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There is no denying we live in a thin-obsessed, fat-phobic society. Individuals feel constant pressure to manage their body size, and the diet industry thrives off of the idea that individuals can change their body weight or size with the right diet and enough willpower. It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking we can manipulate weight when we live in a society that praises thinness and condemns fat. Despite society’s beliefs, weight is tightly controlled and regulated by the body. This is known as set point. 

By: Nicole Guzman

The Set Point Theory suggests that body weight is regulated at a predetermined level. There is a preset weight range that is hardwired into our DNA, and this is the weight required for our body to function optimally. Scientists estimate that the average person has a set point range of 10 to 20 pounds. The body will fight to stay within this 10 to 20-pound range, as this is the weight it is most comfortable and functions best. Each individual has a different set point weight; some will have higher set points, while others will have lower set points. 

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How Does Set Point Work?

Our brain houses a powerful mechanism that controls our weight. The hypothalamus constantly receives signals from energy and fat stores within the body. In response to these signals, the hypothalamus will adjust accordingly. For example, when we lose enough fat mass to exceed what our body is comfortable with, the hypothalamus may produce an increase in appetite and hunger cues or a decrease in metabolism and heart rate to conserve energy. In other words, the body may respond to energy deficits created by diets by turning on physiological processes that are designed to conserve energy and fat

We can think of the hypothalamus like a thermostat. If you set the thermostat in your house to 68 degrees, it is programmed to maintain an acceptable range. When the temperature in your home drops below the acceptable range, say 60 degrees, the heat will turn on to bring the house back to the acceptable range. Similarly, if the house were to reach 75 degrees, the air conditioning will turn on. This is exactly how the hypothalamus works in your brain. When someone drops below their acceptable setpoint weight range, metabolic responses to store fat and conserve energy will turn on. On the other hand, when someone goes above their setpoint range, the body may speed up metabolism to burn off the extra energy. However, scientists believe that the upper limit of the setpoint range is much more flexible than the lower end of the range. 

Ultimately, this body-fat control center works tirelessly to maintain weight within the range at which our body functions optimally. With this in mind, it is no wonder that diets do not work in the long-term. Although we tend to blame ourselves for “failing” our diet, this is really a sign of the success of our internal weight regulation system. 

How Can We Find Our Set Point?

To determine where your setpoint weight is, eat normally! Your setpoint is:

  • The weight you typically maintain when you eat to appetite

  • The weight that results when you honor your body and listen to your hunger and fullness cues

  • The weight you maintain when you don’t fixate on weight or food

  • The weight you return to between diets

The Takeaway

Just like height, eye color, or foot size, we don’t have much of a say in our weight, despite what society tells us. When we eat normally, to appetite and with no concern about weight, our body will stabilize around its setpoint. Issues with weight regulation begin when we try to consciously take over weight-control by following strict food rules. This leads not only to a troubled relationship with food and body image, but also to metabolic responses to inadequate nourishment. Instead of fighting this never-ending battle with our body, we must practice body acceptance – height, shape, weight, and all. 

Do you or a loved one struggle with body acceptance? 

At BALANCE eating disorder treatment center™, our team of eating disorder professionals is dedicated to treating the spectrum of eating disorders and other disordered eating behaviors and body image issues. We are proud to offer a Body Image Group to help individuals with or without an eating disorder gain insight into their relationship with their body. In this group, participants will foster an understanding of how poor body image, lack of sense of self, and low self-esteem impact our identity and make change difficult. Our Admissions team would be glad to answer any questions you may have regarding our Body Image Group. Book a free consultation call with our admissions team below!


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This post was written by BALANCE intern, Nicole Guzman.

Nicole is a second-year graduate student at Hunter College pursuing her Masters in Nutrition and Dietetics. Nicole graduated from Fordham University where she received a Bachelor of Science in Psychology. After struggling with disordered eating behaviors, Nicole became passionate about sustainable wellness and debunking common nutrition myths. In the future, Nicole hopes to help individuals cultivate positive relationships with food, confidence, and wellbeing.


Resources

Eating Disorders Self-Help Resources – Information Sheets & Workbooks [Internet]. [cited 2020 Nov 11]. Available from: https://www.cci.health.wa.gov.au/Resources/Looking-After-Yourself/Disordered-Eating

Harris RB. Role of set-point theory in regulation of body weight. FASEB J. 1990;4:3310–8. 

Lindo Bacon, PhD, Lucy Aphramor, PhD, RD. Body Respect. Dallas, TX: BenBella Books, Inc.; 2014. 

Müller MJ, Bosy-Westphal A, Heymsfield SB. Is there evidence for a set point that regulates human body weight? F1000 Med Rep [Internet]. 2010 [cited 2020 Nov 11];2. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2990627/

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