Getting to a goal weight can come with ups and downs on the scale. Sometimes it may seem no matter how much is eaten or the exercise amount, the scale will not budge or you feel stuck within a certain weight range.
Sometimes it might feel as if the body is fighting your efforts to shift body weight. That is the idea behind the set point theory: the body has a set weight range it tries to stay in.
What does it mean to have a set point weight and does this define your weight? Read below to clarify what the set point theory is and other important considerations for weight regulation.
Set Point Theory
Have you ever thought of your body weight regulation like a thermostat? This is exactly how the set point theory works. Body weight has a set weight range, or temperature for a thermostat, it likes to be kept at. When it is out of range, the body tries to compensate to get it back into the "set" range.
A set point weight is thought of as a range with some flexibility, not an exact weight number on the scale.
According to the set point theory, genetics is the main determinant for the body's set point. The hypothalamus area of the brain is the main "controller" for influencing body weight and metabolism. It receives input from hormones, like leptin, about body weight and fat mass. From there, it will drive other hormone levels and metabolic rates to increase or decrease as a way to get back into the desired set point weight range.
The set point theory suggests if weight gets below the desired range, body metabolism will be shifted down to encourage weight to get back up.
Is the same true for gaining weight? Does the body shift to lose weight to get back within the set point? Unfortunately, as a 2010 review on set point theory points out, regulation of body weight is asymmetric, being more effective in response to weight loss than to weight gain.
Is Set Point Theory True?
Does this mean weight loss efforts are hopeless once out of your body's set point weight range? No, it is simply not that straightforward. Yes, genes and biology have a role in weight regulation. However, the other side to the set point theory is that biological control can be overshadowed by the environment.
Environmental factors and choices that influence weight regulation, such as foods eaten, exercise, stress, sleep, etc, also play a big role in weight regulation. Research suggests these factors are also strong determinants that can out-power biological influences for weight regulation.
Set point theory may be true, but it does not mean weight loss is impossible outside someone's set point range. It is a combination of biology and the environment.
Set Point Psychology
There are helpful tips and approaches for weight loss that can help navigate out of what can seem like a set point sticking spot. The following are suggestions for not feeling limited by a set weight range and optimizing weight loss efforts.
1. Lose Weight Gradually & In Phases
Slow and gradual weight loss of 1 to 2 pounds per week can lead to successful long-term weight loss. Rapid and large changes in weight, like from a fad diet, may increase the likelihood of being on a yo-yo up and down with weight fluctuation. This yo-yo up and down with weight from drastic and unsustainable food intake could lead to feeling like your body is fighting to stay within a certain weight range.
If you have a long-term weight loss goal, break it up into shorter phases. For example, if 30 pounds is a weight loss goal, focus on losing weight in 5-pound increments. After each increment, make a goal to keep that weight stabilized before trying to continue to lose weight.
2. Avoid Extreme Diets
Severely cutting calories, like below 1,200 per day, may increase the likelihood of the body fighting to maintain a certain weight. It could also increase the risk for rebound binge eating after a season of deprivation which can lead to weight constantly shifting up and down.
Instead of this approach, focus on nourishing your body instead of punishing it. Nourish your body with nutrient-dense foods and high-volume foods so you feel satisfied instead of starved.
3. Build & Keep Up Muscle Mass
Exercise is of course an important component for weight regulation and offers many health benefits outside of weight. Regardless of weight, remember maintaining and even increasing muscle mass in adult years can be key to combating age-related decline in muscle mass and metabolism.
Strength training can be most helpful for keeping up muscle mass, but any movement is also good for health especially if it is breaking up long periods of sitting throughout the day.
4. Celebrate Progress
Weight loss of 5-10 percent of body mass is associated with improving health. Even if weight loss goals are more than this amount, remember to celebrate these milestones and recognize the health benefits you are giving yourself.
5. Take the Focus Off the Scale
It can be hard to not be fixated on the number on the scale if trying to lose weight. However, remember measures of health are much, much more than the number on the scale. They also include measures like how you feel or other positive changes in health. Changing habits, even if not showing up on the scale as much as desired, will still positively influence health.
Do you notice you have more energy? Able to walk further or without as much pain? Clothes feel looser? Did blood pressure go down? These are also important measures of health.
The set point theory suggests the body tries to keep weight within a certain range, like a temperature range on a thermostat. When weight goes down, metabolism might shift to favor weight gain back to set point weight.
Set point is based on genetic and biological factors that are beyond your control. However, this does not mean genes will determine (no matter what) how much you weigh. Environmental factors also play an important role in weight regulation, and research shows the environmental things can out-muscle biological factors for weight. Environmental things are in personal control like diet, exercise, sleep, stress management, etc.
Tips for not feeling stuck in a set point weight include taking weight loss gradually, in phases, avoiding extreme dieting, maintaining muscles, celebrating progress, and taking the focus off the scale.
Losing Weight. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Published August 17, 2020. https://www.cdc.gov/healthyweight/losing_weight/index.html.
Müller MJ, Bosy-Westphal A, Heymsfield SB. Is there evidence for a set point that regulates human body weight? F1000 medicine reports. Published August 9, 2010. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2990627/.