Ever wonder why no matter how many times you diet or how much exercise you perform, your body weight somehow manages to creep back up to where it was before you started! Your weight ‘set point’ could be to blame. Research suggests that, in some circumstances, no matter how much dieting or exercising you do, the body will eventually find its way back to where its naturally meant to be. Want to know more about the weight set point, and how you can break it for good? Keep reading to find out more!
What is a Weight Set Point? A weight set point is considered the natural weight that your body stays at with little effort. If you have tried to lose a few pounds or dieted for the purpose of a show, you have probably noticed that at some point after you have reached your target weight loss, it becomes very difficult to maintain your new weight, and over time, your weight slowly creeps back to the number where you started.
Can You Change Your Weight Set Point? Yes, it is possible to change your weight set point, if you adapt a fit and healthy lifestyle for good. The reason many people rebound is because they use diets or workout regimes that are not sustainable for the long run. If you have ever tried to diet or train for a fitness competition, you will know that to get to a specific body fat percentage and sustain a certain amount of lean muscle, you must employ a restrictive diet and a high amount of exercise that you wouldn’t normally keep up with.
Although your metabolism can elevate during this type of restrictiveness, eventually, your metabolism starts to slow down in order to reserve fuel. The constant deprivation can cause the opposite to happen—your body to slow down and hold on to its energy instead of burning it off for fear of starvation. Even if you are not following a diet that is this restrictive, extremely low calorie diets or fad diets can do the same. This results in a yo-yo diet effect, which instead of lowering your body weight ‘set point,’ it can raise it.
What Does The Research Say? Research suggests that the body does have a ‘set point’ that is in part determined by an individual’s unique genetics and metabolism. This ‘set point’ is also a product of environment or the behaviors an individual chooses to follow, including diet and training. The ‘set point’ theory suggests that there is a feedback control system in place by the body to regulate body weight at a constant. The theory suggests that food intake or energy expenditure is adjusted based on need in proportion to the difference between the current body weight and the ‘set point’ weight.
In the well-known Minnesota starvation study, subjects lost 66% of their fat mass in response to a 50% reduced energy intake and gained 145% of their pre-starvation fat mass values during the re-feeding diet where subjects could eat as much as they want. This fluctuation in body weight was the result of under-eating for a prolonged period followed by an anything goes diet.
After one year, it was found that weight of the subjects returned within 5% of their initial start values. It was determined that after starvation the body compensated by losing appetite control, but eventually appetite subsided and the metabolic system reset itself back to it’s set point.
How Does the Weight Set Point Work? Results from the Minnesota study suggest that the body’s ability to re-gain fat weight is regulated by a feedback system that signals weight loss and weight gain based on the amount of body fat mass and lean mass. Essentially, the body is like a thermostat, trying to regulate the its comfortable weight set point by either expending more or less energy.
When the body is healthy and at a normal level of leanness, specific metabolic and fat burning processes will turn on and off to balance energy levels. This helps ensure the metabolism is burning through fat and not always storing it. Essentially, resting energy expenditure increases along with thermogenesis. The body’s fat burning hormones adiponectin, glucagon and noradrenaline help to unlock stored fat and burn it as fuel. When these hormones are turned on, hormones that regulate growth like insulin or those that block fat burning like cortisol are turned off.
As a result, the body’s resting energy expenditure and thermogenesis are the result of the interplay of numerous systems and hormones, including the adrenal hormones, thyroid hormones, the hunger hormones (leptin and ghrelin), the sex hormones (estrogen and testosterone) and the shuttling hormone insulin. All these systems regulate specific functions in the body dependent on what you eat, how much you eat and how much activity you are performing.
How Does Muscle and Exercise Affect The Metabolic Set Point? Muscle is known to be metabolic. In fact, the metabolic rate per pound of muscle is almost 3 times that of fat! But more muscle on your body doesn’t necessarily mean you will have a lower body weight set point or will lower it. For one, muscle weighs more than fat, which means even if you change your body composition to be leaner; it doesn’t mean your weight will be lower!
One of the main benefits of having more muscle to enable your body to stay leaner seems to come from the action of lifting weights, particularly during the post-exercise period. During this time, the metabolic rate not only elevates, it can remain elevated for up to 48 hours post-workout, raising your resting energy expenditure or REE. This happens because the body needs to repair itself and doing so requires energy. The process of working out also burns a ton of calories, increasing your energy deficit. If you keep your body in a deficit then you can lower your weight. The trick is finding the right balance of food that fuels recovery and helps maintain muscle while keeping your body fat low.
How To Break the Weight Set Point Cycle? Evidence suggests that biological control of our weight set point is a complex interaction of hormones and feedback pathways that can be influenced and adjusted based on what you eat and how much you exercise. If you exercise regularly and eat healthy, then your energy levels will remained balanced and your weight set point will be maintained. If you try to lower your weight set point by going to the extreme, eating too few calories and exercising too much, the body will respond negatively eventually due to unsustainability.
If you have decided to compete or challenge yourself to getting to ultra low body fat levels using a low calorie diet topped with a lot of time spent in the gym, just remember: when you have reached your goal, come off the diet and decrease your activity, you could be at risk for suffering post-starvation hyperphagia (i.e., overeating) as well as metabolic slowdown resulting in the rebound effect.
If you do choose to compete or use somewhat extreme measures to get your body fat down, try using a reverse diet approach that slowly adds calories back into your diet, which can result in less weight gain, and a more optimized metabolism.
Sustainable Habits For Long Term Balance The best way to maintain or improve your body’s set point is to follow a diet that is sustainable, providing the right amount of calories and giving you the right macronutrients for your specific activity level. Ideally you want to help fuel metabolism and keep blood sugar balanced by eating a diet that is loaded in nutrient rich, wholesome natural foods, including lean protein, energizing carbs that are low in sugar and starch and healthy fats.
Excessive exercise and highly restrictive diets are never the answer. Instead establish sustainable habits to ensure weight maintenance, better health, lower body fat and a leaner body for the long run!