Set-Point Theory and Body Mass
Article

Set-Point Theory and Body Mass

Published on Wednesday, February 08, 2023
by
Alexander Koch

Health & Wellness

Why is weight loss so hard?

Many people are dissatisfied with their body weight, with as many as 74.6% of American adults reporting that they have tried to lose weight at some point. 

From the perspective of thermodynamics, your body mass is a fulcrum in an energy-balance equation (see picture below). In this model, your body mass is balanced in between the energy you consume from food and the energy you expend. To achieve weight loss, you must enter a state of negative energy balance, where energy expenditure > energy intake.

In theory, losing weight is a simple proposition: simply eat less and move more to shift your energy balance toward this negative state. In practice though, this is incredibly challenging to achieve in the long term, and at least 50% of people who lose weight end up regaining almost all of it back.

Set-Point Theory

The set-point theory explains many of the challenges in achieving weight loss. According to set-point theory, adult body mass tends to remain in an equilibrium range due to a complex regulatory system that involves appetite mechanisms, the amount of physical activity we do, and cellular metabolism. In this set-point range, obesity protects itself.

Specifically, any attempt to restrict food intake to lose body fat will be countered by a shift in appetite mechanisms to increase feelings of hunger, prompting one to increase energy intake. In addition, losses in body mass lead to a decrease in resting metabolic rate, which decreases total energy expenditure and makes it harder to achieve a negative energy balance.

The set-point theory makes the process of losing weight appear daunting.

However, there is some evidence that the set point is not set in stone. A good challenge to set-point theory is that it fails to explain why we have seen an exponential increase in obesity rates in many countries since the 1980s. This shows us that the equilibrium body weight around which we gravitate can be changed by our environment.

Alternately, the “settling-point” theory has been proposed, in which the role of outside influences such as environment and socio-economic factors on energy intake and physical activity and the consequent development of obesity is recognized. 

So what is the answer?

Finding the optimal strategy for your eating and exercise plan is a lifelong experiment you conduct on a single subject: yourself!

My advice is to recognize that extreme changes in diet and activity will be countered by your genes and appetite mechanisms, so I personally have always favored implementing gradual changes. For example, when trying to lose weight, I would recommend reducing daily energy intake by ~300 kcal per day, in an effort to avoid shocking your hunger hormones and preserving as much fat-free mass as possible.

Recognizing environmental influences on body mass is also worthwhile. Look for ways to provide yourself the opportunity to get more physical activity in ways that you enjoy each day. Emphasize ways to be healthy that you enjoy, so it feels less like a chore and more like you are simply practicing good self-care.

 

  1. Barrea, L., Salzano, C., Pugliese, G., Laudisio, D., Frias-Toral, E., Savastano, S., Colao, A., & Muscogiuri, G. (2022). The challenge of weight loss maintenance in obesity: a review of the evidence on the best strategies available. International journal of food sciences and nutrition, 73(8), 1030–1046. https://doi.org/10.1080/09637486.2022.2130186 
  2. Chaston, T. B., Dixon, J. B., & O'Brien, P. E. (2007). Changes in fat-free mass during significant weight loss: a systematic review. International journal of obesity (2005), 31(5), 743–750. https://doi.org/10.1038/sj.ijo.0803483
  3. Garvey W. T. (2022). Is Obesity or Adiposity-Based Chronic Disease Curable: The Set Point Theory, the Environment, and Second-Generation Medications. Endocrine practice : official journal of the American College of Endocrinology and the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists, 28(2), 214–222. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.eprac.2021.11.082
  4. Quinn, D. M., Puhl, R. M., & Reinka, M. A. (2020). Trying again (and again): Weight cycling and depressive symptoms in U.S. adults. PloS one, 15(9), e0239004. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0239004
  5. Speakman, J. R., Levitsky, D. A., Allison, D. B., Bray, M. S., de Castro, J. M., Clegg, D. J., Clapham, J. C., Dulloo, A. G., Gruer, L., Haw, S., Hebebrand, J., Hetherington, M. M., Higgs, S., Jebb, S. A., Loos, R. J., Luckman, S., Luke, A., Mohammed-Ali, V., O'Rahilly, S., Pereira, M., … Westerterp-Plantenga, M. S. (2011). Set points, settling points and some alternative models: theoretical options to understand how genes and environments combine to regulate body adiposity. Disease models & mechanisms, 4(6), 733–745. https://doi.org/10.1242/dmm.008698 

Comments

Join The Conversation...

Related Content

12/09/22
Let’s Talk About Pre-Workout Supplements Let’s Talk About Pre-Workout Supplements

Let’s Talk About Pre-Workout Supplements

Health & Wellness

Alexander Koch

PhD, CSCS

01/09/23
Setting SMART Goals for Your Health Setting SMART Goals for Your Health

Setting SMART Goals for Your Health

Health & Wellness

Savannah Duffy

MS, RDN, LD

10/06/22
The Case for the After-Dinner Constitutional The Case for the After-Dinner Constitutional

The Case for the After-Dinner Constitutional

Health & Wellness

Alexander Koch

PhD, CSCS

Latest Articles

06/20/24
Ultimate Summer BBQ Guide for Acid Reflux and GERD Ultimate Summer BBQ Guide for Acid Reflux and GERD

Ultimate Summer BBQ Guide for Acid Reflux and GERD

Acid Reflux
GERD
Nutrition
Wellness

Kitty Broihier

MS, RD, LD

06/19/24
The Gut-Friendly Benefits of Community Supported Agriculture The Gut-Friendly Benefits of Community Supported Agriculture

The Gut-Friendly Benefits of Community Supported Agriculture

Nutrition
Plant-Based
Gut Health

Emily Hamm

MS, RDN, CSO, LD

06/18/24
Building a Support System for Your Healthier Eating Journey Building a Support System for Your Healthier Eating Journey

Building a Support System for Your Healthier Eating Journey

Wellness

Deanna Salles-Freeman

Life & Health Coach

06/17/24
Pump Up Your Gut: How Building Muscle Can Boost Your Digestive Health Pump Up Your Gut: How Building Muscle Can Boost Your Digestive Health

Pump Up Your Gut: How Building Muscle Can Boost Your Digestive Health

Gut Health

Alexander Koch

PhD, CSCS

Explore More