How many times have you heard about a dieter losing a ton of weight, only to gain most, if not all, of it back?
This isn’t because they stopped dieting and lost control (...though, sometimes that is the case), this isn't because they had major set backs, this is because they stopped dieting and went back to their set points.
What are set points? They are the weight range and body build in which your body is programmed to reach in order to function optimally, and they are hard pills for many dieters to swallow.
Much like how you have no say over your height, hair color, or eye color, you have no say over your set-points. Set points are biologically and genetically determined. They exist to keep the body balanced and healthy as it fights to maintain that type of “homeostasis” through weight and shape.
A great example of a set point is body temperature. If our internal temperature goes above or below 98.6 degrees fahrenheit (from, say, the flu or cold exposure), there are a variety of mechanisms that kick in to regulate it and return the body to its normal temperature. The same goes for when we go above or below our weight/build set points- the body will fight to go back to and maintain its “normal” weight and “normal” shape.
This is why dieters often have a hard time maintaining their losses, and it is also why some manage to keep all the weight off or never completely return to where they started. Those that are able to healthily maintain a lower weight were likely above their set points when they started their diets, those unable to healthily maintain tried to diet down too much (I’m looking at you, fitness competitors and chronic dieters…).
In regards to fitness competitors, it is relatively common knowledge that your “stage” body/leanness is not attainable year-round. This is because a stage body is a body pushed way below its set points. Stage bodies come about through very low percentages of body-fat, which, in return can make both your build and bathroom scale appear differently. In the short-term, this isn’t too big of an issue; however, for those that move from one competition prep to another to another, or don’t ever reverse diet out of their deficits-- or just chronic dieters in general-- keeping yourself below your set points for prolonged periods is certainly not healthy and often results in metabolic and hormonal damage (adaptivity).
This metabolic/hormonal damage, or adaptivity, occurs due to the body’s attempt to keep you alive and healthy. While its first effort is to bring your body fat percentage back up and restore your build/weight set points, if you’re now allowing this to happen due to low calories and/or high cardio, then the body takes to its next set of defense.
Plan B is adapting whatever it can from within to preserve energy and keep you alive! The metabolism slows down in order to do this. As well, your body will begin reducing the number of calories you burn to conserve as much energy as possible. Your hormones will become unbalanced, shutting down some that the body doesn’t deem completely necessary and ramping up others. Your appetite will pick up making you hungrier and your food cravings will increase as your body tries to coerce you into eating more. Your body enters “starvation mode” and, thus, “metabolic damage” occurs.
Thankfully, this “damage” can typically be undone with time and patience. Allow the body to return to its natural set points and de-stress it as much as possible for as long as possible, and the metabolism and hormones will adapt, reset, and balance out again.
Does all this mean we’re screwed for permanently changing our bodies as they’ll just reset eventually? Not necessarily…
While our genetics may play a large role in our set-points, they play lesser of one when it comes to body composition and overall metabolism. Through healthy diet and exercise, we can completely change our body comps and boost our metabolisms!
- Genetically narrow shoulders? Lift and eat appropriately and progressively gain size on them!
- Genetically got a “pancake butt” in a world longing for perfect glutes? Target your training, change up your eating, and grow those glutes!
- Genetically bigger thighs/legs? Make the most of that strength during your leg days and build lean muscle for more shapely legs!
- Metabolism rather slow? Gradually increase it through your food and lifestyle choices.
- Metabolism stalling out? Take a diet break, training break, or deload period-- or maybe all you need is a structured “refeed” day (my personal favorite days)!
You see what I mean?? You are not forever doomed because of your body’s “happy places”, aka set-points, but you will cause more harm than good if you choose to neglect those.
Set points are there, they are real and they must be accepted to avoid health complications and metabolic damage, but remember- you are still in control of how you look and feel with that predetermined weight range and build. Utilize healthy diet and exercise choices to change up your body composition and fire up your metabolism all while your insides maintain homeostasis.
Work with your body, not against it- that is how you will look and FEEL your best!
...and to really hammer it home, an old Instagram post about the subject: