Is There a “Set Point?”

I hope some of you got the chance to watch the HBO special titled “The Weight of the Nation,” which aired on Monday and Tuesday nights.  If you didn’t get a chance to see it, all four parts are available online here.  I watched on TV on Monday night, but then reverted to watching online because then I could start and stop the video and take notes ~ total nerd, I know.  But the series is packed with good information, and I am learning a lot from it ~ I hope to share some of it with you next week after I am done with the series and have some time to devote to a decent write-up.  I am currently watching part 3 on childhood obesity…very sobering I must say.

Today I want to talk about another magazine article that I read while on the plane to China in March.  This one came from Elle magazine, and I thought it was actually quite good.  I like it when I find a good, well-researched article in a mainstream beauty & fashion magazine ~ truthfully it is rare (see my post here).  This article is titled “Sexy and I Know it.”  Quite frankly, the title has absolutely nothing to do with the content of the article, but I guess if it didn’t have a catchy title then no one would read it.  The article is actually about the concept of a set point in weight loss and whether it is something that is working against you in your battle to lose weight.  I can’t find the article online, otherwise I would give you the link in case you were interested in reading the entire article.  Today you will have to be satisfied with my synopsis of the relevant points.

Most of you have probably heard the term “set point” but may or may not really know what it refers to or what it is all about.  Here is a quick definition, which I took from a one page document from MIT Medical about set point:

  • According to the set-point theory, there is a control system built into every person dictating how much fat he or she should carry – a kind of thermostat for body fat. Some individuals have a high setting, others have a low one. According to this theory, body fat percentage and body weight are matters of internal controls that are set differently in different people. 
  • This theory is still not totally understood, nor has the research definitively proven that such a concept exists.  However, the theory is that your body has a certain weight, called your “set point” which it will basically defend…i.e. it won’t let you lose weight below that point, or if you do, it will quickly work back to that point after you cease dieting.   While I think the research needs to catch up with this idea, there might be something to it.  Which is not to say trying to lose weight is hopeless.  Some of the current research is looking at whether losing weight in smaller increments, staying at that weight for a period of time (minimum of 6 months) and then working at losing additional weight (and again stabilizing, etc) is a way to work around the set point.  A study conducted at the University of Melbourne (Australia) found that participants who lost more than 10% of their body weight (which really isn’t such a big number for those trying to lose significant weight) had changes in their appetite-suppressing hormones, in particular leptin.  Low levels of leptin signals to your body that you need to build your fat stores (which translates to your brain telling you “I’m hungry”) ~ and in this study, weight loss greater than 10% resulted in reductions in leptin levels.  Your body is likely responding to the reduced caloric intake and trying to help “preserve” you.  But in reality, it is working against you by making that weight loss even harder to achieve.
  • Also coming out of the study was that for those participants who lost at least 10% of their bodyweight, their bodies were burning 300 fewer calories a day on average.  This is really a result of two factors.  One, whenever you lose weight your body will need fewer calories to deal with normal expenditure levels (think about the fact that the more you weigh the more effort it is to simply move your body).  The second factor is that once again, when you reduce calories, your body starts to go into preservation mode.  Your body has no idea that you have plenty of calories (i.e. energy to your body) available to you and that you are not a Paleo man/woman who is facing starvation.  So what does it do to “help you out?”  It slows your metabolism.  You burn calories at a slower rate, making weight loss slow down to often frustrating levels (all of this goes to show that losing weight is far more complicated than having calories expended exceed calories taken in).
  • Success levels for maintaining weight loss vary, but the maximum figure reported is a lowly 20% (with some studies showing a measly 2% success rate).While a lot is not yet know about the set point and what methods might be successful in helping to circumvent it, some “experts” recommend not losing weight too quickly and after losing no more than 10% of your body weight going into maintenance mode for 6+ months before attempting to lose additional weight.  Other’s advocate changing your diet to include more fruits and veggies and losing weight very, very slowly ~ in essence, not really “dieting” per say.  Others advocate stress reduction or looking at food sensitivities (such as gluten or dairy, the most common).  But the one trick that seems to have the most science behind it is…EXERCISE!  Yep, despite the fact that losing weight is all about food (first and foremost you must change your diet if you want to lose weight), exercise is a big factor in maintaining weight loss.  The Elle article even recommends the right kind of exercise ~ weight training and interval training.  Wow, a real breath of fresh air!  Regular exercise is key.  Data from the National Weight Control Registry shows that of women who have lost 70 lbs on average and kept it off for up to six years (a significant period of time), physical activity, to the tune of 2700 calories burned a week, was key (never believe the calorie counts on the cardio machines, they are generally far too high…sorry).All of this just goes to show that eating sensibly, not cutting calories too dramatically and getting regular exercise are the keys to successful, long-term weight loss.  Patience and persistence, can go a long way.  🙂
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About Lisa Van Dore

I have lived in Sherborn, Dover and most recently North Walpole, for a total of 15 years (and counting). Having recently been through the process of selling a home and buying (and renovating) a new one, I understand the conflicting emotions of excitement and anxiety inherent in the process, whether you are a seller or buyer, whether this is your first home purchase or your tenth. I have a BA from the University of Michigan and an MBA from Indiana University. My early career found me working as a CPA, and later as the controller of Crate & Barrel. More recently I spent seven years running my own personal training business. I understand the hard work and dedication necessary to build a business and a reputation...most of my personal training clients came to me by referral and my first client was still with me when I decided to leave personal training. This speaks to the level of effort I put forth for my clients, week after week. On a more personal note, I raced triathlon for seven years and more recently completed my first half marathon. In my free time I enjoy cooking, reading, Maine, hiking and, in the fall, following college football...my teams are the University of Michigan (Go Blue!) and Texas Christian University (Go Frogs!).
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