Once considered a theory, set point weight appears to be a scientifically validated fact. Numerous clinical and pre-clinical research studies point to biological control of body weight set point. (1)
Your set point may explain why it's so challenging to maintain your hard-won weight loss for long. Indeed, statistics show that most people who experience significant weight loss regain most or all of it within two to three years.
There are probably many reasons for this, but one of the most significant is the body weight set point.
In this guide, we'll discuss how it works and provide a few tips for lowering your set point weight so that you can keep the weight off this time.
What is Set Point Weight?
Your set point weight is a range of about ten to twenty pounds that your body works to maintain. It easily supports this weight with no help from you -- i.e., no micromanaging your food intake, counting calories, or crazy exercise routines required.
The body resists any attempt to go below or above this range. How? Your body adjusts metabolic processes to keep you within your set point.
For example, it can increase your decrease your:
Energy intake (calories)
Fat storage percentage
And it relies on specific hormonal signals to control weight at a healthy level.
What Hormones Regulate Weight?
Hormones involved with weight control include:
Insulin (fat storage)
Thyroid hormones (metabolism)
Estrogen (insulin sensitivity)
How Does Set Point Theory Work For Weight Management?
Your body keeps you within your set point range because it's trying to keep you healthy. It's not trying to make you miserable and prevent you from achieving your weight loss goals. Instead, it thinks your set point is a healthy weight for you even if you're carrying far too much fat.
Jonathan Bailor, New York Times bestselling author ofThe Calorie Myth, describes this as a "hormonal clog" that prevents your brain from receiving the correct hormonal signals. As a result, it increases fat storage and decreases metabolism to keep you from starving. (Having a sufficient amount of body fat is essential for survival.)
In the process, it raises your set point weight, which becomes the new normal as far as body weight is concerned.
Long before this happens, though, you had a healthy natural set point weight.
What Determines Natural Set Point Weight?
Here are a few factors that help determine your set point weight.
Genetics. Your genes determine your appearance, among other things, so it makes sense that they strongly influence your body build and set point weight. You cannot control your genes, but if you have a genetic predisposition to obesity, you can make some lifestyle adjustments to modify that risk.
Chronic Stress. During stress, your body releases cortisol, a hormone that can slow metabolism and promote fat storage.
Sleep deprivation. Research suggests that sleep deprivation can alter hunger and fat storage hormones, resulting in excess consumption of refined carbs and eventually driving up set point weight.
Hormonal imbalance. An imbalance of any weight control hormones listed above can result in an elevated set point weight.
Age. As we get older, our set point weight often increases, which accounts for the weight gain so many people experience as they reach their 30s, 40s, and beyond.
Insufficient exercise. Humans were built to be active, and if you sit most of the time, your body weight regulation system gradually starts to change, causing you to gain weight even if you're eating a healthy diet.
Diet. The types of food you routinely consume are a significant cause of an elevated set point weight. In general, the more palatable the food -- i.e., cookies, crackers, pastries, junk foods -- the more it negatively affects body weight set point if eaten too often.
Can I Change My Set Point Weight?
The answer is "yes," to a certain degree.
As discussed above, there is little you can do about genetics or age, but there are lifestyle adjustments you can make to manage your set point weight.
Dietary Tips for Reducing Set Point Weight
Here are a few tips for resetting your body's weight regulatory system.
That's right, stop dieting!
When you significantly cut calories, you'll start losing weight almost immediately. If it goes on too long, though, your body fights back because it thinks you are starving.
So, it adjusts various metabolic functions to try to keep you within range of your set point. But, unfortunately, it also raises your set point weight!
Traditional dieting damages your metabolic system leading to yo-yo dieting. Additionally, extreme calorie-restrictive dieting so scares the body that it takes measures to prevent its reoccurrence.
"In the classical Minnesota starvation study, the subjects lost 66% of their initial fat mass in response to 24 weeks of semi-starvation (i.e., at 50% reduced energy intake), but ad libitum re-feeding resulted in a regain of fat mass reaching 145% of the pre-starvation values (i.e., there was an overshooting of fat mass, known as the catch-up fat phenomenon)." (2)
Further, researchers theorize that it may take more than a year for "fat mass to decrease to within 5% of the initial value." (3)
This "catch-up fat phenomenon" is likely one of the reasons people regain weight after crash dieting.
What should you do instead of calorie-restrictive dieting?
Enjoy a High-Quality Diet
The calorie-deficit theory of weight loss has probably been the most damaging bit of advice given to those trying to reach a healthy weight.
Why? Weight loss and weight maintenance is not a caloric regulatory system but a hormonal one. Your body doesn't know anything about calories. Instead, it reacts to hormonal signals telling it when to store and burn fat.
Yes, calories are important, but it's not your job to count them. Your body adjusts your metabolism to keep you within range of your set point weight. You can't get around this no matter how little you eat or how intensely you exercise.
You will lose weight with a crash diet. But it won't be long before your body starts fighting back. The weight loss will slow down to almost nothing, you'll be ravenously hungry, you'll feel tired, and you'll regain most or all of those pounds you lost.
So, the only way to reach a healthy weight -- i.e., lose weight permanently -- is to lower your set point weight.
What is a High-Quality Diet?
A high-quality diet includes primarily nutritious whole foods -- i.e., unprocessed or minimally processed. These foods heal your hormonal clog and gradually lower your body weight set point.
Incidentally, when you routinely eat a high-quality diet, you'll probably consume fewer calories than you did when you were enjoying refined starches and junk food. But because you're giving your body the nutrition it needs and you feel satisfied with your food intake, your body feels free to start releasing the fat and reducing your set point weight.
Several research studies support the value of a high-quality diet over a poor-quality one. For example, in a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), researchers suggested that increasing high-quality foods and decreasing lower-quality ones is crucial in reducing calorie intake. (4)
As for the debate between high-quality vs. low-quality ones, another study found that increased intake of the foods most strongly associated with weight gain over four years included: (5)
Unprocessed red meats
In the same study, researchers discovered that increased intake of foods most strongly associated with weight loss included:
Best Foods To Lower Your Body's Set Point
These food groups have been shown to reduce body weight set point, leading to natural and easy weight control.
Nonstarchy vegetables (10+ servings per day)
Nonstarchy vegetables are loaded with hormone-healing nutrients. Additionally, they are high-fiber food choices that slow digestion, helping to regulate blood glucose levels. They also fill you up fast, thereby preventing excessive calorie intake.
If you don't believe this, try eating 1,000 calories of broccoli. Unfortunately, you couldn't do it because you would become uncomfortably full well before reaching that point. There are two reasons for this.
The first is that you must eat them slowly due to their fiber content, and it takes about 20 minutes for your stomach to signal your brain that you're full.
The second reason is that the fiber triggers stretch receptors in the stomach letting your brain know when you're full. Therefore, three cups of chopped broccoli -- a mere 93 calories (6) -- may fill you up and prevent you from eating set point elevating foods, such as refined carbs.
By contrast, try eating 1,000 calories of donuts (approximately four or five jelly donuts). (7) You can probably scarf them down quickly if you love donuts. After all, you’ve eaten them so fast that your stomach doesn't have time to signal satiety to the brain.
So, you'll probably feel uncomfortably full 20 minutes after eating those 900+ calories when it's much too late to reduce the calorie intake. But it gets worse.
Because of the spike in blood glucose levels, insulin moves in quickly to clear it from your bloodstream and take it to your fat cells. The resulting plunge in blood sugar triggers renewed hunger, and back you go for another donut -- or two or three.
Numerous research studies strongly suggest that if you want to manage your weight, fill most of your plate with nonstarchy vegetables.
Nutrient-dense proteins trigger short-and long-term satiety hormones, meaning they fill you up fast and keep you full for a long time. Indeed, research suggests that protein is the most satiating macronutrient.
It also takes more calories to digest protein than other macronutrients. Additionally, protein is essential for building lean muscle mass, which is crucial for increasing and maintaining a high resting metabolic rate.
For best muscle-building results, try to consume at least 30 grams of protein at every meal.
Great nutrient-dense protein choices include:
Clean whey protein
Plain nonfat Greek Yogurt
Contrary to popular belief, dietary fats aren't harmful to your health, nor do they make you fat—just the opposite.
Healthy fats are highly satiating, and they have little effect on blood glucose levels. This is important because insulin, the fat-storage hormone, is released in response to blood sugar levels.
If you primarily consume foods that have little to no effect on insulin secretion, excess glucose cannot be deposited into your fat cells, and your body will burn your fat stores for energy.
Though healthy fats are good for you and your weight, you should eat whole-food fats instead of oils. Why? Whole-food fats contain fiber, water, protein, and other nutrients that help you lose weight.
For best results, try to eat three to five servings of whole-food fats per day. Great choices include:
Salmon (Yes, salmon is both a nutrient-dense protein and a whole-food fat!)
Nuts (almonds, walnuts, pecans, etc.)
Seeds (flax, chia, hemp, etc.)
Numerous research studies suggest that to reach and maintain a healthy weight, you should consume fewer:
Ultra-processed foods. These foods contain artificial colorings, flavors, preservatives, and chemicals that damage your weight regulation system. Their lack of fiber also promotes rapid digestion, resulting in elevated blood glucose and fat-storing insulin levels.
Sugars. Sugary foods lead to a spike in blood sugar levels that promotes weight gain, and they also cause an inflammatory response in the body that damages your weight regulation system and raises your set point.
Processed meats. The manufacturing process makes processed meats dangerous for your health and weight control.
Trans fats. These are the most harmful fats you can consume. Excessive consumption increases body fat and increases the risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes. In addition, many processed foods contain trans fats, including donuts, cookies, and muffins.
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