Weight Set Point Theory vs. BMI & other measures of "Ideal Weight"
Between travel, playing catch-up with responsibilities when home from travel, the holidays coming up, and making just enough time for some blog posts about events I have coming up, other random updates, and some insights into my personal journey with health and wellness, there haven’t been a lot of informative posts lately about why exactly I believe so strongly in the intuitive approach to eating and movement that I promote. So here is a big one: weight set point theory!
Weight set point theory, in my most simple explanation is the idea that each person’s body has a weight or a range of weights (for some people this can be a narrow range like 5lbs. difference, but for others, this comfortable range for their body can be wider, and they can fluctuate more easily or rapidly within this range) where it will naturally fall into and drift back towards when the individual is in fairly normal circumstances (not extreme stress), is eating and moving fairly intuitively, and is not restricting or over-exercising (yes there is such a thing) to try to manipulate or control their weight.
If you look at the statistics, somewhere between 91-99% of people who diet to lose weight gain all of the weight back that they initially lost or more weight than they initially lost over time. Dieting does not work to lose weight or to improve health longterm. This is because of weight set point theory; your body has a certain weight range it likes to be in, where it feels and functions the best, and when you try to manipulate the way you eat and exercise to get your body to a lower weight, your body perceives this restriction, though intentional and self-imposed, the same as it perceives restriction induced by outside circumstances like famine/starvation. Your body is simply trying to save you from what it perceives as dangerous, and often times the stress from everyday circumstances or the stress (or guilt/shame from “failed” restriction; I put failed in quotations because your body is supposed to make it nearly mentally impossible to voluntarily starve yourself) from restriction itself can convince your body even further that something awful like a famine must be happening and therefore you body needs to be even more careful to hold onto fat in order to protect you from dying of starvation. This is why repeated attempts to diet and lose weight have been show to often actually move your body’s weight set point up over time because you body sees a reoccurring issue and wants to protect you more from it in the future. Your body is really trying very hard to help.
In fact weight cycling (defined as repeated drastic changes to your weight over time) is shown to be a bigger health risk than simply existing at a weight with a BMI considered “overweight” or “obese” for your entire life (I put these words in quotations because of the stigmatization of larger or “fat” bodies in the medical field creates a decrease in the quality of care these individuals receive and adds to the burden of oppression those in larger bodies face in our society which can lead to more negative health outcomes). Granted BMI as a measure of individual health is complete crap anyways. You probably know some of the reasons: because it is simply a ratio of weight to height and does not take into account what percentage of this weight is muscle vs. how much is fat… BUT did you know that BMI was originally meant to simply be a population measure for research purposes to look at one group compared to another, and then insurance companies got ahold of this and decided it would be a good way to risk stratify individuals to decide how much to charge them for insurance, and bam, now it’s hard to see a medical professional without a BMI calculation being done on you that stratifies you into categories like “underweight,” “normal weight,” “overweight,” and “obese” that actually have little to nothing to do with what your actual health outcomes will be because it doesn’t take into account your genetics, your environment, your health habits, or your own individualized weight set point where your body is happiest!? And then this simple calculation that actually tells us nothing about more important measures like your blood pressure, your cardiovascular fitness, values from your bloodwork etc. causes physicians to recommend you eat less and exercise more without them really even knowing or often not even asking what your current habits look like right now!! But I digress, this is a rant for another time…
More resources and information on weight set point theory:
First off, here is a research summary of our current scientific understanding of weight set point theory:
And here is an explanation from Linda Bacon, creator of the Healthy At Every Size protocol from her book that breaks things down a little more helpfully. I have included a couple screenshots from the below link to draw you attention to some important points:
And, if you’re having trouble making sense of this all in relation to what you’ve been told about weight your entire life, here are some links that further explain the starvation response and metabolism in response to dieting from one of my favorites for putting lofty concepts that probably contradict most of what you’ve been told your entire life into lames terms Caroline Dooner!
Additionally, there will be a post in the near future on one of my absolute favorite topics, The Minnesota Starvation Experiment!! Hearing about this experiment (which would no longer be ethical to repeat by today’s standards), though it was not done to examine the body’s response to intentional dieting/restriction, was one of the biggest lightbulb moments I’ve had in my journey of learning about Healthy At Every Size, an anti-diet approach, and fat positivity.
If you’re having trouble with understanding weight set point theory, want to hear more about why BMI is a crap measure of individual health, want to learn more about the stigmatization of larger bodies in the medical/health field and how this actually has a measurable negative effect on health outcomes and the quality of care given by medical/health professionals, or want to understand more about how stress can convince your body that it needs to slow metabolism and increase weight, check out Linda Bacon’s books Body Respect and Healthy at Every Size. Her explanations are much more concise and insightful than mine, and her books are chock full of research that can help convince you that maybe just maybe the “factual information” you’ve been fed your whole life about weighing more always meaning being less healthy is really crap promoted to sell more products and services.
Last off, here is a post from my personal instagram about my experience as a fitness professional and how weight set point comes into play in the way my body has changed (or not) over time and the way people perceive fitness professionals and our habits:
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I’ve been seeing more discussion of this topic recently in body acceptance circles, and I want to reinforce this concept with some of my personal experience. Many of the people selling you health and wellness and nutrition advice and exercise routines would naturally look pretty similar to the way they currently do without any of this stuff they claim you need to look like them. Even when I was doing the most I ever have to manipulate how my body looked (over-exercising and under-eating), I didn’t look too drastically different from how I do now. Skinnier yes, but my body type was very similar no matter how hard I tried to change the proportions. Even when I sometimes go weeks without a structured workout in sight (granted I generally move a lot simply because my body likes to be active outside of structured movement) and pay no attention to eating my vegetables, I stay pretty close to my current weight (due to weight set point theory, where your body likes to maintain homeostasis at a certain weight or range of weights were your body feels most comfortable and happy and healthy). Yes, my body has changed over the years; I am stronger and more capable than I have ever been, BUT my body is still mostly the same aesthetically. Over time I have learned to accept the things about my body that I sometimes do not like and cannot change (or will not suffer the mental health impact to make the unrealistic shifts to change and keep them changed) and love the things that I can. Because this is me. This is my body. It’s the only one I have, and when I listen to it, we are both better off for it. So don’t ever buy into a habit because you want to be more like someone else; it’s not going to magically give you their body & it may not even work to make you feel healthier. Listen to your body & find the habits that work for you to feel cared for and stronger. And throw out the ones that don’t because they just may not be for you. Give your body a gift this holiday season & STOP TRYING TO CHANGE IT INTO SOMETHING IT IS NOT & LOVE IT FOR ALL THAT IT IS & CAN DO. Rant over. Go move your body with love today. #EPBfit #acacHealthCoaching #IntuitiveEatingacac @acaccville
And, on a sort of unrelated note but in the same vein of my approach to health and wellness, here are some other resource bits and bobs I recommend you check out:
A post about my and Pam’s upcoming workshops on acaccville’s Instagram page:
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Mindful eating: the practice of slowing down to really taste and enjoy your food, slowing down to notice hunger and fullness cues as well as other sensations in your body surrounding the practice of eating. Utilitarian eating: eating simply for fuel and to temporarily satiate hunger so that you can focus on other tasks; eating what is available or easy without guilt, shame, or ideas about good vs. bad foods getting in the way. Come to our next workshop on Intuitive Eating on Saturday, January 4th from 9am-12noon in the acac Albemarle Square conference room to learn how both of these practices can be a part of your intuitive eating toolbox to reduce stress and bring enjoyment back to the experience of eating. #IntuitiveEatingacac #acacHealthCoaching Contact @curiouscoachPam at email@example.com and @eehpuhbuh at firstname.lastname@example.org for information on cost and to sign up!
And finally, Pam’s third blog post, which, if I’m being honest is my absolute favorite one so far and discusses a point I think more people could use hearing and thinking about in regards to nutrition and health: https://acac.com/pamelafinney/blog/food-restriction-in-the-name-of-healthy-eating/
Thanks for sticking with this post until the end! <3