The Myth of the Set Point

I get asked about a weight or metabolic “set point” regularly. Usually people bring up the “set point” when they want to talk about why they are unable to lose weight. The “set point” is a very common subject in beauty and fashion magazines, for some reason. I see articles all the time talking about how you shouldn’t need to diet, just throw the scale away because your body will naturally revert to whatever is your “set point” and that’s the weight you should be and you can’t fight it. Nothing could be further from the truth.

I really, truly think that if you want to lose weight, that’s great, but that if you don’t want to lose weight, that’s great too – I think everybody should be happy in their own body, regardless of societal expectations. But if you’re trying to lose and failing and blaming it on a set point, it may be time for some tough love.

There is no such thing as a “set point weight” that a body wants to be. My weight is determined by how much fuel I put in it versus how much fuel I burn. If I put more fuel in than I can burn, it will be stored as fat. If I don’t put enough in my body will consume the existing tissues. Simple, right? So, with that in mind, what is the “set point”? It can only be the level of fueling I regularly consume averaged over the course of weeks or months. If when I’m going about my daily life I typically consume more calories than I need, I will carry that as fat. It’s not a body set point, it’s a lifestyle set point. If my body always returns to a certain weight, it’s because I’m comfortable, and naturally returning to, those eating and exercise habits which are fueling my body to be at that weight. If I don’t like that weight, then I’ll want to determine where substitutions and modifications can be made to reduce the level of caloric intake I am regularly netting via diet and exercise. And I’ll need to make those changes permanent.

If I don’t want to make those changes, or to make them permanent, I have the option of accepting the weight that the lifestyle I want to live results in – there is nothing wrong with that. However, it would be intellectually dishonest for me to claim that my weight is due to a “set point.” My weight is due to a lifestyle that I have created, based on the choices I am willing (and not willing) to make.

When I was in my early 20s I didn’t own a scale, ate whatever I felt like and regulated based on how my clothing fit, and I ended up weighing over 380 pounds. At the time I believed the beauty magazine myths about a “set point” and I thought, Gosh, my set point must be high. No, it is not even possible that my body “wanted to be” at 400 pounds. I was morbidly obese because my lifestyle was out of control. I wasn’t paying attention and I didn’t have any tools for regulating or even measuring my daily intake. Most people need to exert at least a little bit of attention and control over their diets. Probably not to the extent that I do, but some.

I found this article today, written by an Actual Real Scientist about metabolic set point. This is a very concise, scientifically-based summary of the science (or lack of) on metabolic set points. I’ve found this to be accurate in my own experiences. It’s a quick read, and I highly recommend it.


7 Responses to “The Myth of the Set Point”

  1. lizhamillscott Says:

    Huh. Actually your way of thinking about it makes a lot of sense to me, even though I definitely won the metabolic lottery. Yes, I’m naturally thin, and will probably never have to look at food and exercise the way you do.

    Then again, I have a “lifestyle set point” that tends to support my natural thinness. I eat fast food occasionally as much as 3x per year. I drink one soda once per week. I cook most of my meals at home, from scratch “whole” ingredients. My go-to snacks are raw nuts and dried fruit, not candy or chips. (Okay, sometimes chips.) I eat small portions of everything, always, and will cheerfully leave food on my plate if I’m full. I eat whole raw fruits and vegetables every day. (That one’s fairly new, actually.) When I’m physically capable of doing so, I exercise for a minimum of 1/2 hour per day.

    I’ve been living like this almost all my adult life.

    When it’s all written together like that, it seems like maybe I do use a bunch of tools to maintain my weight, despite my naturally high metabolism. Huh.

  2. jt Says:

    I don’t necessarily believe my body wants to be a particular weight, but I was stable around 260 pounds for nearly twenty years, despite a lot of variability in what I was eating and how much exercise I was or wasn’t getting. I never put effort into maintaining equilibrium; it just happened.

    However, now that I’ve made a concerted effort to get more exercise and eat more healthily, I *have* lost weight, and I don’t feel that my body is attempting to resist or anything. I’m not sure how I’m going to find an equilibrium at a lower weight; actually, I think I’m going to try to accept the weight that results from my eating/exercise habits — as long as they are good habits. Many of my new behaviors have indeed become habitual, so I ought to stay roughly where I am, but I’m checking frequently in order to see if that’s true. I have yet to see the scale creep up without an obvious explanation.

    But looking at my own data for the past year, I suspect that to get my weight below a certain point, I’d have to eat less than 1200 calories per day, indefinitely, and I’m pretty sure there exist people at that weight who aren’t doing that. But there are a lot of variables in types of exercise, lifestyle, body composition, etc, that make it hard to do direct comparisons. My own life suggests that it’s more complicated than calories in minus calories out, and I think metabolisms do vary. I’ve used BMR calculators that give me results that are not, in my experience, remotely true (I’d easily gain weight eating the bare minimum of calories they suggest I need per day, even before accounting for physical activity).

    I do think that the statistics about regain have more to do with people not wanting, or being able to, permanently continue the behavior(s) that caused them to lose weight to begin with than with set points or metabolism. So I’m trying not to do anything that I’m unwilling to continue doing, because I don’t want to yo-yo or start thinking that when I’m ‘done’ losing weight I can start behaving differently. I’m just chipping away at my bad habits, bit by bit, and choosing actions I think I can maintain.

    Thanks for a thought-provoking entry!

  3. Ajax Says:

    Gracias, Laina — facts act on me the way cheerleading does on other people. I find them infinitely more comforting and encouraging than rah-rah. Tools are what help me work the problem and good tools improve my attitude.

    The phrase “set point” has, I think, been generalized in many different directions. Some people seem to apply it to plateaus (plateaux?), or backsliding, or what-happens-when-you-give-up. I had forgotten that anyone ever meant it as a technical term, however inaccurately. Even if that were the case, it could be subverted through fuel management — so why waste time worrying about it? The cold equations don’t lie.

  4. Trystan Says:

    While there may not be a metabolic set point, I do think each person probably has something of a set weight that their body is more comfortable & accustomed to being, which may be healthier than something like the arbitrary BMI or other external measurements. I think you touched on this in your post on “target weights” — what one ‘should’ weight can be a random, meaningless number. What is sustainable for your body & lifestyle over the long term is another thing.

  5. Princess Dieter Says:

    There is debate on it, and I’m reading on it now, cause I want to see if I believe in it or not (ie, what is the info on it) and if there is a hint on how to improve metabolism. I’ve had people email me that they can eat more than 2000 calories and sustain the weight I am, which I sustain at roughly 1600. A chart I saw said my weight (female) should be able to eat 2700 cals. IN MY DREAMs. I’d be gaining raging amounts of weight. My sister, 11 years older, and never obese, maintained 140 pounds with 2000 calories a day until her sixties. That then maintained 150 lbs, which is her weight these days. I’m 180, in my fifties, and I can’t maintain with that quantity. My other sister, even more sedentary than me, always was able to eat a lot and maintain a slim weight, and she’d eat chocolate and bread all day long. No weight issues until her late 60’s (seems to be the age when things slow down).

    I’ve read some studies that say that after losing a lot of weight there is indeed a slower metabolism (with comparison to persons never having been obese), but that with time and weight maintenance, it improves. Well, hope so. 🙂

    I will not live my life on 1200 calories. Some folks do, but I won’t, if that’s what sustains my goal weight. I will simply accept a higher weight, as long as the weight isn’t impacting my blood pressure, blood sugar, mobility, etc. I can live on 1600 cals. It’s not luxurious, but it’s doable.

    Since various researches and doc will argue for a set point and metabolic slowdowns and the ability to improve that, I figure I need to research this now, as I’ve hit a wall. That wall will be knocked down, scaled, or accepted, but I aim to see a way over or around or through it, as long as it is not about eating a lot less to do it. I simply examined myself and how I feel and how much I’m willing to sacrifice for a particular weight. I won’t life on less than 1400 to 1500 cals a day for life. Whatever weight that sustains, I guess that’s gonna be my weight. 😀

    I do believe that I’d lose if I cut back to, say, 1000 or 1100 calories. BUT…I have this fear that the naysayers about prolonged restriction and metabolic issues may be right. I had a friend who hit a weight block after lap band. She decided to have the gastric sleeve. And she’s still not losing. Her doc said her metabolism is wrecked. Is this possible? Dunno. Maybe. I’m not there 24 hours a day to monitor every bite and sip. But having 90% of one’s stomach reduced should produce more than 10 lbs loss. EEK!

    Well, I keep trying to learn and grow and accept what I must, change what I can, and find a feasible path for gaining health. I have 20 lbs to go….or not. We’ll see. 😀

    THANKS, for the link. Will be reading…You’re always a terrific info-giver, insight-provider. tHANKS…

  6. mizfitonline Says:

    man this is still so hotly debated.
    Thanks for the thorough post—Im sending to a friend with whom I always debate this 🙂

  7. Monique Lloyd Says:

    I have to laugh when I read about the set point! I weighed 115 pounds when I was in high school and all through my 20s. I didn’t gain weight until I was 30 and had four children in four and-a-half years (all single pregnancies;no multiples), I weighed about 250 when the youngest was born and in the next few years gained more until I was 335 and there I stayed for 20 years. When I was 60 I lost about 100 pounds and maintained it for 6 years. Now I’m losing the rest of the weight. So what’s my set point? I pick 115 pounds! Well, that’s not going to happen. I’ll take 130. That will become my real set point!

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