There’s no denying the fact that people’s body weight tends to remain settled in certain ranges over long periods of time.
There’s also no denying that “dieting” simply doesn’t work for most people. Sure, they can lose weight, but many regain it all once they stop the diet.
And to add a cherry of hopelessness on top, we’re also often told that exercise kind of sucks for weight loss too.
What are we to do, then? Accept whatever body weight nature and our environment has given us? Is there really no effective way to achieve and maintain an ideal body weight for the long term?
Well, there’s a counterpoint to the above research: evidence that about 20% of overweight people successfully reduce their body weight by at least 10%, and then maintain their new weight for at least 1 year.
What’s going on here?
What’s going on is a result of people’s body weight set points, which are very real and can either work for or against you in your quest to get and stay lean.
In this article, you’re going to learn why your body weight has “settled” to its current level, why it’s a pain in the ass to reduce your “default” weight, and how to actually do it.
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The body weight set point theory is simple: it postulates that the body uses hormones, hunger, behavior changes, and other physiological mechanisms to “defend” a certain range of body weight (and body fat in particular).
A simple way to think of this is as a “thermostat” or “cruise control” system for body weight and fat levels. Whatever numbers are set are what your body strives to maintain.
There’s plenty of animal research to support this theory.
Starve a rat and its metabolism slows and appetite increases and it moves less to conserve energy. Then give it free access to food and it will quickly eat its way back to its starting weight.
On the flip side, when you force feed a rat to fatten it up and the opposite occurs: metabolic rate and activity level increase and appetite decreases and it quickly returns to its starting weight.
Us humans have similar mechanisms in place to maintain “preferred” weight ranges and body compositions, but, unfortunately in this case, we aren’t wired the same as rats.
Our bodies run on an asymmetrical system of bodyweight regulation that defends against weight loss more than weight gain.
This is why, for most people at least, it’s harder to lose weight than gain it, and why people tend to get fatter over time, not leaner.
“What about the people that can ‘eat anything’ but never gain weight?” you might be thinking.
First, research shows that some people do naturally respond to overfeeding more like rats, unconsciously ramping up their non-exercise activity levels and burning off the excess calories. (People that exhibit high levels of non-exercise activity thermogenesis [or NEAT, as it’s known] can burn upward of 2,000 more calories per day than low-NEAT types).
Second, the “eat anything and stay lean” types rarely eat as much as you or they think when measured calorically. Many will eat one or two large meals per day with little-to-no snacking in between and never struggle with hunger.
Combine a high level of non-exercise activity thermogenesis and a strong appetite shut-off switch and you have someone that simply doesn’t gain and hold weight easily. This applies to both body fat and muscle (a “hardgainer” in both regards).
Anyway, back to the matter at hand.
The bottom line is it’s well established that our bodies do have a complex system for regulating body weight.
While a more accurate term would be “settling point” because “set” implies fixed and unchanging, and fortunately this isn’t the case, the basic premise of the body weight set point theory is sound.
How does this system work, though? And how can we change its programming?
Your body’s set, or settling, point is determined by several factors. The primary ones are…
Let’s look briefly at each.
When it comes to obesity, genetics are the go-to scapegoat for many.
They want to believe it’s not their fault. That they’re just programmed and destined to be fat.
Fortunately for the rest of us, it’s just not true.
Yes, there are genetic variants that can predispose us to higher or lower body weight set points, but their effects are small. Furthermore, epigenetic research indicates that certain “obesity genes” can be “turned off” through exercise alone.
The truth is this: while your genetics can predispose you to a certain amount of fatness, you can overrule them with the right behaviors.
When it’s all said and done, the maintenance of a given body weight over time requires a balance of energy as well.
That is, energy intake (calories eaten) must more or less match output (calories expended). (Yes, it’s a bit more complicated than that, but that’s the long story short.)
Regardless of your body weight set point, over- or undereat every day and you will gain and lose weight accordingly.
It’s no surprise, then, that physical activity levels play a large role in determining body weight set points.
People that are very physically active burn a lot more energy than those that are sedentary and generally have lower body weight set points.
Since we’re talking about how energy balance affects body weight set point, let’s look at the “energy in” part of the equation: diet.
Based on just what you’ve learned in the section above, you can rightly assume that energy intake per se doesn’t determine the body weight set point.
That is, eating a lot of food doesn’t necessarily increase your body weight set point or keep it high and eating little doesn’t necessarily decrease it or keep it low.
For example, as a subset of the general population, endurance athletes eat a lot more food than the average person but also sport lower-than-average levels of body fat. A lot of food but a low body weight set point.
And on the flip side, being obese doesn’t cost all that much energy and can be maintained on a (relatively) little amount of food. Millions of overweight people fall into this category: unable to fathom their high body weights considering how “little” they feel they eat every day.
Furthermore, you can exercise every day until your limbs fall off and fail to lose a single pound because your body is programmed to increase energy intake in response. And this instinct is stronger in some people than others.
So, as you’ve probably already concluded, it’s the ongoing relationship between energy intake and output that influences your body weight set point.
If you chronically feed your body more energy than it expends, even if only by 100 calories per day–that’s one banana more than you burn–you will slowly but surely gain weight.
As you gain weight, your body will employ strategies to try to “zero” the energy surplus and prevent further weight gain, but these inborn “anti-obesity mechanisms” are just no match for our modern lifestyle of over-consumption of calorie-dense foods and under-movement.
(Our woefully inadequate biological “defenses” against obesity make sense when viewed in the context of evolution. The ability to eat ourselves to death is a very new development whereas the threat of death by starvation was confronted almost daily for millions of years.)
And as you get fatter and fatter, your body weight set point rises as well.
The longer you remain in a given body weight range, the more your body “settles into it,” defending weakly against increases and strongly against reductions.
If you were reading another blog, this is where the author would likely preach about the transformative effects of “clean eating,” Paleo ideology, low-carb dogma, or some other form of restrictive eating.
Well, good thing you’re here and not there, because I have better news for you:
The best diet for maintaining a low body fat set point is one that is best for maintaining a state of energy neutral energy balance.
That is, diets that promote overeating are bad for both your body weight and body weight set point and diets that promote a balance between energy intake and output are good for them.
And how does that play out practically?
Research shows it’s easier to overeat on a high-fat diet and obesity rates are greater among high-fat dieters than low-fat. Unless you’re going to strictly regulate your calories, a high-fat diet is, for most people, a recipe for a high body weight set point.
This isn’t particularly surprising when you consider how energy-dense fatty foods are and how easy it is to over-consume them (even the “healthy” ones like nuts, dairy, and oils). Remember that a daily calorie surplus of just one tablespoon of olive oil is enough to cause steady weight gain.
Furthermore, there’s evidence that a low-fat, high-carbohydrate diet is an effective way to normalize and stabilize body weight set point.
This is at least partially due to the facts that carbohydrates are more satiating than dietary fats (thus discouraging overeating) and that the body is particularly good at burning off excess carbohydrate instead of storing it as fat.
This research is in line with what I see in my work as well.
Every week I hear from people floundering on a high-fat, low-carb diet, unable to break through weight loss plateaus. And every week I also hear from people I’ve saved from the low-carb doldrums, who are now leaner and feeling better than ever before following a high-protein, moderate/high-carb, and moderate/low-fat diet.
Like your genetics, your natural hormone levels affect–but don’t determine–your body weight set point.
And while some people naturally have better hormone profiles than others–higher levels of testosterone, good leptin sensitivity, and generally low levels of cortisol–the good news is we can all have a healthy hormone profile by focusing on healthy living.
And that’s pretty simple:
And your hormone health will be more than adequate for maintaining a low body weight set point.
Now that we’ve covered all the relevant theory, let’s focus on the practical.
We know how easy raising our body weight set point is–chronic overfeeding is all it takes–but that’s probably not why you’re reading this article.
You want to know how to lower your set point, and that’s trickier. Trickier but doable.
There is no quick fix though. There aren’t any shortcuts or “biohacks” that will get it done.
Lowering your body weight set point takes patience, discipline, and consistency, but it isn’t particularly hard.
The payoff is well worth it, too. You can maintain low levels of body fat with relative ease and develop a “resistance” to fat gain despite bouts of overfeeding.
Here’s how it’s done in a nutshell:
The whole point of lowering your body weight set point is maintaining a low level of body fat, so of course the first step is reaching a low level that can be maintained.
Nothing helps maintain a low body weight set point like adding a substantial amount of muscle to your frame. (And no, you don’t have to get fat to do this.)
You see, muscle is a “metabolically active” tissue, meaning it increases the basal metabolic rate. The more muscle you have, the more energy your body burns while at rest. And the more energy your body burns while at rest, the more food you get to eat every day without gaining fat.
Furthermore, research shows that the more muscle you have, the less fat you gain in response to overeating.
That means that the more muscle you have, the less you’re “punished” for eating too much. This “wiggle room” works wonders for long-term dietary compliance because a large amount of muscles lets you regularly indulge in high-calorie feasts with little-to-no consequences.
Simply put, the more muscle you have, the easier it is to get and stay lean.
As discussed earlier in this article, the longer you remain at a given body weight, the easier it becomes to stay there. And the healthier your body is, the better its hormones will support your efforts to stay lean.
They key here is that you first have to consciously manage your energy balance because your instincts are likely to lead you to overeating. This really just boils down to proper meal planning and “cheat meal management.”
Keep this in place and over time, everything will just “settle into place” with your eating habits, appetite, and energy expenditure, and you’ll have created a new “default” body weight set point that your body helps defend and maintain.