Is our weight fixed at a "set point"?


Does each of us have a fixed “set point” for weight?

This week I have been asked by three separate people about whether we have a “set point” for weight. The idea of a set point has entered the debate about weight and to what extent we can permanently lose weight, but confusion surrounds the issue. I hope to throw some light on this here.

In 1982 Bennett and Gurin set out to explain why diets so often fail in their book “The Dieter’s Dilemma”. Their argument was that no matter what diet you try, it is doomed to fail because your body has a certain “set point” which is a level of fatness that is biologically natural for you. They argued that no diet can alter a set point but that exercise may be able to lower it and help you keep lost weight off.

It certainly is the case that diets don’t help most people achieve a new set point.
It is also the case that taking up regular exercise permanently would offer a way to alter set point because you would regularly be using more energy (calories) than you did when you weren’t exercising.

But exercise is not the only way to change your set point.

Bennett and Gurin arrived at the conclusion they did based on sound medical knowledge, but they did not consider the role of making permanent changes to eating behaviours. From a psychological point of view there is a big piece of Bennett and Gurin’s jigsaw missing:

a person’s weight remains stable because their eating habits remain stable over time.

Those people who lose weight successfully and keep it off over the long term do so because they have adopted new eating habits. These could be the habits of any diet. If you change your eating behaviours permanently, your weight will change and your new weight will become your new set point.

The problem is that the habits required by particular diets are too hard to stick to for most people.

So how can you change your set point?

If you focus on changing your current eating behaviours one step at a time and establish new habits which are sustainable, you will arrive at a new set point. The key is that the new eating behaviours have to be ones that you can stick to.

For this reason, changing in relatively small steps is a better plan that going on a diet in which you overhaul your current eating.

The types of behaviours which tend to contribute to being overweight are eating too much at any one time and eating when you aren’t hungry. When you learn step by step to eat only what you need at any meal and to wait to eat until you are hungry, your weight will start to fall.

Appetite Retraining is an approach to changing your weight “set point” which achieves success by helping you to re-learn to tune in to the natural hunger and fullness signals in the body. As you use these signals to guide when to start and when to stop eating, your eating patterns change for good.

Each stepwise change you make results in you losing whatever amount of weight the old habit led you to hold on to.

For example, Simon’s first behavioural change was to stop eating snacks in the evening after dinner. Once he used guidance from Appetite Retraining on how to stop doing this and how to deal with the anxiety produced by changing this behaviour, he lost 8 pounds over 6 weeks without making any other changes. In effect, snacking in the evening had been holding his set point at 8 pounds higher than it was when he gave up this habit. With occasional one-off lapses, Simon maintained his new weight at his new set point with very little effort because his new habit was not to eat after dinner.

Rachel lost a stone in four months when she stopped eating meals at the point of being just full (instead of her previous habit of eating until being very full). Once she established this new habit, her weight stayed at this new “set point”.

Visit for more information on changing eating behaviours permanently and follow @appetite_doctor on twitter

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