The ‘Set Point Weight’ Debate
Is there such a thing as a range of pounds where your body feels its best?
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A healthy body grows to crave healthy foods. But even regimented food plans sometimes leave us hungry and grumpy, lusting after a big burger out of the blue. It’s almost as if your body is asking you to gain a few pounds—and it might actually be doing just that.
This is an example of your set point weight, which means that your body has a weight range where it feels best. It fluctuates from time to time (you might lose weight when you’re stressed or gain an extra pound or two on vacation), but eventually, weight veers back to where your body is most comfortable.
One of the biggest pieces of evidence for set point weight is a well-publicized study that came out this year on The Biggest Loser contestants. On average, participants gained back 70 percent of the weight they lost on the show and their metabolisms slowed down more than expected.
But for years, the medical community has debated whether set point weight truly exists. “I do think people have a weight that their body tends to gravitate toward,” says William S. Yancy, M.D., director of the Duke University Diet and Fitness Center. The concept, he says, is still evolving. Here's what doctors currently know about the theory:
How Your Body Stays in a Range
Our bodies have natural biological guards against losing weight or gaining too much, says Charlie Seltzer, M.D., a Philadelphia-based physician who is board-certified in obesity medicine.
If you overdo it one day, your hunger hormones might change the next, helping you naturally gravitate toward veggies and overall eat less. Your metabolism might kick up, too, to burn off the extra calories. These are your body’s natural adaptations as it tries to resist change.
The problem is, outside influences (such fast food and binge-watching TV) can override once fine-tuned hunger and fullness cues, Seltzer says. They can also influence the amount of activity you get.
The best way to avoid throwing biological signals out of whack, then, is to stick to real, whole foods: lean meats, veggies, fruits, whole grains, legumes, and nuts and seeds.
How to Change Your Set Point Weight
Despite research like The Biggest Loser study, changing your body’s new sense of ‘normal’ is possible. “Some people can lose weight and keep it off forever, and that goes against set point theory,” says Yancy. It just takes time; sometimes years.
One of the best prescriptions for change is movement. “You can lose weight by changing your diet, but we see that exercise is a huge component to maintaining that new weight and possibly adjusting to a new set point,” says Yancy. It may be that exercise builds muscle mass, which helps increase your metabolism.
Of course, losing weight slowly is best. Aim for slow, consistent, mild calorie reduction that leads to a half pound of fat loss per week, says Seltzer. The longer you stay at a certain weight, the more likely it is to become a permanent weight. That’s because, given time, your metabolism and eating habits adjust. Your body will stop fighting to get back up to the previous weight.
He says: “You can’t trick your body. It will always be smarter than you, so work with it.”