The Health at Every Size movement is centered around body respect: establishing sustainable, health-supporting habits without trying to change your body’s size or shape. Intuitive eating is built around this same idea — that true nourishment and food peace only come when you’re able to let go of the pursuit of weight loss.
Central to both of these non-diet approaches is the idea that each of our bodies is wired to stay at (or near) a certain weight, also called a “set point weight.”
The set point weight theory is still just that — a theory. And it’s not as simple as “your genes say you’re supposed to weigh XX pounds, so that’s what you’ll weigh forever.” There are so many factors that help determine your set point: genetics, environment, access to resources, history of dieting, stress, lifestyle preferences, hormones, health conditions, and more. Plus, it’s not a single set point, but rather a weight range within which you might naturally fluctuate.
Still, many people find set point weight theory to be a helpful concept in their journey toward body acceptance and a better relationship with food. As a registered dietitian who helps clients overcome disordered eating and yo-yo dieting, I’ve seen firsthand how impactful set point weight theory can be.
If you’ve come across the term and aren’t sure exactly what it means (or what it means for you), here’s what you need to know about it:
There are millions of processes happening within your body that help maintain homeostasis.
“All of the functions of the human body operate optimally at a steady state,” known as homeostasis, said Maggie Landes, a physician and nutritionist who runs The Diet Disruptors community online. “The body doesn’t like wild fluctuations of hormones, neurotransmitters, electrolytes, energy, blood, electricity, nothing. That includes weight.”
Experts aren’t yet sure exactly how our bodies work to stay at a certain weight, but it’s likely due to shifting hormones and changes in metabolism.
“Researchers theorize that our bodies will metabolically compensate when individuals lose weight or try to lose weight through slowing down the body’s metabolism,” said Elizabeth Gunner, a New York-based registered dietitian.
One 2015 review of the existing evidence on this topic found that weight loss leads most people to burn fewer calories overall and to burn less stored fat for energy. At the same time, levels of the hormone leptin (which signals fullness) decrease, while levels of ghrelin (which signals hunger) increase. Throughout history, this resistance to weight loss has been helpful in keeping people alive through times of famine or illness.
So, what “sets” our set point weight? While genetics play a large role, Landes explained, it’s not the only factor. Our life circumstances — the environment we live in, access to food, stress levels, physical activity levels, etc. — play a huge part. And despite what various diet gurus and wellness influencers may have told you in the past, it’s not always possible to modify these things.
Countless things can still cause our weight to shift.
Most everyone can attest to the fact that small weight fluctuations over the course of weeks, days and even hours are inevitable. This doesn’t negate the set point theory. Rather, it shows that a set point is more of a range than a specific number.
It’s also true that, throughout the course of our lives, we’ll experience weight changes that are more significant than just small fluctuations.
“Through the course of our lives, [set point weight range] can shift,” Landes said, adding that our set point weight often increases as we age until we hit older adulthood, when it might actually start to decrease.
Menopause also leads to drastic weight changes for some women due to shifting hormones. And of course, various health conditions affect weight because they interfere with the body’s processes in some way. For example, polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) often leads to weight gain due to hormone shifts, whereas chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) tends to cause weight loss due to increased metabolism.
“Weight is just one piece of the enormous health puzzle —it doesn’t and shouldn’t define how healthy you actually are. One piece of data alone could never tell the full story.”
Set point weight theory can help if you’re looking to heal your relationship with your body.
Simply put, when you accept the fact that your body is meant to be at a certain weight, you’re better able to give it what it needs instead of constantly trying to override your hunger cues and cravings in order to lose weight or prevent weight gain.
Other experts agree. “This is a helpful concept for those working towards building a healthier relationship with food and their body, because it somewhat removes the pressure and the focus of trying to be in a certain weight range,” Gunner said. “After all, weight is just one piece of the enormous health puzzle —it doesn’t and shouldn’t define how healthy you actually are. One piece of data alone could never tell the full story.”
There are also physical advantages to letting your body be at its set point. “Staying in that set point range is your best chance to maintain your health,” Landes said, noting that once you’re at a weight that your body is able to maintain easily, your hormones and your metabolism are more likely to be able to work optimally.
“For many who have been weight cycling and dieting for years and decades, finding the set point weight range is almost magic because once you are at your set point range and you are no longer restricting and ‘overriding’ the body’s functions, your weight will likely fluctuate very little,” Landes said.
This is far healthier than dieting on and off and the extreme swings in weight that often come with it, which can negatively impact your heart, your hormones and other functions.
Set point weight isn’t about fixating on a number, but about realizing that you don’t need to be hypervigilant.
This is the complicated part: There are no “instructions” to follow when it comes to “determining” your set point weight; instead, it’s a byproduct of living your life. It’s different for everyone because the circumstances vastly vary.
As helpful as set point weight theory can be, it’s important not to get attached to a single number, or even on a specific set point weight range. As mentioned above, weight fluctuations are normal, and set point range can (and likely will) change over time.
If you start worrying about maintaining your “set point,” then it becomes no different than a “goal weight.” That’s not good, because it might lead you to diet or go out of your way to maintain what you believe is your set point.
Instead, use your understanding of set point weight theory to remind yourself that your body is able to regulate itself without you having to pour your energy into controlling your weight.
If you’re struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.