Body Weight Set Point
Matt Whitaker – Researcher and Trainer in Public Health/11 August 2017
Losing weight in the short-term is widely achievable. Most manage this regardless of the approach they chose, create an energy deficit and the weight will drop…..initially.
Two elements that arguably need to be the primary aspects when aiming to lose weight but are often overlooked are the sustainability of what you are doing and its impact on your metabolism (the rate at which you burn calories at rest – your basal metabolic rate). Most diets ultimately fail because the non-sustainable changes you make reduce your metabolism. This means you need less energy to fuel your body and thus weight loss will plateau. Consider the example below:
1. Someone eats 2000kcal/day and burns 2000kcal/day.
2. This person wants to lose weight so they may start eating less and moving more. Let’s say this leads to an energy deficit of 500kcal (new energy intake 1500kcal).
3. Weight will start to drop but will eventually plateau. This plateau is because as the energy intake has dropped to 1500kcal the energy burnt will gradually decrease in an attempt to match the new intake (metabolism slowly decreases).
4. Once metabolism reduces to match the new intake the weight loss will plateau.
5. More often than not this person will be fed up. Losing weight is hard and arguably the only motivator to keep you going is seeing the number on the scales go down. This plateau therefore leads to them reintroducing all the foods they missed on their diet.
6. Energy intake may increase back to 2000kcal (maybe even more to compensate for the foods they have craved).
7. Weight starts to creep back on and may not stop until the person is heavier than the original point. This happens because metabolism remains lower (at 1500kcal in this example), and can remain reduced for up to a year.
8. Eventually the metabolism will catch up to the new energy intake and weight gain will eventually plateau (most likely at a higher weight than the original point).
Essentially the main governor of whether you are gaining weight, losing weight or maintaining weight is your body’s set point which is regulated by your metabolism.
What is the body weight set point?
The body weight set point is like an internal thermostat for your weight. Your body tries to return to that body weight as much as possible. The aim of weight loss should be to reduce the set point so that you can stabilise at a lower weight. The set point is why losing weight can be hard and why weight regain can be a common problem.
How can you reduce the body’s set point without reducing metabolism?
You need to give your body access to internal energy stores whilst you are aiming to lose weight, i.e. the body has to obtain a regular source of energy so it doesn’t have to go into “starvation mode”
Overweight people have a vast amount of stored energy in their body – fat! If it is possible to access these fat stores, the body does not need to go into starvation mode and reduce metabolism. The only time body fat can be used for energy is when insulin levels are low. When insulin levels are high, the body is in fat storage mode and when insulin levels are low, the body is able to be in fat burning mode. Simple as that!
The key is, as with most aspects of weight loss, to make lifestyle changes that will reduce insulin levels. Only then will the body be able to use its own fat stores for energy. Some examples include:
Adopt a low/reduced carbohydrate diet
Learn to manage stress
Improve sleep quality
Undertake more physical activity
Going back to the original point to conclude on, you need to ensure the changes you do make are sustainable! What makes a sustainable change? This depends on what your preferences are and on how your body deals with certain foods. You might need to experiment a bit to find what works for you. Remember, one size doesn’t fit all!