What Is Your ‘Set Point Weight’? Here’s How To Gauge It—And Why a Doctor Says You’ll Want To
Trying to lose weight? An obesity doctor says it’s not your imagination: In some cases, your body really may be fighting you.
Are you trying to lose weight but it feels like your body is working against you? As a doctor of obesity medicine, I know well that even after you make all the right changes, the scale still may not budge…which is f-r-u-s-t-r-a-t-i-n-g. Those stubborn pounds could be because everyone has what’s known as a “set point weight,” and that set point weight doesn’t like to be messed with. Set point weight also explains why your body fights so hard to keep you from losing weight.
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What is set point theory—and what does it have to do with weight loss?
Set point theory—or set point weight—is simply the idea that there’s a weight range your body favors in order to perform optimally. Your body will try really hard to stick to this weight range, which research shows is determined by your genetics, hormones, and environment. According to this theory, your body will fight to stay at its set point by slowing down metabolism, which helps explain why losing weight is challenging.
Traditional weight loss methods don’t address these biological factors and can be unsuccessful as a result. But comprehensive programs that include medical and behavioral support are proving to be effective at helping people work with their biology for losing weight.
Here are some reasons your body fights weight loss:
Your genes influence your set point weight
Your set point weight is largely rooted in genetics. Science shows that the percentage of obesity determined by genes is 40% to 70%. And according to a study looking at factors that impact body weight, it’s also likely that parents pass their set point weight down to their children. This doesn’t mean you’re doomed, however. Research has shown that your lifestyle and environment can “turn on” the genes associated with weight. Adopting healthy habits could help you manage it.
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Your hormones can also stall your weight loss
When you’re trying to lose weight, restricting calories isn’t the only answer. In fact, extreme calorie restriction can signal your body—via certain hormones—to go into “starvation” mode. In turn, your metabolism slows, and hunger signals increase to bring you back to your set point. Here’s more about those hormones:
- Ghrelin is a hunger hormone that lets you know when it’s time to eat. Research shows that ghrelin increases substantially when you’re in “starvation” mode. Meaning you’ll feel hungrier and probably eat more.
- Leptin, on the other hand, signals when you’ve had enough to eat. People with obesity have elevated leptin levels, often resulting in leptin resistance. This means that your body isn’t as sensitive to leptin, and therefore, you’ll have trouble feeling full even after eating.
- Cortisol, known as the stress hormone, also affects your metabolism and, therefore, your set point weight. When you’re under chronic stress, cortisol levels may be consistently elevated, slowing your metabolism. (Elevated cortisol levels are also associated with extra visceral fat.)
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Life stages shift your set point weight
A woman’s set point weight shifts through certain life stages: Pregnancy, childbirth, and menopause. During all three, the body goes through many changes, and it may store more or less fat for what your body interprets as biological survival purposes.
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Can you change your set point weight?
No, you can’t change your set point weight—but that doesn’t mean you have no options.
As a medical doctor, I can note that prescription weight-loss medication can disrupt the physiological processes that you don’t have control over. For example, a recent study found that almost 50% of participants who made lifestyle changes and took weight-loss medication lost an average of at least 10 percent of their weight—and kept it off for up to five years. After speaking with your doctor, pairing the right medication with healthy habits can help you reach your goals.
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- Source: Müller, M. J., Bosy-Westphal, A., & Heymsfield, S. B. (2010). Is there evidence for a set point that regulates human body weight?. F1000 medicine reports, 2, 59. https://doi.org/10.3410/M2-59 2. Source: Weintraub, M. A., D’Angelo, D., Tchang, B. G., Sahagun, A. D., Andre, C., Aronne, L. J., & Shukla, A. P. (2023b). Five-year Weight Loss Maintenance With Obesity Pharmacotherapy. The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism. https://doi.org/10.1210/clinem/dgad100
- Source: Müller, M. J., Geisler, C., Heymsfield, S. B., & Bosy-Westphal, A. (2018). Recent advances in understanding body weight homeostasis in humans. F1000Research, 7, F1000 Faculty Rev-1025. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6039924/