Metabolic Set Point Theory & Your Weight Loss Goals

The Metabolic Set Point Theory of Homeostasis states that the body has a natural tendency to maintain a specific weight and will adjust internal body processes accordingly. If our bodies go above or below our set-point range, our metabolism will speed up or slow down to get our weight back in line.

So does that mean you are “stuck” with your body’s weight regardless of what you do? This page explores…

How the Metabolic Set Point Theory Relates to Our Increasing Weight

Metabolic Set Point TheoryTo better understand whether it’s possible to change our set-point, let’s consider the increasing weight of the average United States citizen. In 1990, every state in the country had less than a 15% obesity rate (body mass index greater than or equal to 30). By 2008, the obesity rate had jumped to over 25% in most states, with 6 states exceeding 30%.1

In other words, in less than 20 years, the obesity rate in America went from less than 1 in 7 people to almost 1 in 3.

metabolic set point theoryWhat happened? Did America’s average set-point go up?

A variety of arguments can be made to suggest that the average set-point of Americans is increasing, such as…

  • We are getting older on average due to the aging baby boomer population, and as we age we get more fat cells
  • Our sedentary lifestyle and worsening diets are making our set-points go up

While there is an element of truth to each of these arguments, neither is correct. The real answer is…

  • America’s increasing weight is our “real” set-point. Historically we have been thinner because our lifestyles were more physically demanding and we consumed fewer calories.

In other words, we are genetically hard-wired to be obese in the presence of a high-energy (high fat) and sedentary lifestyle. In addition, as our bodies “give in” to our genetic predispositions, it is likely that our brains become less receptive to the “stop eating” hormones that our fat cells secrete.

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The Set Point Theory & Your Weight Loss Goals

If genetics drive our weight level, is the desire to achieve sustained weight loss hopeless?

It depends on your current weight and your goals. Despite the healthiest diet and the most active lifestyle, some body types are just “thicker” by nature. On the other hand, obesity (body mass index of 30 or above) is a serious problem that should be addressed.

Which category describes your situation best?

  1. Normal to thicker body type (body mass index from 18.5 to 29.9)
  2. Obese (body mass index of 30 or above)

1. Normal to Thicker Body Type

If you have a thicker body type and feel unattractive when comparing yourself to what you see on TV, it’s time to change your self image. Learn to accept your body type. Realize that you are beautiful just the way you are, and understand that there are many people who find “heavier-set” people much more attractive.

While TV and magazines can lead us to believe that skinny equals sexy, there are plenty of people who view those models and celebrities as way too skinny.

Fortunately, the ideal body weight in the eyes of the media and therefore the public in general is slowly shifting back to a more natural, normal, healthy level. Here are a few examples of how the trends are swinging in the right direction…

  • As published on Allure.com, in a recent Prada fashion show “all the models were clad in classic 60s feminine shapes—A-line dresses, princess coats, and dresses with ruffles on the bodice or inverted darts at the bustline that amplified the chest, though in the least revealing way. In these clothes, the voluptuous models especially seemed to represent the type of beauty that was revered back in 1950s and '60s.”
  • Vogue Italia recently launched “Vogue Curvy”, a new line of clothing specifically dedicated to more shapely women.
  • Curvy Victoria Secrets models were welcomed at a recent fashion show in Milan
  • Shapely models recently walked the Loius Vuitton runway
  • To drive the point home, consider Kate Moss, the former epitome of “skinny celebrity”, who has intentionally put on additional pounds. When asked about it, she replied “I’m a woman now.”2
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2. Obese (body mass index of 30 or more)

If you are obese, there should be cause for concern, especially considering the related obesity health problems and negative impact of obesity discrimination. You have two options from a set-point perspective:

  • Improve your diet and increase your exercise. Our set-points evolved to keep us lean and fit when leading a more highly active lifestyle on a lower-energy (lower-fat) diet. Reverting back to that lifestyle is the only natural way to lose weight.
  • Fundamentally change the way your body functions through surgery. For some people, maintaining an aggressive diet and exercise routine is impossible due to the confluence of their genes, the prevalence and marketing of unhealthy food, a demanding, time-strained lifestyle and maintaining self-control after a stressful day.

In these cases, bariatric treatment may be the only alternative. Weight loss surgery disrupts the association between obesity and genetics which can fundamentally change the body’s set-point.

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References

  1. Statistics and images: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/
    obesity/data/trends.php
  2. Luchina Fisher and Sheila Marikar. Kate Moss Goes Curvy: Will Other Models Follow? ABC News - Entertainment. March 2009. Available at: http://abcnews.go.com/Entertainment/
    BeautySecrets/story?id=6992407

[Last editorial review/modification of this page: 6/7/2013]

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