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.