Weight Set Point Theory: How It Regulates Your Body Weight

Weight Set Point Theory

Ok, today I am going to discuss a rather unpopular, unsexy but necessary topic: weight set point theory. In the current diet culture we live in, which is obsessed with the thin ideal, dieting, and body dissatisfaction, I think it’s important to raise awareness about the fact that body weight is not something we have as much control as this culture wants us to believe. I mean, if dieting is really the answer, how come 85-90% of dieters regain the weight over a period of 1-5 years ? Why do fad diets keep popping up to replace old ones that clearly didn’t work? If you want to learn how your body is actually programmed to survive and not lose weight, read on to learn what set point theory is and why obsessing about weight is unhelpful and harmful.

What is set point theory?

The definition of set point theory regarding body weight states that your body is genetically and biologically programmed to stay within a predisposed weight range. Something like a thermostat. This weight range is where your body functions optimally. There are many factors that influence your body weight set point, including:

  • Genetics
  • Hormones
  • Body composition
  • body structure
  • Hunger
  • Metabolism
  • Environmental factors

Therefore, set point theory proposes that your weight set point is as impossible to control as the color of your eyes, hair, and skin. This weight can range between 10 and 20 pounds, and is where your body likes to stay when it is not in conditions such as:

  • Disease
  • The pregnancy
  • Dieting

In fact, your body interprets dieting as being in starvation conditions, so it eventually adapts to run at a lower metabolic rate, which is one of the reasons long-term weight loss is so difficult to achieve. achieve. This is actually a protective mechanism, as the body fights the threat of not getting enough energy.

As this research paper explains : “Weight loss is accompanied by persistent endocrine adaptations that increase appetite and decrease satiety, thus resisting continued weight loss and conspiring against long-term weight maintenance.” What it refers to is weight maintenance that is not your natural weight.

What is natural weight?

Natural weight is the weight your body will maintain (and will not resist attempts to change) with normal eating and exercise. It’s the weight your body likes to be when it’s not restricting food and/or exercising excessively. Natural weight is what allows you to function well mentally, physically and emotionally. It is easy to maintain (although it will change naturally over time, which is normal) and is free of food and body obsessions. In fact, it is quite pointless to prescribe a certain amount of weight to an individual, since it is their own individual factors that will really dictate what they will weigh, compared to any conscious attempt to change it. Ok, so why is it so difficult/almost impossible to change one’s weight? Let’s see how this works…

So how does the body regulate weight?

To understand how the body regulates the weight range it likes to be in, let’s look at the three main models of set point theory. You will see that, although they may have their limitations and differences, it seems that the set point theory is real.

According to a recent article on weight set point theory, “Three different models have been proposed, with a “set point” suggesting (i) more or less strict biological control and (ii) symmetric or asymmetric weight control. body resulting from feedback loops from peripheral organs and tissues (e.g., leptin secreted by adipose tissue) to a central control system within the hypothalamus. Alternatively, a “plateau point” rather than a set point reflects metabolic adaptations to energy imbalance without the need for feedback control. Finally, the “dual intervention point” model combines both paradigms with two adjustment points and a settling point between them.” Don’t worry if this sounds confusing. I’ll explain it better to you now.

The set point model

The set point model is based on an active feedback mechanism. It proposes that the amount of body fat (which is actually stored energy) is influenced by:

  • Energy intake (calories) and
  • Energy expenditure (use)

The set point model proposes that this mechanism is encoded in the brain. It appears that fat stored in the body can produce a signal that is detected by the brain. The brain then compares this signal to a predetermined level of body fat. If there is any difference between the signal of actual fat stores and the genetically determined target weight, this will trigger changes in food intake and/or energy use to bring body fat levels to where the body wants them to be. It is proposed that the hormone leptin is the central actor in this mechanism, although other hormones and physiological processes also participate.

This set point model proposes that changes in this system, through dieting or overeating, can cause a change in weight (loss or gain), but once normal eating resumes, body fat tends to return to its original level. This model also proposes that the body defends a certain level of adiposity , which can “explain the common phenomenon of weight regain after acute weight loss and the failure of diet as a strategy to promote prolonged weight loss.” . It also helps explain why it is harder to lose weight over time after chronic dieting, as the body works harder to “hold on” to its fat (energy) stores.

However, as this article points out , this model does not fully explain the important social and environmental influences on body size, food intake, and physical activity. It could also be an oversimplified model as more factors that can influence body weight and body composition become known. Which brings us to another model of set point theory.

The settling point model

This model is based on the idea that both your body weight and body fat levels will “stabilize” at a certain point depending on the environment. Lifestyle, diet, activity level, and even socioeconomic status determine your body fat level. What this means is that an increase (or decrease) in calories consumed leads to an increase (or decrease) in energy expended until a balance is reached. This Nutrients article explains that the way body weight settles is:

“determined by environmental and socioeconomic factors, such as diet and lifestyle, in interaction with genetic predisposition or, to put it more generally, in interaction with the constitution of the individual. The precise regulation is carried out without a fixed set point, but the body weight is settled based on the result of a series of contributors.

Similar to the set point model above, set point theory proposes that body weight settles in a range due to:

  • energy intake
  • Waste of energy

This model takes into account the parameters that make up a person’s constitution (the genetic and epigenetic contributors) such as:

  • metabolic rate
  • Body size
  • Body composition
  • Metabolic efficiency
  • Propensity for physical activity
  • Energy and nutrient availability
  • Food palatability
  • Physical activity
  • Living and working environment

Together, these contributors determine the settlement point value.

The set point model differs from the set point model in that the increase or decrease in body fat is not determined by a predetermined fat level, but rather by energy (calorie) intake and use. Therefore, weight is maintained when the various metabolic feedback loops, which are “tuned” by the relevant genes, are stabilized in equilibrium with the environment.

All of these different contributors interact and together determine where body weight settles. This model accommodates many of the social and environmental characteristics of energy balance, but does not fully explain the biological and genetic aspects of body weight, as well as gene-environment interactions. Which brings us to a third model of set point theory.

The dual intervention point model

This model is a hybrid of the set point and settling point models. It combines the set point model involving active regulation based on body fat stores, with the set point model of passive regulation operating between them. There is not a single set point, but rather upper and lower limits where body weight regulation at a physiological level becomes dominant. There is also no predetermined target weight (as proposed by the set point model) or interactive contributors to weight—energy consumption and expenditure—as proposed by the set point model.

The dual intervention model suggests that these contributors can be regulated independently. As the aforementioned Disease Models & Mechanisms article explains : “This aspect of the model is useful because it allows for interindividual susceptibility to weight gain in a common environment, and is consistent with the results of studies showing a contribution to the variance in the BMI. However, the nature of the intervention points is unclear and could be determined by a combination of genetic and environmental factors acting together.

As we can see, although the fact that the body likes to stay in a particular weight range is evident, according to the evidence we can also notice that this weight is not as simple as the famous formula of calories in = calories out. come out , but a complex set of internal and external signals: a combination of environmental and biological factors. No set point model is perfect, but they suggest that weight control is not as much within our control as diet culture would have us believe.

How is your body’s set point determined?

Although there is currently no tool available to determine what your body’s set point is, you can get an idea by examining your own weight history, relationship with food, and your body. For example, if your weight has been relatively stable throughout your adult life, if you haven’t dieted much, if you exercise regularly and comfortably, and if you are in good health, there is a good chance that you are where your body wants to be.

On the other hand, if you regularly restrict food but stay the same weight or gain weight, exercise excessively, eat only a certain amount of food, or stick to a particular eating regimen to maintain a certain number on the scale , you’re probably not at your body’s natural set point. Other clues that you may not be at your natural weight set point are:

  • Stress or anxiety eating regularly
  • Eating beyond satiety
  • Ignore your hunger cues
  • Using exercise to “burn off” or “earn” food
  • Gain weight quickly when you eat a little more or exercise less than you usually do
  • Feeling guilty when eating certain foods
  • Vow to start “eating healthier” (i.e. fewer calories) after eating “forbidden” or “bad” foods
  • Feeling out of control with certain foods

Can you change your body’s weight set point?

So by now you may be wondering: can I change my body weight set point? Some believe in fasting to reset weight set point, while others ask, “Are there toxins involved in set point theory?”

Although diet culture and fitness “gurus” on the Internet would have you believe that you can change your body’s set point, there is plenty of evidence, as this study explains , that suggests being able to change your set point dramatically it can be difficult. As we saw above, most people who intentionally lose weight gain it back within 1 to 5 years. What is most likely to happen is what the Dual Intervention Points Model proposes: it is “possible” that we can change our weight within the upper and lower intervention limits, but it is less likely that we can jump too far below or too far. above it for an extended period of time.

In other words, if your set point range is 130-145 pounds, you can “influence” where you fall in that range by eating more or less, or by exercising more or less. However, these efforts are more likely to be thwarted if you try to get down to 110 pounds or up toward 165 pounds, for example.

And although chronic dieting can increase your set point, you may be able to bring it down to levels that are normal for you by eating normally and exercising regularly. It may take up to a year, give or take depending on how long the weight management behaviors have lasted, but it is possible.

Letting go of the obsession with weight

As I mentioned at the beginning, we live in a culture where the thin ideal is worshiped and being in a larger body is considered the worst (which is completely false ). However, learning to accept that your body weight is not where you would like it to be (and “where you would like it to be” is actually part of the body acceptance programming you received in this toxic culture), can be downright scary. Especially when we’re constantly bombarded with impossible body ideals and diets that promise to get you there.

One way you can start to stop trying to reach a certain weight is by exploring your desire to lose weight, as well as your motivations for wanting to do so. What makes you believe that having “x” weight will ultimately make you happy/fulfilled/successful/loved? What does it mean to you that your set point is “x” amount? Dig deeper and consider how the diet mentality operates to see if your motivations are truly your own or if they were conditioned by diet culture. In this case, journaling can help you learn more about your motives, where they come from, whether they truly represent your truth, and how you can truly honor who you are.


In summary of the various set point theories discussed, we can see that it is not easy to explain how body weight changes over time, or why exactly body weight likes to stay within a certain range. However, we can see that genes and environmental influences play a huge role, and just being aware of this can help us avoid the diet trap and learn to start embracing and celebrating our individuality.

It takes time and practice to unlearn those toxic cultural messages we are programmed with in Western society. If you are struggling with body weight acceptance and/or your eating issues feel particularly challenging, consider finding a professional who can help, guide and provide you with the support you need.

And now I’d love to hear your thoughts on weight set point theory. What challenges do you think get in the way of stopping having to be at a certain weight? What tactics do you think might be helpful in learning to accept your body? Let me know below in the comments section.

Abbas Jahangir

I am a researcher and writer with a background in food and nutritional science. I am the founder of Foodstrend.com, our reputable online platform offering scientifically-backed articles on health, food, nutrition, kitchen tips, recipes, diet, and fitness. With a commitment to providing accurate and reliable information, we strive to empower our readers to make informed decisions about their health and lifestyle choices. Join us on Foodstrend.com's journey toward a healthier and happier lifestyle.

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