Editor’s Note: This post was updated on November 18, 2018, for accuracy and comprehensiveness. It was originally published on February 1, 2017.
Anyone who has ever attempted to lose weight or gain lean body mass knows what it feels like to hit a plateau. Maybe you’re a hard gainer who put on a few pounds of muscle only to see your gains disappear a few months later. Or perhaps you busted your butt to lose few pounds, hit a plateau, before slowly reverting back to where you started. Regardless, it’s frustrating.
In this article, we’ll discuss one of the main reasons this happens and what you can do about it. It’s called body weight set point theory, which is the idea that your body weight range is predetermined. We’ll look at whether set points truly exist; how they’re established, if they do exist; what kind of control you have, if any; and what this all means to your future health and body composition goals.
Is Set Point Theory Real?
Set Point theory suggests that your body weight is regulated at a predetermined or “preferred” range. While there are conflicting opinions on whether “set points” really do exist, the bulk of research seems to suggest that set point theory is legit. This means your body will always “settle” within a certain range. That may explain that no matter how hard some people try, that always seem to hit a certain plateau and their progress stops.
So if that’s the case, is it possible to change your natural weight range?
Can You Change Your Set Point Range?
First, it’s important to understand how your body weight is determined and how that plays a role in your set point range.
Your body weight is determined by three things:
- Environment (diet and exercise)
- Epigenetic effects (hormones)
In other words, a variety of factors like genes, hormones, exercise frequency, nutrition, and other physiological mechanisms help determine your body’s weight range.
Let’s look at each one of these in more detail.
1. The role of genetics on body weight set points
“It’s all genetics.”
I’m sure you can think of at least one friend or family member who has used this as an excuse not to take care of their health and make lifestyle changes.
Here’s the thing though: genetics play a role in how your body weight is determined … but they’re not your destiny.
Yes, there are genetic factors that can predispose people to a certain body weight set point range. However, researchers have found that “bad genes” are unlikely to explain the rapid rise of obesity rates around the globe.
According to a review of several studies that looked at the link between genetics and obesity, “Moving from genetic predisposition to obesity itself generally requires some change in diet, lifestyle, or other environmental factors.”
The bottom line is this: high-calorie intake from an unhealthy diet and not genetics is usually the explanation for your body type. Yes, you can counteract your genetically predisposed body weight ranges through lifestyle changes – controlling your calorie intake, choosing nutrient-rich foods, and exercising.
2. The role of environmental factors on body weight set points
As mentioned, there are two environmental factors that help determine your body’s set points: what you eat and how much you move.
It’s not surprising that exercise play a role in determining your body’s set points.
Human physiology follows the first law of thermodynamics, which states that energy can be transformed from one form to another, but cannot be created or destroyed. In other words, your body has a natural “energy balance”. What you eat and drink = “energy in” and what you burn = “energy out.”
Generally speaking, if you consume more calories than you burn, over time you will gain weight. If you consume less calories than you burn, you will lose weight (although it’s not always so black and white though, as many have experienced).
As noted above, you can offset certain genetic markers of obesity through lifestyle changes like adjusting your exercise frequency.
Exercise, and particularly strength training, is the best method for reducing body fat. And the more you exercise, the more you may be able to change your body weight set point due to decreases in body fat levels and increases in lean body mass.
What you eat is another critical component that helps determine your body weight set point. As discussed, your energy input and output over time heavily influence your body weight set point.
While strenuous exercise is the best strategy for reducing body fat, adjusting your calorie intake is the most effective method for preventing weight gain and increasing your set point range.
Unfortunately, regulation of body weight is asymmetric, which means it’s much easier to gain weight and keep it on than it is to lose weight and keep it off. Most of us have experienced this at some point: the more weight you lose, the harder your body works to resist that change. It can feel like you’re getting “pulled back” to your old weight with the slightest slip-up.
However, there are several strategies you can employ to combat this, depending on your health goals.
Research shows that adaptive metabolic changes do not explain the tendency of weight-reduced persons to regain weight. In other words, people who lose weight are not “predisposed” to future weight gain. They just fail to:
1.) make the right types of changes to their diet and exercise habits, and
2.) do it long enough to change their body weight set points.
In obese individuals, consistent, structured changes over time appear to be the best method for preventing weight gain and changing your body weight set point. So just like achieving any goal, building habits is the key to success.
One study estimated that obese individuals who change their energy balance by 100 calories per day (either by eating less or exercising more) can prevent future weight gain. Another study found that maintaining lost body weight is more likely to be achieved if energy intake over the course of 2 years is around 170 kcal/day lower than before.
The National Weight Control Registry also gives us insight into what it takes to lose weight and keep it off (and thus lower your body weight set point). The Registry tracks over 10,000 people whose members have lost an average of 66 lbs and kept it off for 5.5 years.
To maintain their weight loss, members engage in the following habits:
- 78% eat breakfast every day
- 75% weigh themselves at least once a week
- 62% watch less than 10 hours of TV per week
- 90% exercise, on average, about 1 hour per day
Moreover, weight loss maintenance gets easier over time. Research shows that after you successfully maintain weight loss for at least 2 years, the chance of longer-term success greatly increases.
What Diet Changes Should You Make?
These days we’re inundated with information about diet changes you should make to lose weight/gain muscle/keep weight off/etc.
We’ll stay off the fad bandwagon and say this about what it takes to maintain your body weight set point range: the best “diet” for maintaining a lower body weight range is one that promotes a healthy balance between energy intake and output.
So what does that mean, specifically?
Despite the low carb, high fat craze, research shows that high-fat diets can encourage overeating and obesity rates tend to be higher among high-fat dieters. That’s not to say that fat makes you fat. It simply means that for people who want to lose weight and keep it off, eating a lot of fat can lead to a higher body weight set point.
Make high protein, high fiber, lower fat, plant-based foods the focal point of your diet to maintain a lower body weight set point range.
To maintain body composition and set point weight range after increasing your lean body mass, strength training and consuming enough calories (particularly from protein) are key.
3. The role of hormones on body weight set point
Your hormones are another factor that affects your body weight set point. For example:
- Research shows that higher testosterone levels can help you maintain lean body mass.
- Leptin, commonly known as the “satiety hormone” or “fat hormone”, plays a role in helping you maintain body weight set point range.
- Higher levels of cortisol, the “stress hormone” are associated with fat accumulation in your body.
The good news is, you can improve your hormone profile by:
- Getting enough sleep. Sleep disorders have been shown to disrupt hormone levels.
- Eating a fiber-rich, protein-rich diet low in saturated fat. There is evidence that this type of diet may help boost your serotonin levels, popularly known as the happiness hormone.
- Working out regularly, especially resistance exercises, has been shown to increase anabolic hormones.
- Finding ways to manage stress.
Current evidence seems to suggest that the set point theory is the real deal. Your natural weight range is a combination of your genes, hormones, and diet and exercise activity. Here’s the good news: research shows you can, in fact, change your set point through lifestyle changes. As most of us have experienced though, it’s not an easy thing to break through this plateau.
Although you may have felt (or currently feel) “stuck” at a certain weight, research shows that the key is building habits like making good nutrition choices, exercising frequently, managing stress, and getting enough sleep.
More specifically, eating foods high in fiber and protein seems to help, as does strength training (the more muscle, the easier it is to get and stay lean).
Setting body composition goals can play an important role. It’s one of the most accurate ways to gauge where you stand health-wise because it’s measurable. And just like they say in the business world, what gets measured gets improved. Now that you have the knowledge, let’s see much progress you can make.
Scott Christ is a health and wellness entrepreneur, writer, and website strategy consultant. He’s also the creator of the world’s healthiest plant-based protein powder.