The Set Point Theory: How To Lose Weight For Good
Two years ago, there was a huge article published in the NY Times, which detailed the weight regain that happened to the participants of "The Biggest Loser".
The article looked at former contestants and concluded that almost all of them regained the weight they'd lost on the show.
Two reasons for the drastic weight gain were stated:
1) Resting metabolism decreases (so you burn fewer calories).
2) Hunger and cravings increase, thanks to plummeting levels of leptin, the hormone that controls hunger.
What bothered me at the time about the article wasn't that it was exposing the rate at which these participants regained weight, but that the article made it seem like lasting weight loss was this unachievable feat.
To anyone reading it who might have been contemplating a diet or trying to drop excess body fat, I'm sure it would've been incredibly disheartening.
The truth is that while there are, indeed, people who drop weight only to gain it back, there are ALSO countless people who have lost weight and kept it off.
I'd know, I've helped dozens of them as a coach myself.
But these people didn't lose weight and keep it off by engaging in the extreme measures taken on shows like "The Biggest Loser."
And that's the key.
The dismal views about weight loss in mainstream society are largely the result of the "one dimensional approach" mentality to weight loss, which is that all you need to do is eat less and move more. And when progress stalls, which it inevitably will, just move even more and eat even less. And the bottom line is this strategy may work, in the short term, but there's absolutely no sustainability to it whatsoever. You can only eat so little and move so much.
The successful individuals who have lost weight and kept it off have done it slowly, methodically, and through holistic lifestyle change. Anyone can diet and exercise hard for several weeks, even months and get results. But those who lose weight and keep it off are those who learn to eat healthfully and sustainably, not restrictively.
They don't deprive themselves, they learn to sustain themselves.
They are those who have learned to make exercise a part of their life without making it their WHOLE life.
They use exercise as means by which to build lean muscle and become stronger and better versions of themselves, not to punish their bodies for bad dietary choices.
And they've likely addressed the other areas of their life that contribute to weight loss and general wellbeing such as stress management, sleep duration, sleep quality, hydration, and so on.
You can lose weight.
You can transform your body.
It's just that most people go about it the wrong way, acting out of impatience and impulse rather than logic. I’ve worked with people who have lost a significant amount of weight, but the thing is that most of the time, it happens over the course of years, not months, and certainly not in three to five episodes on a TV show. Weight loss that fast, might be entertaining to watch, and it might ramp up ratings, but any time you utilize methods that extreme, you can't expect the results to last. Which is why so many people regain weight. It's not because losing excessive fat is impossible, it's because they go about it all wrong.
The key to lasting weight loss begins with changing your definition of “success." You have to set aside the desire for instant gratification, accept that it's a process (and not a quick one), and educate yourself on how fat loss actually works.
If you’re patient about it (say, focus on losing 1-2 pounds per week at most), then you’re more likely to keep it off for good. This has been supported over and over by science.
The problem is most people quit before significant weight loss begins to occurs. Initially they may lose a few pounds, which is typically due to a release of water weight and/or a reduction in stomach volume. Initial weight loss usually makes them feel great (rightfully so) but then progress stalls. If progress continues to stall, they get pissed off, and they throw in the towel and write themselves off as simply being unable to lose weight.
The thing is, plateaus, or lulls in progress are an important part of the weight-loss process.
Dropping 1-2 pounds per week is considered healthy, but it’s also the average. That means you might drop 4 lbs one week and then the next week lose nothing. On those weeks, when the scale doesn’t change, don't panic. Plateaus and standstills are a part of losing weight, and once you accept this reality it can change your perception of the process.
This brings me to the discussion of the set point theory, which is a theory I've written about before, and one which works to both your advantage AND your disadvantage.
For starters, your body does not like change. I don’t care who you are; it’s very resistant to anything that takes it out of its comfort zone (a.k.a. homeostasis). When that change occurs—specifically when you try to lose weight—your body does everything in its power to bring you back to a place of homeostasis. Your body does this by making a series of adaptations- such as increasing hunger if you're restricting calories, prompting you to eat more. This is a process known as the "set point theory".
Essentially what this means is your body has a specific set point, or place of balance in which it's reluctant to leave. For some individuals this set point is lean, for others it's not- your set point is influenced by a complex network of physiological, psychological, and social factors
For most of us this set point is not a specific weight, but rather a weight range- for example 125-130lbs. This means that your body will be hesitant to drop below 125 or to go above 130. So when you try to lose weight, or even gain weight, beyond the realm of your body's "set point", the body initiates physiological reactions to KEEP you in the body you’ve known for so long. For example if you're cutting calories to lost weight, the body will increase levels raise ghrelin levels, which is the hormone that induces hunger.
In my opinion, the set-point theory is the reason why so many people fail on long-term weight-loss goals. They simply aren't willing to wait it out while the body adjusts to change before allowing the scale to move again. But if you can hang in there and resist the urge to quit, these changes are temporary and can actually set you up for long term weight loss success.
This is because set points aren't "set" in stone. Your set point can change.
Typically, if you've lost weight using extreme measures, like I discussed above, and not focused on making lasting behavioral or lifestyle changes, then at the conclusion of your "diet" you slowly find yourself reverting back into old habits. The junk food creeps back in, you begin to skip workouts, and so on. And boom- the weight you lost comes RIGHT back on.
This is because you haven't allowed your body time to adjust to its new set point and lock it in. Your body is still struggling to return to your former self, so as soon as you let up and give it the chance, your body will jerk you right back into your previous weight.
People who lose weight, and keep it off, are those who reach their goal weight and then CONTINUE to utilize the healthy habits they learned during their weight loss journey to allow their body time (usually several weeks or so) to adjust to its new set point, and essentially in doing so, they're able to lock in a new body weight. Then you’ll establish a new set point, and your body will respond like that’s your new normal. It doesn’t sound that exciting, but it’s better than you think.
Everyone’s set point is a little different, so there’s not one hard rule for how long you have to wait. The more weight you have to lose (say 50+ plus) USUALLY the quicker or more consistently it can happen without hitting your set point. But if you want to lose less then say 20 lbs, you might hit a wall after the first 10, or even the first 5. This is why so many magazine cover lines read “How to Lose the Last 10 Lbs.” They should really say, “How to Be Patient After You Lose the First 10 Lbs.” But that doesn’t sound as appealing.....
If you go from 200 to 180 pounds or 150 to 130 pounds and wait out the set-point process, your body’s drive to move back to the old weight has changed. It becomes much easier to stay at your current weight because your body no longer thinks it’s outside its comfort zone.
This is why I stated earlier that fat loss or weight loss is never something that occurs miraculously in a month. It happens in phases, with time allowed to lock in those new "set points" along the way.
Yes, there are extreme plans that promise faster results, but if you want your weight loss to LAST then you need to ignore those. Instead focus on what you can do for yourself over the course of the next six months to a year. Make a commitment to the process and resolve to be patient.
Hopefully this blog will help you to understand what the REAL process of fat loss looks like and shed some light on what it means when the scale stagnates or progress stalls. And more than anything, I hope it gives you the willpower to keep pushing and prevents you from being so disappointed or frustrated that you lose motivation to continue.
Remember "what comes easy won't last, and what lasts, won't come easy."