Understanding Set Point Theory

If you are new or old to intuitive eating, you’ve surely heard the terminology: set point theory. The purpose of today’s blog post is to break down and better explain what that means. I mean seriously….what does this term, set point, even mean?!

If you are confused, no worries. I find this type of terminology is thrown around so often, but we rarely give it the time and space to really detail what it means! I know I am guilty of that. That’s why content for 2019 for the blog and podcast is aiming to fix that, breaking down many of the concepts we often discuss so that you have a really thorough understanding.

So let’s get to it: understanding set point theory.

Within the first few sessions with a new client at Nourishing Minds Nutrition, set point always comes up. As we are detailing through weight history and fears around weight gain (which is true for every person I’ve ever worked with), we discuss set point to clear the air.

What I tell my clients is this: I cannot guarantee you anything. Truthfully, I have no idea what your weight will do as you begin to embrace intuitive eating. There are four scenarios that I’ve seen occur:

-Your weight decreases as you are well above your set point weight range

-Your weight stays the same

-Your weight increases and remains increased

-Your weight increases and time, slightly decreases as you enter further through the IE principles

This conversation is often met with a deeper conversation as fear and concern inevitably come up. Don’t worry if that’s happening to you as you read this. I completely expect that to occur!

And rather than judge yourself about hating weight gain, or taking it as the authority over your body and deciding to desert intuitive eating altogether, I encourage you to dig deeper. Within sessions, we use this as an opportunity to dig into the stories we’ve been told and the stories we’ve told ourselves about how we must look. For so many of us, fear of weight gain stems from deep, internalized beliefs that taking us space, that being a larger version of ourselves, means we will become unworthy. That we are not enough. That we will be unloved. Dig deep and work with someone like a dietitian or therapist if this conversation bring up a lot of internal conflict.

The reason so many different scenarios can occur is because of your set point.

In the most basic terms, your set point, rather your set point range, is a 10-20 lb weight range that your body can comfortably maintain without any calorie manipulation, control of food, dieting or obsessive exercise.

Its a range because factors such as aging, stress, sleep, level of activity, life events…can all dictate where in your personal range you will lie at any given time.

One of the best scientific explanations you’ll find for set point theory is in the book Health at Every Size by Linda Bacon. I highly recommend reading this one if you haven’t already!

“The healthy weight that your body aims for us called your set point weight. Think of it as the preferred temperature on a fat thermostat. Like any thermostat, this one can be set at whatever point is most comfortable. The system then works tirelessly to do anything it can to bring your body into alignment with that point. It acts like a pull to get you back to the comfortable range.

This system only works if we let it; however. If you keep jiggling with the thermostat via diets, the mechanisms breaks down. This jiggling is like a power struggle to wrest control away from your body’s innate weight-regulation mechanism, and in the end, it only makes your body fight harder to retain control. The result: Your body forces you to not only regain any weight you’ve lost, but you may even pay a penalty with extra weight gain- and a setpoint now set high to protect against future diets.

Rather than continuing to engage in this weighty battle with your body, you could declare a truce and join forces with it to help achieve a healthy, natural weight. You’ll find that you will become less interested in eating when you are full. And your body itself will make up for those occasional party overindulgences without you having to deliberately deny yourself.”

[Excerpt from book Health at Every Size]

What Linda is explaining here is that your set point is science. Your weight is regulated by your hypothalamus, and when it senses a famine it releases hormones, enzymes and other chemicals to push you back into homeostasis. This is why so many feel extreme hunger and fixation on food when we diet and lose weight, your body is trying to encourage you back into homeostasis. Your set point is the weight your body likes best, not what you would like to force it to be.

This explains why its not willpower that we lose when we “go off our diets" (or clean eating program). It also explains why as an intuitive eater, the ebb and flow of your eating habits don’t result in extreme weight loss or gain. You can have fluctuation in your eating habits because your body isn’t in starvation mode.

Personally, discovering my natural body size and set point took a lot of time. I had dieted from such a young age, that I didn’t really know what to expect when I fully embraced intuitive eating. Once I fully embraced intuitive eating, it took more than a few months to determine my set point (a common misconception I see), it actually took my body a couple years. And truthfully, it took even longer to actually accept it. While I am at a place of body positivity now and I celebrate the body positive movement because I really want everyone to know it is possible to love your physical body- I also want you to know it will take time to get there. Focus first on letting go of the desire to lose weight. Meet yourself where you are at. If you truly hate your body right now, don’t focus on acceptance and love. Focus on tolerance. Or neutrality. Take baby steps.

Tell me: What questions do you have about better understanding set point? Are you working to learn and accept your set point?

Understanding Set Point Thoery