Set Point Theory
Updated: May 9, 2022
By: Rachel Dodson RD, LDN
As the weather gets warmer, it’s a perfect time to have a conversation about set point theory. Sadly this time of year many people, stuck in the toxic cycles of diet culture, are thinking about getting their bodies “summer ready.” Fun fact: your body is already summer ready because your body is not a project.
Maybe you’ve operated most of your life thinking your body was a project, trying to change it or manipulate its size. Think about it like this - if you wear a size 9 shoe, you would never try to squeeze into size 7. Yet we attempt, and sadly may have been encouraged, to do so with our jean size. Rachel Hartley in her book Gentle Nutrition defines your set point range as, “the weight range where your body naturally fluctuates when it’s fed adequately, well taken care of, and getting some movement within its abilities.” Your set point isn’t one specific number, it is a range. So your body by design lives comfortably in a range and in that range, your body actually resists any attempts to be changed or manipulated into a size it wasn’t meant to be. We all go through different seasons of life that look radically different from one another, so why wouldn’t our body weight ebb and flow with the different seasons of life too?
Our set point range is largely determined by genetics. Yes genetics, something we have absolutely no control over, plays a large role in determining our overall build/bone structure/metabolic rate/muscle mass which all impact our body size. We all have different body sizes in the same way some people are taller or shorter than one another.
Our bodies are incredibly resilient. Our bodies actually have mechanisms in place to keep our bodies safely in the weight range they were designed to be at. If your weight dips below your natural set point, your body adjusts your metabolism and appetite in order to conserve energy since you aren’t meeting your daily energy needs - our bodies try to be as efficient as possible when they aren’t receiving adequate amounts of nutrients. Are you sleepy, cold all the time, irritable, preoccupied with food or have an irregular menstrual cycle? Your body may not be getting enough of what it needs. And, if you eat a little more than needed to maintain your body weight, then typically your body temperature will rise and your metabolism speeds up to use the extra energy. Again all of these mechanisms are in place to help our bodies get back to their natural weight range because your body is RESILIENT.
Perhaps you are wondering what role the BMI scale plays in set point theory? The BMI scale is a created measurement that was never intended for medical purposes, but was created by a mathematician as a screening tool for large populations. Research has shown that BMI does not do a good job of assessing health status and one study showed using the BMI scale actually resulted in misdiagnosing over 50% of people as “unhealthy.” BMI does not take into account muscle composition and may prevent someone from receiving accurate care for their true medical conditions. Examples of this may be males with anorexia nervosa going undiagnosed because they may technically fall within the “normal” BMI category. Or someone at a higher weight not getting screened for an eating disorder even with symptoms of malnutrition or reported eating disorder behaviors.
A health at every size (HAES) framework focuses on health, rather than what a person weighs. HAES promotes improved health behaviors for everyone no matter your body size because weight is not a behavior. When someone is engaging in health promoting behaviors, their weight could do 3 things: go up, down, or stay the same. For example, someone may start walking more and quit smoking but their weight stays the same. Research shows a HAES approach to health is associated with statistically and clinically relevant improvements in health. One way HAES was explained, “health at every size encourages people to accept and respect their natural body size, eat flexibly while valuing pleasure and honoring internal cues, and moving joyfully. It does not mean ‘everyone at every body size is healthy,’ that is scientifically untrue. HAES is not an invitation to forsake nutrition, but a pursuit in finding balance.” A balance of the nutrients your body requires that doesn't have to be mentally calculated or exact because all foods fit.
Weight is not always a direct marker of health* Other health markers such as someone’s background, stress levels, their access to food and dietary habits, any underlying health concerns or conditions, their relationship with movement, all matter. Trying to control your weight is a disservice to yourself. Your weight is not as simple as calories in and calories out because humans are not robots. So, how can you stop fighting your body and respect its natural body size?
Treat it with dignity
Dress it in a way that is stylish and comfortable for you
Move it comfortably
Get enough sleep
And please throw out your scale. Your worth as a human being is not determined by the number on the scale. The scale is an external factor that prevents us from tuning into our internal cues, preventing us from learning how to listen to our body's needs. We are all born intuitive eaters, but diet culture slowly drives a wedge between us and trusting our bodies when we become consumed with all the noise. And there are a million reasons why the scale may fluctuate day to day - water retention, release of water, fluid retention (hormones, the weather, sodium intake), or muscle mass.
Set point theory allows you to free up space in your brain for the things in your life that actually matter. You cannot change your genetic make-up in the same way you cannot change your shoe size. Your set point may not match our culture’s ideal aesthetics but as Diana Marlin, RD says, “your body belongs where you are nourishing yourself joyfully.” Your body belongs at the size it is when you are taking care of it - feeding it, nourishing it, moving it in a way that feels good, and when you are saying yes to experiences that enhance your life. Your body is not a project and is the vessel you are able to live out your calling and life purpose. Do something this week that makes you feel at home in your body because your body is AWESOME. It can be hard to respect your natural body size as you navigate diet culture and what seems like never ending weight stigma. If you are struggling and need more help, don’t hesitate to reach out to a non-diet/HAES dietitian or therapist.
*You may be working with a treatment team and weight restoration is part of your treatment. Weight matters in regard to medical stability so please continue to listen to what your treatment team advises for your own personal recovery journey.*
Intuitive Eating by Evelyn Tribole, MS, RDN, CEDRD-S and Elyse Resch, MS, RDN, CEDRD-S, FAND
Sick Enough by Dr. Jennifer Gaudiani, MD, CEDS, FAED
Gentle Nutrition by Rachel Hartley, RD
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Recovered and Restored is an eating disorder therapy center founded by Gabrielle Morreale. We specialize in helping teens and young women heal from eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia, orthorexia, and binge eating disorder and treat disordered eating, anxiety, depression, and PTSD. We provide eating disorder therapy in the towns of Horsham, Upper Gwynedd, Lower Gwynedd, North Wales, Lansdale, Hatfield, Blue Bell, Doylestown, and nearby towns with eating disorder therapy. Also providing virtual eating disorder therapy in New Jersey, Delaware, and Florida. Some towns served virtually but are not limited to Pittsburg, Lancaster, Harrisburg, Center City, Cherry Hill, Haddonfield, Mount Laurel, Cape May, Avalon, Brick, Dover, New Castle, Bethany Beach, Marydel, and Oceanview.