Setpoint refers to the weight at which your body functions optimally. Think of it like the weight at which your body wants to be—and if your body falls below this weight, your body gets messages to return you to a higher weight. This weight range is primarily genetically determined and will be different for different people of the same height.
Just like eye color and height, body weight is primarily influenced by our genetics. And just as not everyone at the same height has the same shoe size, they will not have the same body weight or shape.
Your setpoint may be higher than you desire. This is the case for many people with bulimia and atypical anorexia. Given our culture’s obsession with thinness, most people will not fall into the most societally-desired weight range. This can be hard to accept and believe because the weight loss industry tries to convince us that we can control our weight.
Food is one of our five basic needs, and your body will engage in several mechanisms to defend itself from starving to death. Falling below your setpoint will trigger these mechanisms. While this may feel like an overreaction in today’s food-rich environment, for most of human history, starvation was a real threat. When you lose weight, your metabolism slows down and your body burns less energy. When you go below your setpoint, you will likely also experience increased appetite and preoccupation with food. The hormone leptin, which sends satiety signals to the brain, is believed to play a role in this process. Studies indicate that individuals who have lost a lot of weight have lower levels of leptin. For these reasons, there is a strong biological predisposition to regain lost weight.
How do I Know My Body’s Setpoint?
You will know you are at your body’s setpoint when you are eating a variety of foods regularly throughout the day. This means eating all food groups and not intentionally restricting, limiting sweets, or following diet rules. It may include engaging in movement that is not excessive and is enjoyable and sustainable. You are at your setpoint when you are living life—going out for drinks with friends, having cupcakes for your niece’s birthday, and sleeping in on the weekends.
You are at your body’s setpoint when you do not easily gain or lose weight. If you go on vacation and gain 8 pounds in a week, you were likely not at your setpoint. Your body will defend your setpoint. Your setpoint should be easy to maintain. Other signs that you are at your setpoint: you are not obsessive about food, you eat spontaneously, and you don’t compensate for eating with exercise.
Can I Change My Body’s Setpoint (Lower it)?
Despite what the diet industry wants us to believe, this has not proven possible. Sure, people can engage in a diet and lose weight in the short term, but research shows that diets overwhelmingly fail and that most people gain back the weight lost plus more. The success stories you hear of are statistically rare. These people usually make it their life’s work to maintain weight loss, becoming fitness instructors or diet influencers who center their lives around limiting food and exercising intensively, and promoting it to others. It can be hard to accept that you don’t have as much control over your body’s weight as society tells us.
Setpoints can sometimes change due to life circumstances such as having a baby, menopause, a global pandemic, etc. Of course, the environment does influence our setpoint. If you moved from your city desk job to a job as a farm laborer, you might, over time lose weight in that environment. But as soon as you come back to your desk job, your body weight would likely return to its previous weight. Similarly, you might temporarily lose some weight while training for a marathon. However, the weight will likely come back after you’re done training. It’s kind of like trying to hold down a ball underwater. As soon as you stop exerting control, it pops back up to the surface. You will likely find that your body is pretty stubborn about defending its setpoint.
This is one of the great challenges of our work. There is a narrative about intuitive eating that suggests that if everyone eats intuitively, they will be their thinnest possible selves. This is really fiction; many people when they eat intuitively will be larger than they desire. If your body is bigger it does not mean you are doing anything wrong or eating too much; it just means this is where your body wants to be.
Just as you accept other characteristics about yourself that you may not prefer (maybe you are not as wealthy or as quick-witted or as tall as you wish you were), you can learn to accept your body weight. Yes, it’s hard to live in a society that tells us our value is tied to our size and it’s definitely harder when you live in a fat body.
A strong HAES-aligned professional team can help you to get off the dieting bandwagon and work towards body acceptance. We recognize that bodies are diverse. If your body is bigger than you want it to be or at a higher weight than societal standards, we understand. We recognize that weight stigma is real and that you may encounter societal barriers and discrimination. Some of our clinicians are living at higher weights; we all are sensitive to these issues. We try to be upfront about not being able to override your body’s setpoint. We hope to help you work towards peace and acceptance and live a full life in whatever body is the one at your setpoint.