Change Your Weight "Set Point"

Tuesday, September 26, 2006 - 2:32pm

By Kathleen Goodwin, RD

As if it’s not hard enough to lose weight and keep it off, now we know that many of us must contend with battling our "set point" too. The set point theory was introduced by a group of researchers in 1982. The basic premise of the theory is that the body has a built in weight regulating mechanism, largely genetically determined, that will tend to keep your weight in a physiologically established comfortable range. Many dieters contend with trying to drop weight beyond their bodies’ set point after following a healthy diet and exercise regimen for a time. Initially, for most, body weight will come off steadily and easily when following a reduced calorie diet and exercise program. However, for those of us with genetically determined set points beyond our desired weight goal, losing beyond this weight plateau can be quite challenging.

How the weight set point works

One premise of set point theory is that after the onset of adulthood the body will maintain a constant level of body fat. This involves a complex set of interactions between the brain, nervous system and the fat cells. This communication can cause a reduction in metabolism when the fat cells signal that too much fat has been lost during a period of dieting and/or exercising. On the converse side, the brain can also be signaled to minimize hunger and eating when the fat cell build up extends beyond the comfortable set point level.

Following a weight loss diet for a period of time can also trigger the body to cling to its set point. After dieting, the body’s metabolismor daily rate of calorie burningcan decrease, particularly when a dieter chooses the “no exercise” route. Once the body reaches this point, the same amount of calories that initially led to weight loss, can now lead to weight maintenance and/or gain. Much of this has to do with the fact that the now smaller body size (due to weight loss) requires less calories per day to maintain.

With these two factors working together, it can be difficult to reach a goal weight that is lower than what our genetically inherited set point would like.

3 ways to defeat your weight set point

While it’s true that many inherit some genetic predispositions that can make it more difficult to either lose weight or attain a goal weight than others, your set point is not in control of your destiny. Rather, there are many things you can do to combat and defeat your set point.

1.   Keep a food record before cutting more calories

First of all, do not cut more calories from your diet than the level you used to lose weight initially. Cutting back on calories too drastically can put your body in “starvation mode” and significantly reduce your metabolism even further. Try keeping a food record instead. Evaluate the nutritional value of your current diet. Even though it may be reduced in calories, you may not be eating healthily. Perhaps you need to cut back on the refined, processed foods you have in your diet. Perhaps you need to limit your fat intake or drink more water or add more fruits and vegetables. Another good idea to give your body a metabolic boost is to try 6 light meals or snacks daily instead of 3 large meals. Every time you eat your body increases its metabolic rate.

2.   Continue to exercise regularly

Secondly, you absolutely cannot omit exercise and expect to lower your set point. Exercise is the only mechanism proven to help lower set point. You must get into the habit of exercising for at least an hour several days a week in order to lower your set point. Use your large muscles as much as possiblethat is, the thighs and buttocks. Try walking, jogging, swimming, and biking. Weight training using the large muscles in the legs and buttocks is a must too. The more muscle you add to your body, the higher your metabolism and calorie burning potential will become.

3.   Vary and intensify your exercise routine - your body gets "used" to your workout

If you are already working out regularly, you must begin to vary your routine. Perhaps your body has gotten “used” to your workout and the benefits of exercise to your metabolism have slackened. A great way to boost your metabolism is to begin to include increases in intensity to your workout. For example, if you have been running 3 miles at a steady 30 minute pace, try adding a few periods of one minute sprints in transit. If your workout has become too “easy,” it is imperative that you find ways to make it moderately difficult again if you want to drop your set point.

Your weight set point can be overcome

In conclusion, there is a strong body of evidence that suggests that each individual has a predetermined weight set point. Your individual set point may be difficult to overcome. However, the majority of people who continue to eat healthily, increase exercise intensity and not give up, eventually press past their set point closer to their desired weight. The actions you take and the level of persistence you demonstrate will determine whether you can conquer your set point.