Understanding Set Point Theory in a Nutrition and Weight Loss Context

There is a phenomenon most of us experience in life. We maintain very similar body weight and body shape for years on end and then suddenly it feels like our body’s changed overnight and then we have a new body that we were not expecting.Then we find it hard to change that body into something different.

This is something we often hear referred to as a bodyweight set point, which refers to the idea that our bodies have a natural body weight they “want” to be at and it will adapt and adjust to maintain that body weight, both for the good (keeping us from gaining weight) and the bad (preventing us from losing weight). Today we are going to do a deep dive into this idea and see if this is true, or if there is more to the story.

WHAT IS SET POINT THEORY?

Set Point Theory is an idea that the human body has a specific weight that it wants to maintain and that your body will adapt to hold that weight if possible. Essentially, this idea means that your body will adjust to periods of more food and less food to try and keep body weight stable.

IS SET POINT THEORY A MYTH?

Is Set Point Theory a myth? Well… it is a myth in some sense and is not a myth in others. The truth about this topic is that it is complicated, but there are some very useful ways to think about it. Let’s start simple and then get a little more complex as we go. Set Point Theory is true in the sense that our bodies do have adaptive mechanisms in place that aim to keep our body weight stable; however, it is a myth in that they work well enough in our modern environment to prevent weight gain or stop weight loss. We can dive into the first part through a few examples from the scientific literature.

EXAMPLES OF ADAPTIVE MECHANISMS

One experiment was conducted in the early 1990s that looked at how a person’s energy expenditure would change if they were to overeat (calorie surplus) or under eat (calorie deficit). This experiment took people and had them either lose weight right off the bat or gain weight and then eventually lose weight. Importantly, they did this experiment in people who had normal BMIs and people with obesity.

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