If you’ve already done some research into intuitive eating and Health at Every Size® (HAES), you may have heard of the “set point weight theory.” Essentially, set point weight is where your body lands when you stop obsessing over food and movement. But, what goes into your set point weight? Is it actually set? Is there some kind of set point weight calculator out there that can tell you how big your body “should” be? Below, we’ll discuss all of this and more.
What is set point weight theory?
The set point weight theory states that all of us have a natural set point weight that our bodies want to stay at. The iea is that once you’re at your set point, it should be easy to stay there. Sure, extreme exercise or food restriction might make you lose weight short-term. But you’ll likely start gaining weight soon after you lose it, because your body wants to return to its set point. Likewise, it’s also possible to be above your set point, particularly if you’re stuck in the binge-restrict cycle (which means you often eat until you feel extremely uncomfortable, as a result of restriction and food obsession). And of course, there are other reasons why your set point might increase, like certain illnesses, chronic stress, or the aging process (more on this later).
(And psst…if you need a little extra help in your relationship with food and your body, go here to request a nutrition counseling appointment. We’re in-network with most Blue Cross Blue Shield plans as of October 2022, which means you might be able to work with a non-diet dietitian at little or no cost!)
Where does the set point weight theory come from?
Actually, the most concrete evidence we have for the set point theory comes from animal, not human, studies. Way back in 1979, researchers ran a study on rats in order to answer some questions about body weight regulation. The rats gained weight on a high-calorie diet and lost weight on a low-calorie diet, which was expected. But surprisingly, the vast majority of the rats returned to their original weight when they went back to eating their usual food. Other animal studies have backed this up.
But, high-quality human studies on set point weight are lacking. One 2020 review goes over the existing evidence and theories that exist. Essentially, the authors say that there’s not enough evidence to confirm or deny the set point weight theory.
The authors actually use the term “settling point” instead of “set point.” Why? Because a “set point” is usually something that’s externally controlled (like setting your thermostat to whatever temperature you want), whereas a settling point is where a dynamic system naturally settles. I think that’s interesting, because it reiterates the fact that you can’t CHOOSE your settling point. Still, I’ll keep using the term “set point” in this article, because it’s the one most of us use.
What does set point theory have to do with intuitive eating and HAES?
One central idea of intuitive eating is that you don’t need to be hypervigilant about what you eat. You don’t need to put lots of thought and effort into controlling your body size. Your body is smart. It knows what it needs in order to stay healthy.
When you first start intuitive eating, your weight might fluctuate. If you were extremely restrictive, you might gain weight. If you were struggling with bingeing, you might lose weight. Or, your weight might remain pretty stable from the start.
But after a few months, most intuitive eaters settle into a certain weight range and stay there. This isn’t a guarantee — health conditions like PCOS can cause weight fluctuation regardless of your habits, and it’s natural to gain weight as you age. But in general, once you stop trying to change your body size and control your eating habits, you’ll probably find that your body weight stays fairly constant.
Will your weight stay the same forever?
Probably not. In fact, this is why I don’t encourage people to focus too much on set point weight. I think it’s a helpful concept; knowing that intuitive eating can help you reach a stable weight and stay there without food rules and extreme vigilance is encouraging, and a great reason to quit dieting.
But just like a “goal weight” you may have had while dieting, a “set point weight” can lead to stress and obsessive thoughts. If you’re actively trying to stay at your set point weight, you’re missing the point!
Even at your set point weight, you won’t weight exactly the same amount every day. (I don’t recommend weighing yourself at all, actually, because it just leads to stress.) Most experts agree that set point weight is more of a range, and that it’s normal and healthy for your weight to fluctuate 10-15 pounds. So yes, your weight can change a bit from day to day and week to week.
Also, your set point weight will probably increase as you age. Despite what diet culture has told you, that’s normal. Menopause often leads to natural weight gain. Pregnancy (obviously) leads to weight gain, and many women’s bodies don’t return to what they were pre-pregnancy (which is also OK!).
Certain health conditions also affect set point. In particular, any condition that affects hormone function (PCOS, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, Addison’s disease, etc.) might cause weight changes, or bigger fluctuations in weight.
What determines your set point? Is it genetic?
Yes, your genes play a role in your set point weight. We’re all born with different bodies. Body diversity is natural — we weren’t all meant to be the same size, which is one of many reasons why the BMI scale is garbage. You probably know from years of dieting that being at a certain weight might be effortless for some people, but impossible for you. You may have noticed that even though you and another person close to you eat and move very similarly, your bodies are completely different. That’s body diversity.
But it’s not just genetics that determine your set point. Your income level and access to food play a role, because they affect what kind of food you eat, how much you move, and how much stress you have. Stress affects your set point weight because stress releases the hormone cortisol. Cortisol is helpful in stressful situations, but if you’re constantly stressed, your cortisol is constantly elevated. That can lead to changes in the way you metabolize food, and can cause you to store more fat over time.
And yes, lifestyle factors play a role in set point weight, too. You might be thinking, “but weight, I’m in control of lifestyle factors like food, exercise, and sleep!” But that’s not completely true. Sure, we all make choices that impact these things. But it’s not entirely up to us (that’s another lie diet culture sells you). We all have different likes and dislikes, ability levels, responsibilities, and time constraints. We all live in different places, too, which can impact how we treat and use our bodies every day.
Go back to the hormone thing — how do hormones play in?
This one’s a doozy, and I’m giving it some extra attention because of all the misinformation out there. The internet has exploded with influencers who claim to be “hormone experts.” They tell you that if you just follow their simple (but extremely restrictive) plan, you can “balance your hormones,” lose weight, feel amazing, etc.
That’s not really true. Hormones are incredibly complicated. There’s really no such thing as balancing your hormones, because your hormone levels are changing all the time. More than 200 hormones have been discovered so far, and there are probably more we don’t even know about. And, they play a role in pretty much everything your body does.
When people talk about weight and hormones, though, they’re usually talking about a few in particular.
There are the hunger and fullness hormones, ghrelin and leptin. When ghrelin is released, it makes you hungry; on the other hand, leptin makes you feel full. One huge problem with constant dieting is that it can make you more sensitive to ghrelin and less sensitive to leptin. That means you feel hungry more often, even when you’re eating the same amount. And, you’re less likely to feel full.
Cortisol is another hormone that’s often blamed for weight fluctuations (and so many other things). That’s because, like I said, constantly elevated levels of cortisol can encourage your body to store more fat. Because intuitive eating lowers your stress (mentally because you’re not worrying about food, physically because your body isn’t constantly fluctuating between starvation and binge eating), it can actually help lower cortisol.
How do you know if you’re at your set point weight?
Again, I want to reiterate that your set point is a range, and that it can change over time. Fixating on a set point weight isn’t helpful, because it means you’re still focusing on weight and controlling your body.
Instead, I like to think of set point weight as the place where you don’t feel obsessed with food, don’t have to exercise constantly to maintain your body size, and feel good moving around every day. I know this sounds woo-woo, but set point weight is less about an actual weight, and more about the way your body feels.
If you’re not sure whether you’re at your body’s set opint, here are some things to think about.
When you’re at a weight that feels natural for your body:
You don’t have to worry about gaining weight on vacation or during a holiday meal, because you know that your body can handle it.
No foods are off-limits (unless you have an allergy or specific condition that requires avoiding certain foods).
You don’t feel the need to “burn off” foods you eat with exercise.
Most days, your clothes fit pretty comfortably. (This is partly because you don’t hang on to clothes that are too small!)
You’re able to listen to your body and eat what you want.
When you eat, you’re able to stop when you feel full. You don’t feel the desire to eat constantly, or to eat everything in sight.
Most of the time after eating, you feel comfortably full, not stuffed.
Ultimately, your body size doesn’t change much, regardless of what you eat and how you move.
How can you work towards your set point weight?
In order to find your body’s set point, you have to quit dieting and extreme exercise. It can be tempting to tell yourself that you’ll focus on finding your set point weight after one last diet. But that’s not what it’s about. Again, you can’t really control your body weight — it’s where your body ends up when you’re not being controlling.
Intuitive eating is the best way to find a weight that feels comfortable and sustainable. Why? Because it puts your body front and center. When you tune into your hunger cues and cravings, your body gets the food it needs. Yes, you might gain weight at first, because you gravitate towards previously off-limits foods and can’t yet feel your fullness. You might even find that your set point is higher than your previous weight (from when you were dieting). Or maybe it’ll be lower. Maybe it’ll be pretty much the same.
But the only way to settle into an appropriate weight is to give up control. Yes, this can be scary. No, you don’t have to transition into intuitive eating all at once. You can take things one step at a time, working to overcome food rules and feelings of guilt one by one. Ultimately, you’ll find that giving up control of your weight brings you so much freedom. And, will probably make you feel much less out of control around food.
If you’re ready to stop obsessing about food, feeling guilty about what you eat, and succumbing to disordered thoughts, I can help. I’m a dietitian who specializes in eating disorders and disordered eating. I take a weight-inclusive, gender-affirming, patient-centered approach. Learn more about nutrition counseling, offered in Raleigh, NC, and virtually to clients in several states. (We’re in-network with most Blue Cross Blue Shield plans as of October 2022, which means you might be able to work with a non-diet dietitian at little or no cost!)
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