Weight setpoint is a topic that comes up in diet/fitness/health circles quite often. If your body has a natural weight setpoint that it defends, is there a point in trying to change your weight? Will you end up back at your setpoint no matter what you do?
There is no question that calorie balance is the ultimate determinant of weight. Every metabolic ward study ever conducted confirms this. While different kinds of calories and different conditions can affect how many calories you consume and burn, in the end that balance is what determines your weight. Lyle McDonald wrote an excellent piece on this, so I will simply link to his rather than reinvent the wheel (although I’ve discussed this myself, here and here).
Additionally, there is ample evidence that roughly 20% of dieters are able to reduce their weight and maintain the loss long term. This review looked at several studies on the subject of long-term weight loss maintenance as well as the members of the National Weight Control Registry. If some people DO lose weight and keep it off, there is more to this setpoint theory than meets the eye.
What’s your Sanity Setpoint?
There are a few common behaviors that tie the people who are successful at maintaining weight loss together. I don’t think the specifics of those behaviors are really what is important (they are: reduced calorie and fat intake, regular exercise and eating breakfast daily – I know lots of people who’ve successfully lost weight and kept it off who don’t do all of those things). I think what is really important is that they all made permanent changes to their behavior.
I propose that it is their new behaviors, and not their new weight, that is the real setpoint.
Rather than focusing on a goal weight, or weight at all, perhaps it would be better to focus on goal behaviors. This is something I have talked about numerous times before (here, here, here, here). Systematically change your behavior, and over time your new behaviors will change your body.
So what is your sanity setpoint? It’s the level of behavior change that you can sustain comfortably, indefinitely. Perhaps exercising for 90 minutes a day six days a week and eating 1500 calories a day of chicken breast and broccoli (behaviors that will support a low goal weight, depending on numerous factors) is too extreme for you to maintain long term. Perhaps a more moderate approach, that is more sustainable, but that will support a slightly higher weight, is more realistic. Your sanity setpoint is the range of behaviors that you can incorporate into your lifestyle consistently and remain sane and happy.
For me, the behaviors that I am able to maintain consistently, and without undue stress, support a weight of between 165 and 170 pounds. I can, and have, gotten lower than this in scale weight, but I could not sustain it without making some serious quality of life sacrifices. The costs to my mental and physical health outweighed the positive effects of staying at that weight (most of which were social, not health-related).
All of our behaviors are shaped by the complicated interplay of cost and reward we experience. Focus on creating behaviors for which the rewards outweigh the costs, so that you set yourself up to maintain those behaviors long term.
Change your behavior and your body will follow.
Learn to change your behavior systematically and sustainably. The Habit Project was created by the pioneers of habit-based coaching and is one of the only Body Positive habit-based coaching programs in the industry. Join the Habit Project today.
Well put. All the ways my body has changed (in both appearance and health) are the result of habits – those fad diets gave me absolutely no lasting results…unless you count a disordered view of food and self-worth, but even that’s changing as healthy thought habits replace old ones.
It all comes back to something that took me over 2 decades to learn: There is more to life than our bodies and our physical health. Both are important, very much so, but not the MOST important.
For the last week or so I’ve been eating MAD DONUTS. This is unusual, because I never even used to like donuts, even when I was a kid… I found the sugar content to be a bit sickening. Anyway, for the last many years I’ve struggled to come to grips with my weight, and this has distorted my relationship to food. When I was a healthy, active, wiry little kid, all tree-climbing and double-decker-sandwich-eating, I never cared about what I ate so long as I enjoyed it. All these years, I’ve been wishing I could get back to that lean, active, high metabolic rate body that I had naturally as a kid. But what I really want is the feeling of “I don’t give a fuck as long as I’m enjoying myself.”
So I’ve been eating donuts. And I haven’t gained a single pound. Take that!
I am counting calories (was counting macros, but got tired of it), but it’s much more relaxed and less crazy than feeling anxious about what I’m eating all the time. And I don’t go too low just to make my weight loss go faster. I’m tired of that! It’s too full of deprivation energy, and I just can’t do that. I want to consume the world, not hold myself back from it! I want to eat donuts and crepes and ice cream and thai iced coffee! I want to eat bacon and avocado and mashed potatoes and gravy! I just don’t want to feel bloated and gross all the time, and I think as long as I listen to when my body tells me when to stop, I’ll be fine.
Thanks so much for your very grounded approach to all this, it’s very reassuring!
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This is why I love your blog, and it is one of the only blogs I can read after recognizing, and getting help for, my disordered relationship with food. I stepped on the scale today and I have not gained or lost a single ounce in the last few months. Oh how happy my body must be now that it is being listened to and respected after almost a decade of battles. I am currently EXACTLY the midpoint of the 20 pounds I gained and lost over the last ten years. It seems I have found my setpoint AND my sanity setpoint. It is a beautiful pace to be.
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