As a small-town teen suffering from disordered eating, my story with weight loss went a little something like this:
I started off at 5’2″ and 120 lbs, the heaviest I’ve ever been. To most of you, that probably doesn’t sound “heavy” at all – but all I saw when I looked in the mirror was the fat that padded my thighs and lower abs. Losing the first 5 lbs was always easy, but once I got down to 115, losing any more weight was almost impossible…impossible, that is, without sustaining unhealthy changes in my diet and exercise that I could never keep up with for long before bingeing.
Fast forward five years later, and I’ve completely quit dieting and obsessive exercise patterns. Instead, I strive to live a healthy, balanced lifestyle – and still my weight hovers around 115 lbs. I eat less than I ever did at the unhealthiest point in my life, and participate in more holistic movement (though I probably do less intense, vigorous exercise than I did back then) in my everyday life. Yet still, my weight doesn’t budge. Why is this?
Doctors, researchers and mental health professionals alike subscribe to set point theory, a medical and scientific explanation for why many of our scales tend to hover around a fixed number (your “set point weight”). Genetics may explain why it’s easier for some women to lose weight than others, but set point theory explains why, no matter how healthy I eat or how much I exercise, my weight has never dipped below 108 lbs or above 120 lbs.
That’s because the 114-16 lb number I’ve seen on the scale a majority of the days of my life is my “set point weight,” aka my body’s metabolic happy place. At this weight, my body is functioning optimally, balancing the health benefits of minimizing subcutaneous body fat with my body’s caloric needs for energy.
Some women find that their set point weights are higher – or lower – than average. The challenge we all face is making peace with what that number is, and balancing our mental health against the mixed societal messages of body confidence and “fitspo.” For example, if you’re a woman with a higher set point weight, society has made strides in telling you to accept your body the way it is – but doctors may still tell you that your BMI makes you “overweight,” even though the way you lead your life (through diet, exercise and lifestyle habits) may help your body stay healthy and function optimally. In other words, size and health are NOT correlated – despite what many medical professionals still believe today!
These kinds of messages were what led me to develop disordered eating patterns as a teen. While I was told to love my body by treating it right, I was also simultaneously told that my stomach should be “flat,” or else men would find it unattractive and my fellow gal pals would think I was “fat.” This is also why learning to love and accept my body at its set point weight was one of the major steps in my recovery from disordered eating.
If you’re ready to start making peace with your body and achieve your set point weight once-and-for-all, keep reading to learn more about set point weight and how you can “reset” your body to settle in its natural weight range.
As always, I am not a doctor, so please consult with your PCP before making any decisions regarding your weight. Additionally, the material below may be triggering for some women who have suffered from disordered eating and other body image issues, so as you are reading, please take breaks, engage in self-care and show yourself compassion as needed! Whether or not you believe it at this point in your life, I promise you are worth it ❤
What is Set-Point Theory?
First thing’s first: what is set-point theory, and what does science have to say about it?
According to MIT Medical, set-point theory, in short, explains why diets don’t work for long-term weight management. Our weights are held constant at a “set point” – because our bodies have way more knowledge about our caloric needs, fat stores and overall well-being than doctors and scientists can ever determine. Just as your body temperature fluctuates around 98.6 – and just as your body sweats to break a fever – your body, like an elastic band, will always “snap back” to its default.
Though we’ve tried to develop medical tests for ascertaining a healthy weight, such as looking at BMI or body composition, set-point theory argues that our bodies know best, and that there’s no one scientific rule that can apply to every body everywhere.
So, if it’s true that our bodies center themselves around a fixed “set-point weight,” how is it possible that so many of us gain or lose weight over time? While your set-point weight may be determined by genetics, it is not unchangeable; however, “dieting” – as we in Western culture know it – actually has the opposite effect from what’s intended.
Rather than lowering our body weight, starvation diets lead our bodies to slow their metabolisms and conserve energy stores, causing fat retention and, ultimately, weight gain. On the other hand, some people may even experience an increase in metabolism when they increase caloric intake.
Though, of course, increasing caloric intake over a long period of time will almost universally cause some weight gain, just as decreasing caloric intake for sustained periods will cause some weight loss, the problem set-point theory addresses is why these changes are often short-lived. In other words, even though starvation diets may lead to weight loss over time, women are typically not able to maintain a lower weight that deviates from their set-point.
Because of the cultural and medical messages we’ve received about weight as a signal of beauty and vitality, it can feel disempowering to learn that our weight is, for the most part, pretty much out of our hands. While there’s something to be said for the value of regular exercise in lowering set-point weight, I agree with the National Eating Disorder Information Centre in Canada when they say that the real issue is how our culture views weight.
In other words, the best way to make peace with your weight may actually be viewing it as a set point that’s determined primarily by genetics. As NEDIC writes on their website, we should be looking at weight the same way we look at height: some people are born big and some people are born small, just as some people are born tall and some people are born short.
To put it bluntly, I’m only 5’2″ – and while this causes me some inconveniences (particularly in the clothes shopping department), I’ve never tried to seek out surgery or at-home techniques to make myself taller. I’ve always accepted this as part of me that would never change.
So, why treat weight any differently? As long as there are no negative health consequences that require medical attention, there’s no need to micromanage our weights down to the very pound. After all, as science and set-point theory remind us, dieting hardly ever works anyways…so, in the words of Emma Stone, “Life is short – eat the damn red velvet cupcake!”
How to Find Your Set-Point Weight
You’ve been converted – you’re motivated to love and accept your body at its set-point weight, and stop micromanaging the number on the scale through dieting. So, now what? How do you take a body that’s used to calorie deprivation and transition it to a life of “normal eating?” How do you prepare for the aftershock and weight gain that often accompany a switch to normal eating?
First thing’s first: stop counting calories and binge-exercising, and start eating intuitively! To learn more about how I healed from disordered eating using intuitive eating techniques (and find out how you can use these techniques in your own life), click to check out my intuitive eating article here on the Cozy Counselor. If you’re struggling with disordered eating and find that you can’t kick the diet habits alone, I recommend reaching out to a professional who specializes in eating disorders for counseling and mental health support.
Secondly, accept that your healthiest weight isn’t a number but a range. Especially as women, our bodies fluctuate in weight for a wide variety of reasons. Every month, we’re exposed to a hormonal cycle that causes many us to lose and gain a few pounds of water weight! Hormonal changes from periods to pregnancy to menopause can all cause minor weight gain throughout our lifetime – or even throughout our month.
Because of this, many weight-loss communities view set-point weight as something that can be “overcome” to achieve a lower body weight. However, I believe we should embrace the range of weights that can be viewed as healthy, rather than striving for our lowest possible body weight! In fact, most people experience regular weight fluctuation from ten to twenty pounds (!!!) when at their set-point weight – so it’s time to stop viewing your ideal weight as a number, and start seeing it as a flexible range. Throwing out your scale and determining your health based on other factors, such as how many fruits, veggies and whole grains you eat or how often you get moving, is a good starting place for most women.
You might find that as you stop limiting “good” and “bad” foods and start leading a life of moderation rather than starvation, the size of your body changes over time. You might gain weight if you were previously below your set-point weight – or lose weight if you were above it. Making peace with these natural changes is one of the healthiest things you can do for your body. Your body can and will change, but this change is one of the things that makes us human. Instead of fighting it, I say we learn to roll with the punches – and learn to love our bodies every step of the way.
P.S. If you’ve enjoyed this article and are interested in hearing more about set-point theory, I highly recommend watching this YouTube video by registered dietitian Becca Bristow! Becca has lots of useful information about nutrition and intuitive eating on her channel, but this video in particular talks about how to find your set-point weight and why set-point theory is a better alternative to crash dieting.