Set Point Theory Of Body Weight Explained In Detail

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You might believe that you are doing effective workouts and following a healthy, calorie-appropriate diet for your physique goals, but yet you are not losing weight, or you lose weight for a bit only to bounce back to your old weight despite continuing to follow your weight loss plan.

This is where set point theory comes into play. Is the body weight set point theory legitimate and backed by science or an “excuse” people use when they aren’t losing weight?

Is there a way to “trick“ your body into adjusting your weight set point, or does the set point theory mean that your body will always come back to the same body weight no matter what?

In this article, we will discuss what the set point theory entails, what affects set point weight, and tips for how to lose weight in the context of the set point theory.

We will cover the following: 

  • What Is Set Point Theory?
  • Is the Set Point Theory Legit?
  • What Factors Affect Your Set Point Weight?
  • How Does Set Point Theory Affect Weight Loss?
  • Can You Change Your Set Point Weight?

Let’s dive in! 

A person on a scale.

What Is Set Point Theory?

The set point theory refers to the idea that your body has a specific weight or small weight range that it wants to maintain.

Your body weight set point is essentially a specific body weight or a very small finite body weight range that your body will continually try to reestablish despite your efforts to lose weight or gain weight.

For example, imagine a woman who is 165 pounds, or 75 kg, and wants to lose weight so that she is 150 pounds.

If her body weight setpoint is right around 165 pounds, even if she meticulously counts calories, controls what she is eating, and increases her activity levels to lose weight, her body will adapt and try to conserve energy output and make use of all of the limited calories coming in to try to keep the body weight as close to 165 pounds as possible.

Similarly, if she goes on a vacation on a cruise with unlimited buffets and very little exercise, she may not gain a lot of lasting weight because her metabolism will adjust and try to bring her body weight back down to the set point weight of 165 pounds.

A person walking toward a scale.

Is the Set Point Theory Legit?

So, while the body weight set point theory theoretically makes sense, and many people have likely experienced the phenomenon described by it in their own lives, is it real (or legitimate), or is it just an excuse for people to fall back on when they aren’t losing weight?

It is not crystal clear whether or not the set point theory is a myth or scientifically sound

Rather, it seems likely that there are elements of truth to the set point theory, but the degree to which we are unable to make lasting changes to our “body weight set point“ without the body reverting back to the set point weight seems likely to be overinflated.

In terms of the elements of the set point theory that seems to be valid, there are numerous research studies that have shown that the human body possesses various innate adaptive mechanisms that help preserve survival.

Therefore, even though there does seem to be some valid truth behind the set point theory of body weight and weight loss or weight changes, there are other elements that are likely not as cut and dry as the set point theory would suggest.

A weightloss word jumble.

There are many factors that can occur that can impede weight loss or physique changes other than set point.

We often underestimate how much food we are eating, overestimate how many calories we are burning when we exercise, or make other mistakes in our “calorie math“ that ultimately compromise fat loss or gains in lean body mass.

Therefore, we can’t always blame a lack of weight loss or regaining weight after losing weight on the set point theory.

You need to take a critical look at how many calories you are actually eating and actually burning in a day.

What Factors Affect Your Set Point Weight?

There are various factors that can affect your set point body weight.

Examples include your height, biological sex, lifestyle habits, genetics, and potentially even maternal diet while you were in the womb, vaginal birth vs. Cesarean section, and breastfeeding vs. formula feeding.

A hungry person holding up a fork and knife.

How Does Set Point Theory Affect Weight Loss?

According to the Cleveland Clinic, there is evidence to suggest that the body, indeed, doesn’t want to give up any weight, so there are built-in defense mechanisms to keep you at your weight set point. 

For example, when you are cutting calories to lose weight, your body responds by increasing the release of ghrelin, a hunger hormone that stimulates appetite. Simultaneously, it inhibits the release of leptin, the satiety hormone.

The result of these adaptive mechanisms is that you feel hungrier and less full after eating, triggering you to eat more food.

Therefore, if you are trying to lose weight but getting hungrier, this notion is not all in your head, nor is it indicative of a lack of willpower. 

Rather, your body is employing adaptive mechanisms for survival, aiming to compel you to consume more calories to prevent weight loss and maintain your body weight set point.

Calories burned on a exercise watch.

Additionally, when caloric intake is restricted for an extended period of time, muscle tissue is catabolized for energy, which further lowers your metabolic rate so that you are burning fewer calories per day.

Additionally, your energy levels decline, making it harder to be physically active or expend extra calories zooming around your day with vigor because you are just zapped for energy.

Finally, the body becomes more efficient at performing the same vital life processes as well as exercise routines and activities of daily living on fewer calories so that your total daily energy expenditure declines. 

This means that it becomes harder to achieve a caloric deficit because the number of calories you are burning has decreased, so weight loss will begin to slow down and eventually stall.

Can You Change Your Set Point Weight?

There is also evidence to suggest that your body weight set point can change over time.

However, it often is the case that the change occurs in the upward direction so that your body continually wants to be at a heavier and heavier body weight.

A person standing on a scale.

This is thought to be due to the fact that the satiety hormone leptin becomes less effective at sending signals to the body that you are indeed full, and some amount of insulin resistance can develop even in seemingly healthy individuals, but particularly those who are overweight or have insulin, pre-diabetes, or type 2 diabetes.

With insulin resistance, the signaling to your body about hunger, satiety, and the amount of available energy becomes skewed.

This can lead you to feel like you need to eat more food because your cells are not effectively taking up and using the available blood sugar, causing you to feel tired, weak, and hungry.

Gradually, over time, your body weight set point may creep upward, making it even more difficult to lose weight and decrease your body weight set point for lasting weight loss.

Research and health experts suggest that the best way to lose weight and decrease your set point weight is to take a very gradual, stepwise approach to weight loss.

This typically involves losing no more than 10% of your body weight at a time and then holding the new lower weight for at least a month or six weeks.

A weight loss app on a tablet surrounded by different foods.

Then, you would reinstate a weight loss diet and exercise plan when you have lost another 10% of your weight.

Again, you would hold this new lower weight for 4 to 6 weeks before continuing again.

Let’s imagine that you weigh 220 pounds or 100 kg.

You would take a slow, steady approach to weight loss, aiming to lose about 1 pound per week and no more than 2 pounds per week until you have lost 10% of your body weight or until you weigh about 198 pounds.

This would involve a daily caloric deficit of 500 calories (and no more than 1000).

Then, you would eat enough calories to enter weight maintenance at this new 198-pound body weight based on your total daily energy expenditure.

After 4 to 6 weeks, you could begin cutting calories again until you have slowly dropped down to about 178 pounds.

This stepwise approach may help override the set point theory and help your body reestablish a lower set point weight.

For more information about losing weight and changing your body composition, check out our guide to body recomposition here.

A person making a smoothie and looking at his phone.
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Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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