If you’ve tried to lose weight, you know that often the most difficult part is keeping the pounds off over the long term.
It’s a huge challenge. One that only around 10% of dieters manage to achieve, according to our expert. The vast majority return to the same weight they were before the diet. Some return to an even heavier weight.
This cycle can lead to feelings of shame and failure. If you’ve experienced this, you might think you are simply not able to maintain a healthy weight or assume you just don’t have enough willpower.
But what if your own body is bringing you back to your old weight? This is the theory that we all have a ‘set point’ that our body returns to. And that there are a variety of systems in our body that interact to determine your body weight.
“The set point theory says that the body will settle at a specific weight where it likes to be,” says MD Anderson Senior Exercise Physiologist Carol Harrison. “And it will defend itself so that it stays at this specific weight.”
The idea of a set point is not proven beyond doubt, but it is supported in many observational studies.
“Most people will have fluctuations of several pounds around an average weight,” says Harrison.
So is the set point theory valid? And if it is, is it possible to lose weight long term?
How does the set point work?
The way your set point weight is established involves many factors and is highly individual. Experts believe your environment, genetics and preferences all play a part.
To some extent, the set point is simply what weight your body has gotten used to.
“The set point is established over a long period of time,” says Harrison. “It’s a very complex thing, but it appears that it is your body’s attempt to regulate itself, and that attempt results in a certain weight.”
If you go on a diet, your body might use the following systems to try to return to your previous weight:
Physical systems: If you suddenly cut down the calories you eat, your metabolism might slow down. This means your body uses less energy to do the same functions. The result is the food you do eat does not burn as quickly. You may lose weight in the short term, but eventually, you’ll likely start gaining weight back.
Your body also may try to push you back to the same weight by making certain changes in some hormone levels that affect your appetite and metabolism. And it may adjust the way you absorb and use nutrients.
Mental systems: Your brain gets used to the pleasurable feelings that certain foods give you. When you reduce or eliminate those foods, your body will crave new foods or drinks to fill the gaps left by your diet.
“People will find something else to give them satisfaction,” says Harrison. “It could be a couple of glasses of wine a day, or you might simply reintroduce snack foods over time without realizing it.”
These are just a few of the processes that make losing weight so challenging.
“It can be very difficult for dieters, especially in the evening. All your systems are saying, ‘I want this, I need this.’ There has to be some way to override this in order for you to succeed,” says Harrison.
All this might leave you feeling that weight loss is impossible, but Harrison says there are ways to change your set point permanently.
Can I change my set point?
The set point can be changed with two essential ingredients: time and support.
Time: If you make changes over time and lose weight gradually, your body systems can adapt to the new circumstances.
Your systems will stop trying to return you to your previous “normal” weight. Your body will slowly understand that your new lower weight is permanent and try to keep you there instead.
“Your body will adjust to the new food level,” says Harrison. “Those systems like nutrient intake, hormone levels and neurotransmitters have had a chance to make slow adaptations, so the set point of your body can change.”
Fad diets rarely give your body this chance to adapt. Instead, they result in a yo-yo effect where you swing from losing weight to gaining weight and back again.
Support: Awareness is key when you are trying to make a change. If you notice your body trying to return you to your old weight, you may be able to take action to stop it.
“Many people may need the help of a therapist in order to do this,” says Harrison. “Therapy can help you understand how you view food and your weight in a way that is more involved than, ‘should I eat this or should I not.’”
A dietitian also can help you by offering support and guidance.
If you can become aware of when you are acting on cravings and understand the reasons, it can be easier to stop.
The takeaway message is that weight loss is different for every body. As you lose weight, your body may compensate in ways that are different from other people.
That means you might have to make changes that are different from someone else.
“If you make it only about eating fewer calories and doing more exercise, you will likely miss something that could be the key to maintaining a healthy weight for you,” says Harrison.
And perhaps the most important thing is to acknowledge that you’re in this for the long haul.
“Realize that it’s complicated. Body systems are at work, not necessarily against you, but they are influencing your weight,” Harrison says.