Updated: Nov 2, 2020
By Amber Charles, MSPH, RDN
October 18, 2020
What is the set point theory for weight management?
This theory suggests that your body weight is internally regulated within a specific range.
This is why you may be able to report your 'usual body weight' within a narrow range; for example, Lisa reports that her weight is 142 lbs., but she usually weighs between 140-145 lbs. (1).
Makes sense right? Our bodies keep everything else in a narrow range...pH, temperature, blood pressure etc...Your "set point" is the weight at which your body 'settles' when you have a balanced energy intake - you don't eat too much or too little (2,3).
The theory further explains that any deviation from the set point weight triggers changes in your metabolism that work to restore the original weight - try to gain weight and your metabolism speeds up to burn more energy, try to lose weight and it slows down to prevent weight loss (2,3).
So basically, this theory is saying that I cannot change my weight...Is this legit?
Body weight is not simply determined by an energy in versus energy out concept, but it is controlled by a number of factors, including hormones, genetics and environmental and lifestyle factors (3).
Other studies argue that a true set point exists, but it may not be achievable in the midst of the Western lifestyle/diet (3). Rather, we may experience a number of 'settling points' throughout our lives based on our current lifestyle habits (2,3).
Settling points are changes in your weight range that can increase or decrease in response to your current lifestyle. Lisa's weight range can move to 130-135 lbs. or even 150-155 lbs. and become her new 'usual' range.
Can I achieve my set point weight?
Some philosophies, such as intuitive eating and mindful eating, seem to support the achievement of your set point weight, where weight loss is not the goal.
By paying attention to your internal cues (when your stomach says it's full) and overriding your external cues (finishing all of the food on your plate) without focusing on weight loss, you are less likely to overeat and can achieve your set point weight while embracing and enjoying food.
What if my set point weight places me in an overweight BMI category?
Weight gain is a fear factor for many!!! But the body mass index (BMI) is questionable (read more here), however, your set point weight might place you in an "overweight" BMI category.
If this is the case, it is important to realize that the BMI number is not a stand-alone and does not give us a clear picture. Body composition is more important than simply body weight (1).
Someone can be "overweight" because they are muscular or they are tall, and not because their body fat percentage is high. Therefore, overweight does not always mean "unhealthy".
Alternatively, someone can be within the normal weight category and have multiple medical complications. This is all to say that a higher weight does not equate to being unhealthy (#weightbias).
What if I want to change my set point weight?
You are more likely to maintain a new, lower settling point and keep off lost weight by gradual weight loss goals of 10% weight loss over a 6 month period, which is a goal of losing 1-2 lbs. per week. Read here for more.
Likewise, weight gain can be achieved to accomplish a higher settling point (read more here).
A "true" predetermined set point weight likely exists, however, the body is adaptable and is capable of maintaining body weight within a narrow range. The set point fluctuates in response to current lifestyle habits.
1 - Harris, R. B. S. (1990). Role of set‐point theory in regulation of body weight. The FASEB Journal, 4(15), 3310–3318. https://doi.org/10.1096/fasebj.4.15.2253845
2 - Weinsier, R. L., Nagy, T. R., Hunter, G. R., Darnell, B. E., Hensrud, D. D., & Weiss, H. L. (2000). Do adaptive changes in metabolic rate favor weight regain in weight-reduced individuals? An examination of the set-point theory. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 72(5), 1088–1094. https://doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/72.5.1088
3 - Müller, M. J., Bosy-Westphal, A., & Heymsfield, S. B. (2010). Is there evidence for a set point that regulates human body weight? F1000 Medicine Reports, 2(1), 1–7. https://doi.org/10.3410/M2-59