Body Set Point Theory Explained

Body Set Point Theory Explained

Body set point theory – the theory that your body has a natural “set point” weight range to which it prefers, in order to operate and function optimally. Thus, your body has a range that no matter how hard you fight, your body will fight back to stay within this natural weight range. Many people with and without eating disorders do not like the idea of a natural body set point. We are often fighting a societal standard to always be “skinnier” and “more toned” thus, and never settle at our current appearance and/or weight.

When considering set point, it is important to note the factors that contribute to weight, outside of the food we eat. Factors include height, age, gender, race, socio-economic status, genetics, hormones, body composition, illness, physical activity, and stress. Check out my blog Calorie Needs: Why It Isn’t So Black and White to learn more about calorie needs and why it is more than simply food. 

Just as we cannot determine our height, gender, race, hair color, eye color, etc., we cannot determine or force our bodies to be a weight that it does not want to be at. This refers back to the body set point theory. Some individuals have larger or smaller body frames, another factor we cannot control. Thus, a larger framed body may be more comfortable at a higher body weight than someone your exact height, gender, and age who has a smaller framed body. Research has shown that our body has a 10 to 20-pound weight range it naturally is comfortable being at. For example, if your “ideal” body weight (based on the Hamwi method), which I whole-heartedly do not believe this as being the “ideal” for most people, is, for example, 130 pounds for your height. The set point theory states that 130 pounds may not be what your body is comfortable being at. Your body may be more comfortable at around 150 pounds. The point is, you can diet and exercise, and still not be the weight you “want” to be at.

Body Set Point Theory
Often people lose weight within the first few weeks of dieting (of course) because you lose water weight and sometimes fat/muscle, but most people end up plateauing (staying the same weight despite food intake/exercise) or gaining the weight back. It is thought to be because your body’s metabolism adjusts to keep you at your bodies preferred weight range. I often see this with my own clients. I hear “I was restricting to “x” amount of calories and wasn’t losing any more weight” thus “a higher calorie diet will cause me to gain too much weight”. This brings me to my point – our bodies adapt to our food intake by increasing or decreasing metabolism to keep our bodies within its preferred set point range. 

At Eating Disorder Solutions, we recognize that not all bodies are set to be at a certain weight. We work with each individual to find his or her weight range for their body to function optimally. Often, individuals with eating disorders, specifically early on in treatment, struggle to recognize and understand the importance of maintaining a healthy weight. Recovery for eating disorders such as anorexia is not possible without nourishing your body, which means finding and maintaining each individual’s preferred body set point with a balanced, nutritious lifestyle.

Emily Baum, M.S., RDN, LD