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Can You Reset Your Set Point?

Body weight is determined by genetics and behavior. Unfortunately, genetic factors seem to be a bit more influential, but with determination and practice, you can increase the influence of behavior.

According to set point theory, the body has a predetermined weight range that it naturally settles on under normal conditions. That helps explain why it’s easy to regain weight after weight loss. If you stop following a specific diet and exercise plan after reaching your weight goal, your body will gradually find its way back to the set point. Similarly, if you lose weight due to illness, once you are well, you’ll typically go back to your normal weight. If you gain weight due to holiday feasting, in most cases, you’ll drop those pounds and go back to your set point weight when you go back to normal eating patterns.

Set point theory may explain why body size and shape tends to run in families, and why people who are overweight and obese in childhood tend to be overweight and obese as adults.

Behavior plays a role in maintaining or changing your set point. If you gain weight gradually, your set point can go up. Since it’s all too easy to gain weight when you’re not actively watching your weight, many people have dealt with a higher set point if they try to lose weight after middle age.

What’s less recognized is that your set point can go down if you gradually lose weight. The key is to aim for slow weight loss with reasonable short-term goals and intervals of weight maintenance between periods of weight loss.

Lowering the set point requires more conscious effort than raising it, and it requires a lifelong commitment to conscious eating and activity. It also requires patience. Losing weight quickly is exciting, losing weight slowly not so much. The problem is that your body interprets rapid weight loss as starvation and initiates processes to conserve energy and lower your metabolism. To stay motivated for gradual weight loss, you must keep your mind focused on long term goals and enjoy the process, rather than seeing it as something to get done quickly.

 

One approach to lowering your set point is to aim for no more than 10% weight loss as your initial goal. If you weigh 230 pounds, and your goal is to get down to 180, your initial goal is 23 pounds, not 50. Once you get to 207, figure out how to maintain that weight for 6 months, rather than continuing to lose weight. This will give your body a chance to adjust and recognize that you’re not starving to death. Usually that requires you to maintain caloric intake somewhere between your weight loss calories and the amount you used to eat before you started losing weight. There are apps and online calculators that can help you determine a good caloric range. Focus on being active during the weight maintenance period. Studies show exercise is the strongest predictor of maintaining weight loss.

If you can stay at 207 for six months, reduce your caloric intake again and try to lose about 20 pounds, then take another 6-month break for maintenance.

Another approach is to figure out how much the slimmer version of you would have to eat to maintain your goal weight. This will be higher than the typical recommended caloric intake for weight loss, which is 1200-1800 calories. Depending on your sex, size, and activity level, the caloric intake for maintaining your goal weight could be 1800-2700 calories. Adopt that calorie range now and live your life as if you are already at your goal weight. Exercise, try new activities, socialize. Enjoy treats in small portions. As time passes, you should eventually get to your goal weight, and your set point will gradually readjust, making it harder for you to regain weight, even if you have temporary setbacks in the future.

One benefit of these approaches is that you can sometimes splurge, whether intentionally or unintentionally, without it having a significant impact on your long-term weight management.

If you think this it’s going to take you years to get to your goal weight using one of these strategies, you’re right. But would you rather take years to achieve a permanent change or quickly achieve a change that goes away after a few months?  

I have practiced both approaches at different times in my life and can personally attest to their effectiveness. In fact, in late middle age I weigh a little less than I did as an obese pre-teen! I hope some of you who have struggled with losing weight and gaining it back will give these approaches a try. If you’re interested, I’m here to help. 

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