Eating disorders are potentially deadly, complex brain-based diseases most commonly triggered by dieting or weight loss. A core component of eating disorders are body dissatisfaction, or poor body image, with the desire to change one’s body weight and/or size. The multi-million dollar diet industry is fueled by a cultural thin ideal, fat phobia, and the idea that changing one’s body weight and/or shape is simply a matter of willpower or finding the right diet/wellness/lifestyle plan. Approximately 45 million Americans per year attempt to lose weight each year. Of those who lose weight, 80-97% are estimated to regain the weight they’ve lost and potentially more.
One thing many people are either unaware of or have trouble accepting is the set point theory, which directly contradicts the notion that body weight can be manipulated in the long term. Set point theory states that that your body has a genetically and biologically determined weight range that it is predisposed to maintain. It is the weight range that your body is programmed to function at optimally. A complex variety of bodily systems are constantly at work to maintain the set point, including metabolism and hunger. Situational and environmental factors can also affect a person’s set point.
Everyone has a set point and set points vary from person to person. Two individuals that are the same height can have different set points depending on genetics, body composition, and frame. Just as you have no control over your height, eye color or hair color, you also have no control over what your set point will be. It is estimated that the average person has a set point range of about ten to twenty pounds, meaning at any given time, there is a 10-20-pound range at which your body will be comfortable and not resist attempts to change. The body will maintain this weight range unless an extreme circumstance acts on the body, such as dieting (which the body interprets as starvation or famine), illness, or pregnancy, for example.
Health practitioners, doctors, and dietician’s often refer to body mass index (BMI), which is a simple equation including height and weight, as an indicator of health. BMI categorizes body size in an oversimplified way, identifying those individuals who are “overweight,” “obese,” or “morbidly obese,” and recommending weight loss to anyone outside of the “normal” range. However, using BMI as a guide ignores the fact that healthy bodies exist in all sizes, and that weight loss attempts are short-lived at best, and at their worst can permanently damage metabolism and overall health. Everyone who has ever tried dieting knows just how hard it is to lose weight and keep it off. In the first few weeks of dieting, weight is usually lost, but it is almost always gained back. Many people become frustrated because after a few weeks of dieting, they usually stop losing weight or start gaining it back, even though they are still restricting their food intake. That is a sign that the body is trying to fight to retain its natural set point.
When you go below your body’s natural set point, both appetite and metabolism adjust to try to return you to your set point. Your metabolism may slow down to try and conserve energy. Your body will start to sense it’s in a state of semi-starvation and will try to use the few calories it receives more effectively. You may start to sleep more, your body temperature will drop, which is why you hear so many people who suffer from anorexia nervosa complaining of being so cold, and after too much weight loss many women experience the loss of their menstrual cycle. When body fat is lost, appetite will likely increase. Many people who diet also experience preoccupation with food and uncontrollable urges to binge. That is because their bodies are asking for more food than is being provided in order to function properly. Just as your metabolism will slow down when you go under your body’s set point, it will also increase if you go above it. The body will try to fight against the weight gain by increasing its metabolic rate and raising its temperature to try and burn off the unwanted calories.
There is no test available to tell you what your body’s natural set point is, and your set point may change over time. If you have been dieting for years, it can take up to a year of normal eating for your body’s metabolism to function properly and return you to the weight range that is healthy for you. Learning to accept the fact that your body is biologically driven to remain within a certain weight range is a good way to resist the vicious cycle of dieting or restricting food intake to lose weight, then ultimately gaining the weight back. The more you try to go below your body’s set point range, the harder your body will fight to retain its set point.
Engaging in regular eating of a variety of foods without restriction and regularly doing exercise or movement that you enjoy will allow your body to settle into its set point. Unfortunately, we live in a society that is obsessed with thinness and is openly fat-phobic. The diet industry sells a fantasy that suggests happiness will come with thinness. However, research shows that weight loss does not improve one’s sense of happiness, well-being, or body satisfaction. This is especially true if an eating disorder is present. Addressing body image dissatisfaction via self-help or therapy with a professional can help you to accept your body’s natural weight range. Therapy can also help to identify and treat harmful patterns of dieting and behaviors associated with eating disorders, which should always be treated by a counselor or therapist with experience with eating disorders.
Updated by Elisha Mitchell Carcieri, Ph.D.– 2014
Written by Colleen Thompson – 1997
Centre for Clinical Interventions: Set Point Theory
National Library of Medicine: Is There Evidence For A Set Point
The Center for Balanced Living: The Wood-Burning Stove
Health at Every Size Book on Amazon
Sandra Aamodt: Why Your Brain Doesn’t Want You To Lose Weight