“I just need to lose this last 5 pounds.” “I have hit a plateau and cannot get these last 10 pounds off.” As a coach I hear this on a daily basis. I get it and I have been there. I have worked to lose weight in order to get to some magical number on the scale that will suddenly make me happy so I am by no means judging anyone who has these thoughts or feelings. It is not our fault. It is society’s fault. Diet culture has done so much damage over the years and led us to believe that weight loss is our responsibility and that it is something that is doable and sustainable forever. Diet culture has left us chasing a magic number on the scale that may be attainable but not sustainable or realistic over time, and has left us unable to listen to our body’s natural hunger and satiety cues so that we can settle at our natural weight range.
In essence, we are set up to fail miserably every time. What do we do about this? How do we get to our desired weight and move on with our lives? That is not an easy question, and the answer is not cut and dry, but read on and you may find some ounce of sanity that will encourage you to stop chasing that number on the scale.
Enter set-point theory. Your set-point weight is the healthy weight that your body aims for. In other words our body weight is regulated at a set and genetically predetermined range that is controlled by much more than calories in and calories out. We all have different settings that impact our normal body weight. Some hover at a higher set point and others hover at a lower set point. Experts equate it to our body being like a thermostat. If your thermostat is high you are someone who tends to carry a little more weight and if it is low you tend to carry a lower set point. Your body will fight anything that tries to push you out of this state of homeostasis, hence the rapid weight gain that you see after someone completes a diet.
Think of it as a preferred temperature on a fat thermostat. Your system works around the clock to do anything it can to bring you back into homeostasis. The further your body veers from the set-point, the stronger the pull will be to get you back to your body’s comfortable range. Just like a thermostat, this theory only works properly if you don’t mess with it. Think about your grandmother who is always complaining about being cold. She keeps going back to the thermostat to turn it up every few minutes, never giving it a chance to work the way it is supposed to to warm the house. This is what diets do to your body’s natural need to find its set-point. If you keep messing with it by restricting and dieting, your body fights back and forces you to regain any lost weight and will also try to protect itself by adding even more weight than when you started. This is how chronic dieters end up with higher and higher set points because the body is protecting itself from future diets (famines).
Just like breathing, digestion, and temperature control, we cannot control our set-point. We don’t tell people to stop breathing so why is it normal to tell people to stop eating to fit into a size 0 jeans? Just like your body maintains oxygen and carbon dioxide levels, blood volume, and blood sugar, in an effort to maintain homeostasis, it also maintains the proper amount of body fat that you need in order to function best. Controlling this through dieting just throws the system off and as mentioned above, increases your set-point.
This region of your brain is the king and ruler of your weight set-point. It picks up on sensations of food that smells good, the sensations of eating the food, and the fullness you may feel from eating too much of any food. It is also in tune with how much body fat you have at any given point in time and does what it can to regulate this.
For example, lets say you are losing weight and you get below your set-point. Your hypothalamus will try to regulate your eating and activity levels to get back to where you are meant to be. Hormones will be released to influence your appetite causing you to craver higher fat food so that you can gain the weight back. Additionally, you will feel a lower drive to move and do physical activity. This is your body fighting back thanks to the hypothalamus. Sometimes our willpower is strong enough to fight this but not for long. Eventually biology becomes more forceful and you may feel cold and lethargic all of the time. These are signs of a slowed metabolism. There are many studies to support these findings and they can be found in the groundbreaking book Health At Every Size by Linda Bacon.
Identifying Your Set-Point: are you above, at, or below your set-point?
How do you know if you are at your true set-point? According to Linda Bacon, author of Health At Every Size, your set-point is:
- the weight you maintain when you listen and respond to your body’s signals of hunger and fullness
- the weight you maintain when you don’t fixate on your weight or food habits
- the weight you keep returning to between diets
You are above your set-point if:
- you have difficulty recognizing when you are hungry and full
- you often eat beyond a comfortable level of fullness
- you go through periods where you eat out of control anticipating a diet coming soon
- you skip meals to lose weight and then overeat later
- you overeat and then figure you have blown your diet and eat even more
- you fluctuate between periods of sensible eating and eating out of control
You are below your set-point if:
- you are chronically cold
- you feel like you are constantly preoccupied with food and are often desperately hungry
- you wake up with an overwhelming urge to eat
- you have difficulty sleeping due to hunger
- you have a low sex drive
- you have infrequent periods
- you have apathy, fatigue, are irritable, and have depression
Doesn’t being where your body is meant to be sound amazing and so freeing? It is! I too, have suffered from trying to force my body into places it is not meant to be and I am here to tell you that it is possible to escape from that cycle. My diet culture dropout series is for you if you want to be free. Follow me and message me on instagram @eat_the_banana_nutrition to find out more!