mechanism, built in eons ago, and not easily reprogrammed.
For years, I have reassured my patients that dieters don't fail for lack of willpower but because of cravings! As long as your setpoint remains elevated, you will be assaulted by those blasted cravings every time your body senses that you are not eating enough to maintain your present weight.
These physiological hunger alarms make it extremely difficult for overweight people to lose weight, and even harder for them to keep it off. Your body is fighting to hold on to whatever excess fat it has become accustomed to, and it does so to replace any weight you lose.
Last week, I offered a number of strategies for dealing with cravings, but here's a little framework for bringing them into play.
People who know the phrase "lead us not into temptation" grow up thinking of temptation as the first step down a slippery slope into some kind of disaster, and it often is, if you yield to it.
But you can also think of temptation as an early warning system. Sure, there are times when it just doesn't bother you to be around a lovely plate of brownies, or French fries, or some other treat that's just not on your dietary program. But sometimes you are tempted. But instead of regarding that craving as the first step toward actually eating the off-limits treats, regard it as the signal to pull in reinforcements, just in case. Even before you start to feel really compelled to go for the goodies.
STOP is an acronym for a four-step process that you can use to good benefit.
S-Stop! Visualize a stop sign and hear the word "stop." Immediately stop whatever it is you're doing.
T-Take a deep, cleansing breath. This creates a window of opportunity during which you can recognize and assess the temptation you're faced with, and take appropriate action.
O-Observe your situation, yourself, and and your options. Analyze what's going on. How are you feeling? What do you want? What do you need? In your observation, use the HALT analysis. Am I Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired? That's because we often react automatically, sometimes inappropriately to these stimuli. Of these, only true hunger is a good reason to eat. If there's something else playing into your temptation, then eating is not the correct response, plain and simple.
P-Plan your correct action. You've got choices, so what are they? What's really important to you? What actions will help you move toward what matters, toward an appropriate response, and away from the temptation and reactionary eating.
Go ahead and let yourself hear whatever voices inside you are suggesting that you abandon or sabotage your healthy intentions, and pause long enough to acknowledge and respond to those voices. A good response might be, "Thanks for sharing, now move along."
Then shift the focus away from food by doing something else: sit quietly for five minutes and let your attention rest on your breathing; phone a friend; review a list of your motivations for getting healthy (you have made that list by now, haven't you?) or take a walk.
And encourage yourself as you would a friend or loved one. We're often too willing to let ourselves fail without offering the support we would give to even a casual pal. Remember that sometimes, if you're not hearing what you need to hear, it might be because you're not saying it yourself.
The more often you use the STOP method to manage cravings, the more easily and effectively you'll be able to resist temptations and overcome your body's natural tendency to push you back to your setpoint.
But the more frequently you do it successfully, the easier it becomes, just as with anything else that takes practice. After a while you get good at it, and it just becomes a habit.
THROUGH THICK & THIN: Your Setpoint
STOP is a good little mental tool for confronting temptation and cravings. The acronym stands for Stop what you're doing, Take a breath and a moment to Observe what's really getting to you, and Plan your next right move, because once you've assessed the situation, eating usually isn't it! It's a nifty and effective little tool, but it's only helpful if you actually use it.