What is the set point theory of weight? 

We all have an internal thermostat that regulates our weight. This “thermostat” works by increasing the metabolism when the body begins to gain weight or when we eat excessive calories. When we lose weight, this “thermostat” decreases and metabolism slows down. This is one of the reasons why dieting is so harmful and why dieting doesn’t work to achieve long term weight loss success.

Body weight is also regulated by hormones in response to how much we eat, what we eat and how much we weigh. 

The main two hormones involved are insulin and leptin. When we gain weight, the body increases production of insulin and leptin, which reduces our appetite and food intake in theory. When we restrict our calories such as in dieting, insulin and leptin are decreased, causing our appetite to increase.

This is how your body maintains homeostasis. 

Your body likes to maintain the status quo and keep your weight relatively stable; this range of stable weight is called your “set point.”

Your body strongly protects against going below your set point, though most people’s bodies are relatively less aggressive at preventing them from rising above their set point. In other words, weight gain is relatively easy at the same time that weight loss may not be possible.

When you lose weight and threaten this system, your body may react by raising your set point, protecting against future threat. With each diet, the metabolism learns to slow down and become very efficient and at some point it will adapt to a reduced rate out of survival. This makes it much easier to gain weight, as your body wants to ‘hang out’ to weight for future storage. 

What’s your set point weight?

So, there is no solid formula or lab test to determine your set point. Scientists estimate that the average person has a set point range of about ten to twenty pounds; meaning at any given time, there is a ten-to-twenty-pound range at which your body will be comfortable and not resist attempts to change. So losing/gaining small amounts of weight may not be difficult and won’t be met by compensatory actions, if you are within your set point range.

Some people’s set point range is higher than others. For example, one person who is 5’5” may have a set range of 125-145 pounds. Another 5’5” person may have a set range of 145-165 pounds. This is just where the body likes to be. Genetics mostly decides our set points by about 80% (Lifestyle is 20%).

Just because one person has a lower set point does not mean that person is healthier. Higher set point or lower set point… it doesn’t matter. You can be healthy at any size/weight range. 

Are you above your set point weight? 

Wondering if you’re above your own set point? Then answer these questions:

  • Do you routinely eat beyond a comfortable level of fullness and feel lethargic, stuffed, and uncomfortable after meals?
  • Do you have difficulty recognizing when you’re hungry and when you’ve had enough?
  • Do you go through periods where you eat out of control, anticipating that you will soon start to diet?
  • Do you skip meals in an effort to lose weight, then overeat because you are so hungry?
  • Do you skip meals to “save up” for a big feast?
  • Do you often eat as a coping mechanism? For example, when you’re tired, angry, nervous or bored?
  • Do you often feel guilty about some of the foods or the amount of food you eat?
  • If you overeat, do you figure you’ve blown your “diet” and end up eating even more?
  • Do you often eat quickly without taking the time to focus on the taste of your food or to savor and enjoy it?
  • Do you fluctuate between periods of sensible, nutritious eating and then eating out of control?

If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, you are likely above your setpoint. Don’t feel bad! Most people with a history of dieting aren’t at their set- point. 

Are you below your set point?

Some people are chronically below their set point. You’ll know this is you if:

  • You’re often cold.
  • You feel like you’re constantly preoccupied with food and often feel desperately hungry.
  • You wake up with an overwhelming urge to eat.
  • You have difficulty sleeping because of gnawing hunger.
  • You have a very low sex drive.
  • For females, you have infrequent periods or skip them entirely.
  • You suffer from any of the following: apathy, fatigue, irri- tability, and/or depression. 

If you are below your setpoint, learning how to respond to your body’s signals will help you to normalize your eating habits and feel better. It may result in a slight weight gain, but this is a good thing as you will feel better, have more energy and drive to live. 

How can you find your own set point?

By listening to your body and eating normally.

You will know you are at your set point weight when you eat naturally in response to signals of hunger, fullness, and appetite. Eating is effortless and enjoyable. 

You will know you have reached your set point when you are honoring you body’s needs and your weight no longer fluctuates. (it’s normal to fluctuate within about 5 pounds per month).

How do I restore my metabolism and find my natural set point weight?

First and foremost: Stop dieting. Stop counting calories or points or whatever.

The body needs to trust you again. It needs to know it isn’t going through another starvation period. So, this means eating. Eating regularly throughout the day while listening to hunger and fullness signals. 

If you have ignored your body over time from dieting, this will take some practice to re-learn how to trust and listen to your body. 

It may take only months to reach your set point, or it could take up to a year. It depends on your genetics and how long your “thermostat” has been broken. This is why intuitive eating works as an effective way to restore your metabolism as well as heal disconnected eating patterns. Intuitive eating increases/ restores your metabolic rate back to ‘normal’ so you can reach a your natural set point weight without effort, starvation or dieting. 

Trust your body to take care of your weight.

Cited references: 

Bacon, Linda. Health at Every Size: the Surprising Truth about Your Weight. BenBella Books, 2010.

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Karen Louise Scheuner, MA, RDN

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