Weight Set-Point Theory: Scientific Understanding of Dieting and Weight

weight set-point theory

It seems that no matter where I turn, EVERYONE is on a diet.

And it makes me angry.

I’m not angry towards those on a diet, but towards society in general. I’m angry about the lack of information and education out there.

We have scientific evidence to explain why diets don’t work long term.  Most scientists and dietitians agree with what is known as Weight Set-Point Theory.  A huge multitude of studies have been done, which continue to substantiate the claims behind weight set-point theory. Yet somehow, most people know nothing about it.  We’ve heard about Weight-watchers, Atkins, Whole 30, but not Weight Set-Point. Why!?!?!?

We all know the experience far too well. We go on a diet and watch the numbers on the scale drop down.  And for a brief period of time, it feels exhilarating.  We feel proud of ourselves and excited by our own progress.

But inevitably something happens.  We break down and have a piece of pizza or a slice of cake. Or maybe we don’t veer off course at all.  Maybe we continue to do it all right. But it doesn’t really matter because eventually the numbers on the scale stop moving, or worse, it starts to creep back upwards.  We try harder, but it doesn’t work. We feel frustrated, angry, upset.  Every failure–each delicious carb we succumb to or fat laden dessert leaves us hating ourselves more.

We look at other women with their “perfect” figures and ask ourselves why we can’t look like that. What are we doing wrong? Why is it that they have the self-restraint to do what we can’t? We beat ourselves up for not being perfect.  We tear ourselves down over something that in all actuality we don’t have control over–our weight.

Statistics show that 95% of diets fail and that those who do lose the weight usually regain it within a year. Nearly everyone has heard this statistic before, and yet we continue to feel like failures for not being part of that 5%. Every couple years a new diet comes out, everyone gets excited and jumps on the bandwagon.  Then a new diet comes out. Why? Because you failed at the old diet. Or rather, the old diet failed you. Either way, it didn’t work. Truth is, if we knew how to help people lose weight and keep it off, then we wouldn’t have new diets coming out all the time.

Ready for a little education? Because here it comes.

What’s going on? Why is it so difficult to maintain weight loss? Scientific evidence points toward something referred to as weight set-point theory. Your body has a set weight that it prefers to be at, and it will vigorously defend itself to maintain that weight range.  Your set weight point can change, but don’t get excited. It usually doesn’t reset itself in the direction that you would like. Meaning, your body will fight weight loss much more fervently than it will fight weight gain. And when you chronically overeat? Well, your  set weight-point now shifts towards that new higher number. This helps explain why it’s much more difficult to lose weight than it is to gain weight.

Let’s Break Things Down Further

What happens when we diet? Our bodies are built for homeostasis, and our weight is no exception.  When we try to manipulate the numbers on the scale, our body reacts in a number of certain ways.

When we cut back on calories, our body’s naturally begin to lose weight.  But receptors in the brain sound off, and our metabolism comes screeching to a halt. In addition, we usually feel run down and tired. Whether we realize it or not, we decrease our physical movement.  We sit more, move less, and fidget less. Those calories that we no long burn with daily physical activity actually make a great deal of difference.

And if we decide to cut calories down further to combat the stalemate that occurs on the scale? Well, our metabolism slows even further. (Great, huh?) Not only are you moving less, but your body is now deciding where to allocate energy, and where not to allocate energy.  For example, healthy hair and nails are not really all that important. Guess what’s really bad for your hair and nails? Yeah, maintaining a weight lower than your set-weight point. And it doesn’t end with just your hair and nails.  The longer you fight against your body, the more it fights back against you.

How do I maintain my weight set-point? Keep in mind that genetics do come into play, and our bodies might shift upwards regardless of our best efforts.  We rarely maintain the same weight we did in high school even if we remain the same height. It’s 100% just the way our bodies were made. If our parents stayed thin most of their lives, and suddenly gained weight once they hit a certain age, chances are you might experience the same as our genes might be to blame.

But generally speaking, our set-point will stay the same so long as we eat a balanced diet-and yes, that does allow the incorporation of all your favorite “unhealthy” foods.  Just as your body doesn’t want you to lose weight, your body doesn’t want you to gain weight either.  When you under-eat, your body decreases it’s metabolism, encourages you to move less, produces less heat, etc. in order for your weight to come back into its normal range.  When you over-eat, your metabolism increases above normal.  You will likely have more energy (once you don’t feel so stuffed!), you will move more, fidget more, and your body will typically give off more heat as a way to burn off the extra calories consumed.  Which again, will bring you back to your set-point.

Your weight set-point only shifts upwards with CHRONIC overeating.  If you surpass your caloric needs day after day, your weight will shift upwards. But one Thanksgiving meal, a special dessert, a night of drinking with your friends here and there, will actually do nothing at all to your weight.


A few Personal Words…

#1. For the love of all, stop dieting!  Enough said.  Focus on being healthy. Your weight does not, in fact, determine your health.  Eat well, ensure you get a variety of vitamins and nutrients, allow yourself to indulge here and there, and get some exercise.

#2. Erase the guilt. Society tells us that if we diet and exercise properly, we can look a certain way.  Science tells us we can’t.  All those diets that you failed, really weren’t failures.

#3. Love yourself–life is too short for anything else. Once you understand that you can’t diet your way to a ‘perfect size’, you then have to move towards finding peace with your own body.  Honestly, this can be difficult and uncomfortable work, but it’s worthwhile.

#4. Do your own research. Education is power, and the more you learn and understand, the better. Search through scientific studies, peer-reviewed articles, and other reputable resources.  Formulate your own opinions and make educated decisions on what you believe.



Please feel free to ask any questions you like in the comments below.




One thought on “Weight Set-Point Theory: Scientific Understanding of Dieting and Weight

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s