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What is Setpoint Theory?



Your setpoint is your body’s ideal weight. This is where your body likes to remain and where it functions optimally. Your setpoint is determined biologically and genetically – so, everyone’s setpoint is different. Your body likes to remain at its setpoint and will fight to stay there. Have you ever tried to lose weight and found it difficult? Maybe no matter how much to exercised or dieted, your weight didn’t want to change? This is because your body wants to stay at its setpoint. What’s crazy is that your body can regulate the calories or energy that you eat in order to stay at its setpoint. You don’t need to monitor anything! You can let go of counting calories and weighing yourself, because your amazing body is the best at regulating your weight.


Your body loves to stay in homeostasis or balance. Linda Bacon explains the body’s homeostasis like this, “Your body’s attempt to maintain homeostasis is one of the most fundamental concepts in biology. Many physiological variables – such as oxygen levels, carbon dioxide levels, blood volume, and blood sugar – are tightly regulated under this system. For each, your body accepts a certain range with various physiological mechanisms preventing disastrous dips or curves.


The amount of body fat you have is similarly tightly regulated. More than fifty years of research proves that your body tries to maintain your fat at the level at which you are designed to function best. Your body is strongly invested in helping you maintain this healthy and relatively consistent weight, and it has amazingly efficient mechanisms in place to pull off this feat.” (Health at Every Size, pg. 14)


It is more accurate refer to your setpoint as a range instead of just one setpoint. Your setpoint is not one single number. Your weight fluctuates day-to-day and this is normal. Your weight will also fluctuate throughout your life. When we are kids, our bodies are growing. When we are adolescents, our bodies go through puberty. When we are in our early twenties, our bodies mature into adult bodies. Our bodies will continue to change throughout life due to hormones, stress, medications, disease, aging, etc. If you are female, then your body will also change during pregnancy, breastfeeding, and menopause. All of these different stages of life will affect your setpoint. It is estimated that a person’s setpoint range during their life is between 10-20 pounds.


I want to make it very clear that the weight you were in high school is not going to be your setpoint for the rest of your life. Many people think that after they go through puberty that is the weight their body is supposed to maintain. But adult bodies are different than high schooler bodies. Your weight will change and that is normal.


Another time your setpoint may change is when you are dieting. Yes, at first you may lose weight when you start a diet. But typically, the weight will come back plus some extra weight. This extra weight that you put on may be your body’s new setpoint. Your body is trying to protect itself from starving to death. When you go on a diet or restrict calories, your body thinks that there isn’t enough food for survival. So, your body slows down your metabolism and slows down your digestion in order to conserve calories and retain energy. Your body may put on extra weight after a diet in order to protect itself from the next “famine” (aka diet). To summarize, when you diet to lose weight, you are actually sending the signal to your body to gain more weight! Oh the irony. (This is a very simplified explanation of what happens when you don’t consume enough calories. There are many complex systems and pathways that are affected by decreased calorie consumption.)


How do you know if you are at your setpoint? Your setpoint is the weight you maintain when you are listening to your hunger and fullness cues. It is the weight you maintain when you are not dieting fixating on food/exercise and it is the weight you return to between diets. Look at your family, your aunts, uncles, grandparents, and parents. You have their genes and your body type will probably be similar to their body types.


You are probably NOT at your setpoint if:

· You are purposefully restricting your food intake (regardless of whether or not you are losing weight).

· You aren’t feeling or listening to hunger and fullness cues.

· You are cutting out food groups or following a specific eating regime to stay at a certain weight.

· You are female and you don’t have a period or have infrequent periods.

· You routinely use food as a coping mechanism and eat beyond a comfortable level of fullness regularly.

· You are over-exercising in order to maintain a certain weight.


A lot of people have some general idea of where their body’s true setpoint is. However, if you have been dieting for years, or dieting since you were very young, you may not know your body’s setpoint. It can take months to years for your body to recover from extreme dieting or an eating disorder and find its setpoint. But as you practice Intuitive Eating and learn to tune in to your body, your weight will fall within your setpoint range. You don’t need to control your weight! Your body is amazing and will do that for you.


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