Here's a crazy idea: Instead of fighting to get to a number on the scale that seems really, really hard to reach or maintain, why not let your body decide for itself what it wants to weigh?
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That might seem radical — or even straight-up scary — if you've long struggled with diets. But increasingly, experts are agreeing on the idea that every body has a sweet spot when it comes to weight. Often called a "set point" or "settling point," it's the weight range where your body is most comfortable — and where it really, really wants to stay.
If you've struggled to lose the same 10 pounds over and over again, adopting a set-point mentality might help you find your body's real happy weight and break the diet cycle for good. And if you're living with obesity, it could give you insight into how to achieve a healthier weight successfully — and sustainably.
Let's take a look at how the whole thing works, and what the whole set point theory might mean for you.
What Is the Set Point Theory?
Every body, it seems, has a sweet spot when it comes to weight.
"We know the body regulates its weight within a certain range through a complex set of hormonal and metabolic interactions that drive our behaviors," obesity medicine specialist Sylvia Gonsahn-Bollie, MD, tells LIVESTRONG.com.
In other words? Your body is used to receiving a certain amount of energy in the form of calories. Eat a little more than usual once in a while, and it'll compensate by temporarily ramping up your metabolism. Eat less, and it'll make up the difference by burning fewer calories in case you need them later, according to the Centre for Clinical Interventions.
Some studies suggest that our set points are tight feedback loops that work to keep the body within a 10- or 15-pound range, per a July 2018 review in F1000Research. But the idea of a so-called set point isn't, well, set in stone. That same review also noted other studies that found that the body can adapt to changes in our environment — and settle at a new, often higher weight range.
And a growing number of experts believe that's the driving force behind why the vast majority of people tend to regain lost weight over time, according to an August 2017 scientific statement in Endocrine Reviews. Other findings back this up.
"From studies like 'The Biggest Loser' study, we know that the body tries hard to maintain its weight at its previous highest points," Dr. Bollie explains. "Contestants had weight regain after the show because their body had made metabolic and hormonal adaptations to [that higher weight]."
Where Your Set Point Comes From
Everyone's body is different — and everyone's set point is different too. The weight where your system is most comfortable seems to be determined by a combination of genetics, inherited traits that don't involve DNA and your environment, a 2010 F1000 Medicine Reports review concluded.
The effect of your surroundings is particularly important, since it's the one way your set point can creep up over time — or be brought down to a lower range, if you're at a higher weight than what's considered healthy. Being in an environment that consistently encourages you to eat more (like working at an office where doughnuts are always in the break room) or dealing with chronic stress can both make it easy for the pounds to pile — and stay — on, per the Obesity Action Coalition.
The good news is that the opposite is also true. While you can't control your DNA, making slow, sustainable changes to your environment and forming healthier habits can lead to lasting weight loss, Dr. Bollie says. "A person's set point can be changed higher or lower," she notes.
The key is figuring out which camp you fall into: Do you really need to lose weight, or are you actually already in the range where your body really wants to be?
Accepting Your Weight Range
Not everyone's body matches up with what they think it should look like.
"The standard for beauty is thinner and lighter than what science tells us is best for most women's health," says Georgie Fear, RD, author of Lean Habits for Lifelong Weight Loss. "The small, almost uniform sample of women's bodies we see on movies, television, social media and advertising is not an accurate representation of reality, or what is healthy according to medical research."
Put more bluntly? "If you find yourself gaining and losing the same 10 to 20 pounds over and over, you're probably aiming for a weight that's below your body's set point," says Sandra Aamodt, PhD, author of Why Diets Make Us Fat.
Instead of taking your weight cues from cultural norms, start by looking at what experts count as healthy.
That's less than 32 percent body fat and a waist circumference under 35 inches for women, or less than 25 percent body fat and a waist circumference under 40 inches for men.
Once you've confirmed that your weight is in a good place health-wise, it's time to stop paying so much attention to it. Easier said than done, of course. But taking the focus off the number on the scale often becomes easier when you allow yourself to have a healthier relationship with food. Think: Eating that's joyful, relaxed and not stressful, Fear says.
That might mean thinking less about what you should or shouldn't eat and simply paying attention to your appetite. After Aamodt watched her weight bounce up and down for years, she decided to stop yo-yo dieting and just eat in accordance with her hunger.
"What I found was my many years of dieting had really interfered with my ability to feel or respond to hunger," she explains. But once the pressure was off, she found it easier to eat in accordance with what her body actually needed.
Weight loss wasn't necessarily Aamodt's goal, but she ended up losing 10 pounds. In other words? By trusting that her body would make the right food choices (easier said than done, she admits), she ended up achieving a lower weight without much effort.
Aamodt is quick to point out that not everyone who tries her approach will lose weight. But whether the scale trends down or not isn't really the point. It's the fact that adjusting your approach to eating will change what your weight means to you. Even if you don't feel lighter physically, you'll notice the difference emotionally.
If straight-up giving yourself permission to eat what you feel like is too overwhelming, a trial period is a good way to begin. "You don't have to say you're going to stop paying attention to what you're eating for the rest of your life. But what would it be like if you stopped paying attention for three or six months?" Aamodt asks. "Just see how it goes."
Changing Your Set Point
Finding your happy weight gets a little more complicated if you and your doctor determine that the number on the scale is putting you at risk for health problems — or causing problems already. Having severe overweight or obesity likely means your body has gradually settled into a new, higher set point, Dr. Bollie says.
That can make losing a significant amount of weight challenging. Trying to quickly lose more than 10 percent of your body weight sends out a warning signal to your body that you could be starving — and it starts to fight back, according to obesity experts at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center of Boston. That can make it almost impossible to reach your goal weight — let alone stay there.
Taking slow, steady steps can help your body adjust to getting fewer calories so it doesn't feel threatened — and ultimately make it easier to settle at a lower, healthier weight range.
"In order to decrease your set point range, weight loss must be slow — think 1 to 2 pounds a week. And it has to be consistent, over the course of at least six months," Dr. Bollie says.
That means steering clear of quick-fix diets that promise dramatic results ASAP. Instead? Think gradual, sustainable changes you can keep up for the long haul. Learn to eat according to your body cues instead of external factors like the time of day or certain rules, acquire skills to manage your feelings without relying on foods and enjoy a wide variety of foods, Fear recommends.
Commit to physical activity that you love enough to do on a regular basis too. Among participants of the National Weight Control Registry (NWCR), a database of U.S. adults who've lost significant amounts of weight and kept it off for at least a year, 90 percent say they exercise for an hour a day.
Last but not least? Keep tabs on your weight and take action if you notice the pounds starting to creep up. A full 75 percent of NWCR participants say they weigh themselves at least once a week. That can help nip weight gain in the bud before your body moves towards a higher settling point.
- Centre for Clinical Interventions: "Set Point Theory"
- F1000Research: "Recent advances in understanding body weight homeostasis in humans"
- Endocrine Reviews: "Obesity Pathogenesis: An Endocrine Society Scientific Statement"
- F1000 Medicine Reports: "Is there evidence for a set point that regulates human body weight?"
- Obesity Action Coalition: "Body Weight "Set Point" – What We Know and What We Don’t Know"
- National Weight Control Registry: "NWCR Facts"
- Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center of Boston: "The Science of Set Point"