Set Point Theory: Game, Set, and Match for Weight Loss?

Medical Studies
November 22, 2019

Could set point theory be the reason why some people find it so difficult to keep the pounds off after they lose weight? Read on to find out more about your body’s “internal thermostat.”

Why can some people eat and eat and eat, seemingly without gaining weight, while others can’t touch a carb without ballooning? Does it have something to do with your body’s set point weight? Find out everything you need to know about set point theory.

What is set point theory?

Set point theory is the idea that your weight and body fat range are strictly regulated by genetics. Some people may have a set point weight that is naturally high, while others may have a set point weight that is naturally low. According to the theory, if you’ve got a low set point, you’re going to be a naturally lean person. However, if you’ve got a high set point, you may be more prone to gaining weight.
Set point theory contradicts traditional weight loss advice, which considers weight loss to be a numbers game: if more calories go out than in, you can expect to lose weight. By contrast, set point theory argues that—through a combination of physiological mechanisms, hunger, hormones, and behavior changes—there is active biological control of your body weight at a specific set point.

Is set point theory a myth?

The most important thing to remember about set point theory is that it has not been scientifically proven. There’s no test you can take to find out your set point weight, and the actual biological process that regulates your body’s set point is poorly understood. Having said that, there is a large pool of research suggesting that set point theory could be the real deal.

  • All in the genes. There’s widespread support for the idea that your weight is determined by some combination of physiology, environment, and genetics, and research on animals suggests that there may be some form of biological control over your weight.
  • Post-diet struggles. Many dieters find it tough to keep the weight off after they finish their diet. In fact, some people estimate that around 80% of those who lose at least 10% of their body fat will regain the weight.
  • Handcuffed by hormones. Ghrelin—the hunger hormone—increases after weight loss, while high levels of testosterone are reportedly associated with leanness. Plus, high levels of stress hormones may be responsible for fat accumulation, indicating that your hormone profile could be a major factor in your body’s set point weight.

Can you change your set point weight?

Interestingly, your set point weight may not actually be as “set” as you would imagine. Remember, your genetics are only one part of the equation—physiology and environment are also super-important. Puberty, pregnancy, menopause, and perimenopause can cause your body’s set point to change over the course of your life, and plenty of lifestyle factors that, in the long term, may also help to shift your body’s set point:

  • Reduce fat. Lowering your body fat is the ideal first step in reducing your body’s set point weight over time. Check out our article on HIIT, a great exercise regimen for reducing body fat.
  • Build up muscle. Adding muscle, which is metabolically active tissue, can help you burn energy while you rest. It’s the best way to stay lean, thereby reducing your body’s set point.
  • Get plenty of sleep. Sleep disorders can disrupt your hormone levels, so a healthy sleep pattern is a super-important part of managing your set point weight.
  • Eat healthy. Diet is a seriously important factor when it comes to normalizing your set point weight. Need some inspiration? Check out our food posts!

Bottom line: having a high set point weight isn’t the same thing as biological destiny. By leading a healthy lifestyle, you’ve a great chance of ending up at a comfortable weight that works for you.