Summer interns for the win!! Anna Marie Oglesbee is at it again - this time she is looking at the evidence behind the "setpoint" theory. And exploring more about what determines our natural weight ranges.
Anna Marie Oglesbee
Coordinated Program in Dietetics
The University of Texas at Austin
Your setpoint weight is the weight that your body (not your mind) decides is appropriate for you. It is “the weight range that your body likes best” (Bacon, 2014). This concept is not commonly discussed in healthcare settings because it challenges the common belief that if you eat less and move more, you WILL lose weight. The concept of setpoint weight challenges this belief and holds the truth that your body knows exactly what size it should be and exactly how much fuel you need to maintain this size.
Your body is like a thermostat. Imagine being outside all afternoon for a daytime concert. In the Texas heat, your body will naturally begin to sweat to cool you off. When you step inside to a nice air-conditioned room, you stop sweating and you begin to cool down. The body is very good at maintaining temperature. Our weight works the same. If we listen to our internal hunger/fullness cues and eat according to these signals, our weight will stay within our setpoint range, which can change throughout life (Friedman, 2004). There is no need to count calories, grams, points, etc. to stay within a certain range. Our bodies simply do this for us.
Reasons your setpoint may increase
When we ignore our body’s internal hunger/fullness signals by following a strict set of rules (i.e. a diet), we may lose weight initially. However there is evidence that diets don’t work so when we inevitably begin to eat “normally” again, the pounds will come back. We usually gain back more than we lost because our body is storing up for the next “famine.” In prehistoric/hunter-gatherer times, we ate what was around. If no one was able to catch food or vegetables were not ready for harvest, one simply did not eat. It was normal to go for several hours, or even days without food. When one finally got food, they ate what they could. As a survival mechanism, the body would store the extra fuel (i.e. metabolism would slow down) so that the person would survive longer during the next period of starvation. Restriction, followed by a period of “normal” or “over-eating” raises the setpoint because the body is unsure when it will get fuel again. This was useful survival mechanism during prehistoric times, and even today it’s a sign of our body doing it’s best to survive.
This is why “yo-yo dieters” usually gain more and more weight with each diet attempt. Restriction followed by an increase in fuel (either through over-eating or “normal” eating) raises your setpoint.
How to find your setpoint
Your setpoint is the weight that you “normally maintain, when you eat to appetite” and “don’t fixate on your weight or food habits” (Bacon, 2014). If you have been chronically restricting food or over-eating, chances are you are not at your setpoint weight. *
You may be above your setpoint weight if you:
· go through periods where you eat out of control anticipating your next diet,
· skip meals in an effort to lose weight or “save up” for a larger meal,
· feel guilty about some foods or amounts of foods you eat, or
· overeat since you’ve already blown it today (Bacon, 2010).
You may be below your setpoint weight if you:
· are constantly thinking about food or eating,
· wake up starving,
· have difficulty sleeping due to hunger (Bacon, 2010), or
· are disconnected from hunger cues all together.
Bodies are designed to come in different shapes and sizes. A healthy weight for one person may be radically different than for another person. Our culture fixates on a “thin ideal”, but this “thin body” is not actually healthy for most people. The only way to find your true setpoint weight range is by healing your relationship with food and your body, allowing yourself to eat intuitively.
*If you are concerned that you are not at your setpoint weight due to an eating disorder, negative relationship with food, or chronic dieting, please see a Registered Dietitian specializing in eating disorders.
Bacon, L., & Aphramor, L. (2014). Body respect: What conventional health books get wrong, leave out, and just plain fail to understand about weight. Dallas, TX: BenBella Books.
Bacon, L. (2010). Health at every size the surprising truth about your weight. Dallas: Benbella Books.
Friedman, J. M. (2004). Modern science versus the stigma of obesity. Nature Medicine,10(6), 563-569. doi:10.1038/nm0604-563
Müller, M. (2010). Is there evidence for a set point that regulates human body weight? F1000 Medicine Reports,2. doi:10.3410/m2-59
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