Set Point Theory and Weight Loss: Myth or Reality?

Set Point Theory and Weight Loss

The world of dieting is full of theories, myths, and debates. One such topic is the ‘Set Point Theory’.

What is the Set Point Theory?

In essence, the set point theory suggests that our bodies have a predetermined weight range, almost like a thermostat for body weight.

The body purportedly defends this ‘set point’, making it difficult to either lose or gain weight beyond certain limits. If you stray too far from this set point, the body supposedly enacts physiological mechanisms – altering hunger levels, metabolism, and energy expenditure – to bring the weight back to its preferred range. Over time, factors like prolonged unhealthy eating habits, sedentary lifestyles, or chronic stress can elevate this set point.

Is the Set Point Theory a Genuine Phenomenon?

The jury, in many ways, is still out. While some experts believe that the body has a weight ‘set point’ that it naturally gravitates towards, others argue that it’s more of a ‘settling point’ determined by a combination of genetics, behaviour, and environment.

If it is Real, How Can You Lower Your Set Point?

To lower it after losing weight requires a combination of sustained healthy practices and patience. Adopting a balanced diet rich in whole foods, maintaining regular physical activity, getting adequate sleep, and managing stress are critical components.

Additionally, integrating strength training into your routine can be particularly beneficial, as increasing muscle mass can raise the basal metabolic rate, helping the body burn more calories.

It’s essential to make these changes gradually and consistently, allowing the body time to adapt and recognise these patterns as the new normal, thereby potentially resetting the set point to a healthier range.

Event if set point theory is not “real”, adopting this long term approach is essential if you want to keep weight off that you have lost.

What are my Thoughts?

I don’t feel I can say 100% if set point theory is real or not. But I do often see a trend that looks like a set point coming into play, especially with clients who have crash dieted in the past or who have been at a higher weight for a long period of time.

Factors like lifestyle, food environment, and individual habits play crucial roles in weight regulation. To help counter this, throughout the whole weight loss journey while working with my clients, I get them to lose weight in a slow and steady way (so no crash dieting), while focusing on overall habits and lifestyle change. Often at the end of a diet, we will also consider a Reverse Diet.

So regardless of whether set point theory is true or not, there is certainly a period of adaption and weight loss should be considered as a long term process and not a quick fix, so that your new habits stick.

Scientific Studies Supporting the Set Point Theory:

Several studies have lent credence to the set point theory:

  1. Rat Experiments:
    • Study: “The Defense of Body Weight: A Physiological Basis for Weight Regain after Weight Loss.”
    • Published in: Clinical Physiology and Functional Imaging, 2007.
    • Key Findings: Rats that underwent diet-induced weight loss exhibited compensatory mechanisms like increased appetite and reduced energy expenditure, driving them to return to their initial weight.
  2. The Minnesota Starvation Experiment:
    • Study: Conducted by Ancel Keys and his colleagues during World War II.
    • Published in: “The Biology of Human Starvation,” 1950.
    • Key Findings: Following a period of calorie restriction, participants’ metabolic rates dropped significantly. Upon refeeding, many participants experienced rapid weight regain, often surpassing their initial weight.
  3. Studies on Identical Twins:
    • Study: “The Response to Long-Term Overfeeding in Identical Twins.”
    • Published in: The New England Journal of Medicine, 1990.
    • Conducted by: Dr. Claude Bouchard and colleagues.
    • Key Findings: When identical twins were subjected to overfeeding, they gained a similar amount of weight, which suggests a genetic component to weight gain and the possible existence of a set point.
  4. Leptin Research:
    • Study: “Effects of Leptin on Lipid Metabolism and Gene Expression of Differentiation-Associated Growth Factors and Transcription Factors during Differentiation and Maturation of 3T3-L1 Preadipocytes.”
    • Published in: Hormone and Metabolic Research, 1998.
    • Key Findings: Leptin’s role in regulating appetite and energy expenditure has implications for the set point theory, as fluctuations in leptin levels could be the body’s way of maintaining a specific weight.

Please note that while these studies provide valuable insights into the mechanisms of weight regulation, they don’t conclusively prove the set point theory. The human body’s weight regulation is a complex interplay of genetics, hormones, behaviour, and environment, and research is ongoing. If you’re looking for direct quotes or specific details from each study, you’d need to consult the individual publications.


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