One thing many people, not just sufferers of eating disorders, have trouble accepting, is the set point theory. Set point is the weight range in which your body is programmed to function optimally. Set point theory holds that one’s body will fight to maintain that weight range.
Everyone has a set point and, just as you have no control over your height, eye color or hair color, you also have no control over what your set point will be. Your body is biologically and genetically determined to weigh within a certain weight range.
Set points vary for each individual person. That is why it’s not a good idea to go by the weight charts that you see in medical books or hanging in your doctor’s office. For instance, a woman with a small frame may have a set point range between 120-130 lbs, but another woman with the same height may have a set point range between 130-140 lbs. Their set points may be different, but those are the weight ranges their bodies will fight to maintain. Scientists estimate that the average person has a set point range of about ten to twenty pounds, meaning at any given time, there is a ten-to-twenty-pound range at which your body will be comfortable and not resist attempts to change
Everyone who has ever tried dieting knows just how hard it is to lose weight and keep it off. In the first few weeks of dieting, weight is usually lost, but it is almost always gained back. Many people become frustrated because after a few weeks of dieting, they usually stop losing weight or start gaining it back, even though they are still restricting their food intake. That is a sign that the body is trying to fight to retain it’s natural weight.
When you go below your body’s natural set point, both appetite and metabolism adjust to try to return you to your set point. Your metabolism may slow down to try and conserve energy. Your body will start to sense it’s in a state of semi-starvation and will try to use the few calories it receives more effectively. You may start to sleep more, your body temperature will drop, which is why you hear so many people who suffer from anorexia nervosa complaining of being so cold, and after too much weight loss many women experience the loss of their menstrual cycle. Basically when a woman’s weight gets too low, her reproductive system shuts down because her body could not handle a pregnancy. When body fat is lost, appetite will likely increase. Many people who diet also experience uncontrollable urges to binge. That is because their bodies are asking for more food than is being provided in order to function properly.
Just as your metabolism will slow down when you go under your body’s set point, it will also increase if you go above it. The body will try to fight against the weight gain by increasing its metabolic rate and raising its temperature to try and burn off the unwanted calories.
The above description is an oversimplification as the processes that maintain hunger, digestion, and metabolism are incredibly complex and not entirely understood.
There is no test available to tell you what your body’s natural set point is. However, you can find your own set point. by listening to your body and eating normally and exercising moderately. If you have been dieting for years, it can take up to a year of normal eating for your body’s metabolism to function properly and return you to the weight range that is healthy for you.
Learning to accept the fact that your body needs to be at a certain weight is a good way to stop the vicious cycles of dieting. The more you try to go below your body’s set point range, the harder your body will fight to retain it’s natural weight. Engaging in a healthy eating and exercise routine, will allow your body to go to the weight it wants and needs to be at. Learning to love and accept who you are, will help you to accept your body’s natural set point. It is unfortunate that we live in a society that is obsessed with thinness, but we have to stop believing that thinness equals happiness. If we can all accept each other for who we are, no matter what size we are, people will be much happier, except, of course, for the diet industry, because they would be finally out of business! Follow this link for more on a healthy body image.
Updated by Dr. Lauren Muhlheim and Tabitha Farrar – 2014
Written by Colleen Thompson – 1997
Centre for Clinical Interventions: Set Point Theory
National Library of Medicine: Is There Evidence For A Set Point
The Center for Balanced Living: The Wood-Burning Stove
Health at Every Size Book on Amazon
Sandra Aamodt: Why Your Brain Doesn’t Want You To Lose Weight