What is the weight set-point theory?
Reviewed by our clinical team
Losing weight and keeping weight off can be hard, this can be down to lots of different things. But some experts think that some people find it hard to lose weight because of the ‘set-point theory’. This is essentially a theory that suggests our bodies like to be a certain, predisposed weight, and it can be hard to change this, if you’re trying to lose weight.
In this article we’re going to take a look at what the set-point weight theory is, the evidence behind it and how it might impact how you lose weight.
What is the set-point theory?
The set-point theory is held by a number of scientists, but not supported universally. It’s the idea that people have a set-point weight range which that they’re genetically programmed to have. This range varies from person to person, regardless of things like your height. The theory suggests that your body will use functions like metabolism and hunger to control how to maintain that weight range. These functions are known as body weight regulation.
To think about it simply, a person who eats a healthy diet and exercises might find that their weight fluctuates at different points of the year. For example, you might put on weight if you go away or over the festive season when your eating/drinking habits change for a couple of weeks. But when you go back to routine, you’re likely to return to your usual weight without having to consciously diet. Or you might lose weight after a period of illness. Once you’ve recovered, your body will regain the weight lost by making you hungrier and potentially slowing down your metabolism to get back to the set-point.
Set-point theory and losing weight
Some people suggest that set-point theory can make it harder for you to lose weight, because your body is trying to get back to the predisposed range. You might find that you reach a weight loss plateau – a point at which your weight begins to level out, despite continuing with your diet and exercise regime.
Can you change your set-point?
The scientists that believe the set-point is genetically programmed, would suggest that it’s hard for you to move the dial on your body’s set-point. However, there are some schools of thought that your set-point can be influenced by diet, lifestyle and also things like smoking, such as:
- People who exercise more tend to find they have lower set points
- Those who have diets high in fat tend to have a higher set-point
- People who diet lots also seem to have higher set points
- Your set point tends to increase with age
This is where the set-point theory can come into some difficulty, as it’s easy to see that there might be lots of other factors at play. Are those people who exercise more simply keeping their weight lower because of the exercise, and not because of their set point?
Problems with the set-point theory
The set-point theory has had some criticism for various reasons which we’ll look at in more detail below.
Is it overly simplistic?
The theory might be a way of looking at weight that is too simplistic. You could argue it doesn’t factor in what’s lead up to a person becoming a certain weight. You also might say it’s unrealistic for someone to be around the same weight all their adult life. Not many people are the same weight aged 19 and aged 49.
Can it affect people’s motivation?
If you reach a plateau on your weight loss journey and read into the set-point theory, you might be convinced that you can’t lose any more weight because of your genetic makeup. But in actual fact, lots of people can overcome weight loss plateaus, and if you’ve not yet reached your target weight you should try and keep going.
Weight loss plateaus are very common. Your body quickly adapts to a new exercise regime and can fairly quickly produce the same amount of effort through fewer calories. You might need to look at what you’re eating, have your calories crept up? Could you change up your exercise routine and make it more intense? Or it might be that that week the amount you’ve lost is too small to notice on the scales. If you’ve been keeping track of your waist, hip and thigh measurements, you might find that these have changed instead. Either way you should still be proud of how far you’ve come.
The impact of the western diet
Studies have shown that Western diets can impact how your body regulates weight and this ‘camouflages’ the impact of the set-point. Rats fed western diets rich in fat and sugar seemed to lose their intake control, meaning overeating and weight gain. Their bodies did not return to the set point. However, when they were switched back to their natural ‘chow’ diet, they returned to their weight to previous levels in around two years. They also gained their intake control within three months.
This suggests that why there might be truth in the set-point theory, our lifestyles might be impeding our bodies from working toward the set-point range.
Get help with losing weight from Online Doctor
At Online Doctor we’re here to help you if you’re thinking about losing weight. The general advice is the best way to lose weight is reducing your calories and increasing your exercise. This will help you lose weight gradually and make sustainable changes to your lifestyle and diet.
If you’re looking for advice, we have a whole library of weight loss and lifestyle advice articles, filled with tips and support from our clinicians. Our clinicians can also prescribe a number of medicated weight loss treatments if you’re clinically suitable. When combined with a reduced calorie diet and increased activity, these treatments can give your body the extra support it needs to lose weight. Read our guide to medicated weight loss here.