Eat, Live, Move

What is the Set-Point Theory and Can I change My Set-Point?

You’ve probably seen them before. The cute little tables, blown up to poster proportions telling you that you must be “Large” framed because that’s the only way your weight is in the normal category (grimace emoji).

I’m not going to spend too much time here convincing you to forget the numbers and toss out your scale, because I’m assuming you already know this is probably a good idea. Instead, today I’m going to discuss the scientific theory of how we maintain weight. Yes, it’s a SCIENTIFIC theory. This is not “woo woo”.

First, let’s go ahead and admit that there’s probably a magic number in your head right now that you think of as your “ideal”. You may have been there before, or it may have always eluded you, but there’s likely a number nonetheless. Next, I want you to identify how you came up with that number. If it’s the first category, and you’ve been there before, feeling healthy happy and strong, then congrats, this MAY be realistic. It you’re in the latter group, ever yearning for the scale to move down just a bit more, well, you may have skewed views.

Here’s the deal; our bodies are smart. They were created to survive and thrive in the world in which we live. That means that they want to be able to run away from a bear or survive several days without food. Our bodies are constantly working FOR us, because we’re both on the same team.

So let’s get to the set-point theory. The theory states that our bodies have a range of weight in which they feel BEST. Not at risk for dying of starvation or dying from getting eaten by large animals. This range is not something Instagram can impose on us. It’s in our DNA, and exhibits itself by increasing and decreasing various signals throughout our body. Our body LOVES its set-point, and it will do a lot to keep it there.

How does this actually work? Think of it like a thermostat. This “thermostat” is located in the hypothalamus, the portion of your brain that takes over without you having to consciously think about all the signals (think breathing, adrenaline rush, etc). Your thermostat is set to a certain level, and depending on MANY external messages, the thermostat responds with varying internal messages.

For example, you eat a huge meal, the stomach screams to your hypothalamus “They did it again, they really love that pizza dang it!!!”. The hypothalamus rolls its eyes and then sends out a healthy dose of leptin (the satiety hormone) to tell you you’re full and should stop eating already.   Your leptin levels will stay pretty high for a while, because your body knows you just got a lot of energy from that whole stuffed crust fiasco.

This is just ONE of the many many ways the hypothalamus regulates hunger/fullness.   It also gives signals for activity, changing up your energy expenditure depending on the day. Crazy.

All of this to say that we need to remember this set-point theory as we’re assessing our body weight scenario. From the studies done in this area, it seems that your “thermostat” has about a 5 lb variation or safety zone, before it kicks into turbo gear. However, this too, is individual.

Having this zone in which the body wants to stay should not give us anxiety, but should instead, reassure us that we can TRUST OUR BODIES. The biggest question I always get is “can I change my set point?”, and while I don’t think we know enough to answer that completely, we do know SOME things.

Restriction Works Against You

When you go on restrictive diets (whether item elimination or calorie counting) you send up red flags pretty darn often. You’re hypothalamus will begin to get many signals telling it that food is scarce, and you may be in danger of starvation. This will work against you fairly soon, as the hypothalamus adjusts its messages to keep you from losing too much weight.

Slower is Better

This isn’t groundbreaking here, but for some reason it’s hard to grasp; it’s better to lose weight slowly. This is one of the only ways in which researchers think you may be able to change your set point. Allowing your thermostat to realize that small changes, along the way, are not putting you in any danger. You still have enough food, you can still move, you can still survive.

Over-exercising is a Threat

Remember the set point is in place as a survival mechanism. If you are working out too much in an attempt to burn as many calories as possible, your thermostat is going to be working overtime to get you to eat. Working out makes you hungry, so using it as a transactional tool, instead of a method to get stronger and fit, will work against you.

Check your What/How/Why

Many of us focus on the “what” part of our eating, but it’s easy to dismiss the “how” and “why”. We know, however, that our environment and emotional state play a big role in the food we eat, and more specifically in the AMOUNT of food we eat. Try honoring your hunger and fullness cues and saying no to emotional and environmental noshing.


Adrienne is a Certified Exercise Physiologist and holds a masters degree in Exercise Science. Her passion is to help people find a healthy balance between #IIFYM and #YOLO.

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