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Bodyweight Set Point: Does it Really Exist?

Jul 14, 2019
Ashley Lawrie

Author: Riley Pearce
Director of Social Media


Do you ever feel like you’ll work out consistently, lose a little weight, but then the slightest cheat meal brings you right back to where you were before? Or maybe you’ve always been around the same bodyweight, even when you have wild weekends of indulgences? Turns out this could be due to a biological “set point” that controls our body weight. 

Similarly to how we have a temperature set point that our body is constantly trying to maintain, we could also have a body weight set point as well. 

This theory came from a mice study in the 1940’s. Researchers manipulated different areas of the hypothalamus and each manipulation resulted in a drastic change in the mice body composition. In one case, the researchers created an “injury” to the part of the hypothalamus closer to the midbrain. Those mice quickly became obese. Then the researchers simulated lesions on the outer portion of the hypothalamus and those mice became very slim to the point of refusing the eat.

This study suggested that there are controls within the brain that work on a type of feedback loop to control the amount of fat storage on the body, and therefore the body weight of an individual. In a world with normal amounts of food and resources, this control system would keep just enough fat stored on the body to keep us alive in times of abundance and in times of starvation.

Fortunately and unfortunately the modern, western world lives in a constant state of abundance. Our endless access to food means that we are overfeeding ourselves and moving the set point higher and higher the more occasions we overeat.

Why doesn’t it work in the opposite direction – ie. if we constantly limit our food, our set point moves lower? This is because fat is a form of survival, energy and nutrient storage. Our environment has evolved faster than our brains and our bodies have, so the brain and the body still prioritize fat storage so we can survive between hunts and through the long dark winters. It will always favour fat storage over low body fat percentage because that’s what kept us alive “back in the day”. 

With all of that taken into consideration – is it possible to overcome the set point?

Simple answer is yes, but it is conditional.

The key is training the body and brain to trust that the new diet and exercise routine (calories in and calories out) is the new normal. How do we achieve that?

Consistency.

This is precisely why crash diets are so harmful and discouraging in the long run. Starving and over exercising for a short period of time will only upset the regulatory systems in the body and bring you right back to your set-point (and potentially to a new, higher one!).

Most research suggests that sticking to a specific, nutrient-rich, non-calorie-restrictive diet, coupled with a regular and consistent exercise routine is the best option to reset your set point.

The research also says that at least a year of this is required to begin to move that set point, but this could vary depending on how long you have lived at a certain weight.

In summary: 

Yes the set point may actually exist and it could be the reason you find it difficult to maintain lost or gained weight. If we find ourselves constantly overeating, we could push that set point higher and higher, making our new “normal” much heavier than we may like. With consistent exercise and a balanced diet maintained over at least a year, the set point could begin to move in the direction you desire – it just takes consistency and time.

Resources for this article:

Molecular physiology of weight regulation in mice and humans https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2682360/

Is there evidence for a set point that regulates human body weight? https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2990627/

Change Your Weight Set Point http://www.thedietchannel.com/Change-Your-Weight-Set-Point.htmHow to Change Your Body Weight Set Point https://www.livestrong.com/article/326795-how-to-change-your-body-weight-set-point/

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