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What is 'Set Point Theory'? An Eating Disorder Dietitian Explains

What is Set Point Theory? An Eating Disorder Dietitian Explains

Do we really have as much control as we think we do over our weight?

Living in a diet-culture-based society that often praises thin bodies and condemns fat bodies, we are taught that with the right diet and willpower, we can manipulate our weight. As eating disorder dietitians, we have found that to not be true. Our bodies are naturally regulating our weight, and our weight is genetically determined.

Set Point Theory

The concept of set point theory tells us that our body has a natural “set point” weight range to which it prefers to stay within, to operate and function optimally. Thus, no matter what fad diet you follow, how much restriction you put in place, or level of mental “toughness” you have, your body will always fight back to stay within this natural weight range. Our weight set point is individualized to each person, similar to other genetic factors, like height, eye color, or hair color. Just as we can not determine our height, we cannot determine or force our bodies to be at a weight it does not want to be at. We so easily just accept our height the way it is, but why is it so difficult to accept our weight the same way?

Set point theory tells us that our bodies are continuously regulating to ensure we naturally stay within a specific weight range. For example, if you eat a little more than you need to maintain your body weight, then typically, your body temperature will rise, and your metabolism will speed up to burn off the extra energy. If, on the other hand, you do not eat enough to maintain your weight, then your metabolic rate slows down to spare the available calories and enters your body into starvation mode, keeping a tight grip to hold on to your fat cells. Another regulatory mechanism is hunger - if the body is not getting enough energy, you will feel more hungry, and/or be more preoccupied with food.

Set point theory is the reason why it’s never a good idea to use medical weight charts or ranges as a guide for how your body should be. Two people who are the same height and in the same age range will often have different set points that differ by as much as 20 pounds. Their bodies will fight to stay in that range regardless of diet or exercise.

Eating Disorders and Set Point Theory

With eating disorders, food is typically at the front of mind. Always thinking about what to eat, when to eat, how much to eat. You may notice that when one engages in food restriction, and your body weight begins to fall below your natural set point weight range, your body first responds through hunger signals, then an increase in your mental preoccupation with food, followed by a decrease in your metabolism. These mechanisms are biologically set, and developed through evolution to protect us from starvation. Trying to keep your body below its natural set point weight range results in an ever-increasing battle with these mechanisms.

Due to increased levels of hunger and increased thoughts about food, constant restricting of food intake makes you vulnerable to episodes of binge eating. If you are suffering from food preoccupation due to restricted food intake, the key lesson to learn from set-point theory is this: To recover from your preoccupation with food, weight, and hunger, your body must be returned to a weight that is within its natural weight range. No amount of psychological treatment will remove your food obsessions unless your weight is regained to a healthy, normal range for your body. The key to achieving full recovery from an eating disorder and healthy body image involves full acceptance of our body as it is—height, weight, shape, and all!

At Branz Nutrition, we are here to support and guide you, and we recognize how set point theory plays a huge role in our bodies weight and regulation. We understand how scary and intimidating it can be to face the reality of disordered eating. Our trained eating disorder dietitians work to empower you to break up with the diet culture, and repair your relationship with food by guiding you to trust and respect your body. In addition, our goal is to inspire your healthiest relationship with food & body through a weight-inclusive, individualized, and holistic approach to supporting your wellbeing. Contact Branz Nutrition to get started today!