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Mar 07, 2022
5 min read

Set point theory: what is it, and does it affect your weight?

Set point theory suggests your body will try to maintain your weight within a preferred range by adjusting metabolism and appetite. However, some people believe this theory is too simple and doesn’t consider the influence genetics, environment, habits, and other factors have on weight.

Disclaimer

If you have any medical questions or concerns, please talk to your healthcare provider. The articles on Health Guide are underpinned by peer-reviewed research and information drawn from medical societies and governmental agencies. However, they are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

For those who follow weight loss plans, some studies show that most people regain over half of the lost weight within two years and 80% of the lost weight within five years (Hall, 2019).

Some people believe that set point theory—when your body tries to maintain a preferred weight range—could explain why people regain the weight they lost. 

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What is set point theory?

Set point theory suggests if you gain or lose weight, you’ll slowly return to a normal set range because your body prefers to be “set” at a certain weight. 

The theory states the human body will try to maintain this preferred weight range by controlling its energy balance through the use of various biological controls. These biological controls can impact your hunger, metabolism, and energy expenditure (Muller, 2018). 

For example, within set point theory, if you suddenly start eating fewer calories, your body responds by increasing your appetite and slowing down how quickly you burn through fuel. And if you start eating more food, your body changes its hunger hormones, like ghrelin and leptin, to lower how much food you eat.

So far, the evidence behind set point theory is based on observational studies.

Can your set point change?

According to set point theory, yes, your set point can change. The theory suggests that your set point weight can slowly move up or down and adjust to a new set point range. So you may be able to reset your set point to a lower natural weight to reach a healthy weight and body mass index (BMI)

People who follow set point theory suggest losing a small amount of weight and then maintaining that lower point for a while in order to reset your set point to that weight. Then, you can follow the process again until you reach your ideal body weight. 

Set point theory, starvation, and weight gain

If set point theory regulates your weight, you may be wondering why some people continue to gain weight as they get older. This may be because of changes in how humans have evolved and adapted over the centuries. 

Some research suggests that people who have experienced stressors like famines and food shortages may have physiologic responses that are more protective against weight loss and starvation—leading them to store more energy in fat cells or adipose tissue so that they can use that energy when there isn’t enough food (Stubbs, 2021). 

The body may perceive starvation as a more immediate risk for health than the long-term complications associated with having excess weight or obesity. So, this could be why the human body has more effective responses to protect against weight loss. However, the evidence is inconclusive, so it’s unclear whether this theory is accurate. 

Some researchers believe the body more tightly regulates the number of calories you burn than how much food you eat—meaning your body is more likely to lower your metabolic rate to prevent starvation than it is to rigidly control your energy intake (Muller, 2018).  

Does science debunk set point theory?

Researchers have different opinions about the impacts of set point theory. It may partially explain how your body regulates body fat, but there are holes in the theory, because it doesn’t fully explain weight fluctuations seen in different stages of life and conditions like (Speakman, 2011):

  • Unhealthy weight loss in people with eating disorders
  • Weight gain in college
  • Weight gain after marriage
  • Higher weight after moving to Western countries
  • Having a lower socioeconomic status (a known risk factor for weight gain and obesity)

Some people believe it’s not a useful way to approach maintaining a healthy weight because of the limited evidence and lack of practical steps for controlling weight within the theory.

Many factors influence how much you weigh, including stress, sleep, genetics, environment, and habits. It’s not fully understood how much of a role each of these factors plays and why it’s more challenging for some people to maintain a healthy weight than others. However, an alternative theory called the settling point model attempts to tie these factors together.

Weight loss surgery and set point

Weight loss surgery could be more effective at lowering your set point than traditional weight loss methods. 

A 2016 animal study found that mice who had undergone surgery returned to their new lower body weight even after being overfed. The study suggested surgery effectively lowered their preferred set point and controlled hunger hormone levels (Hao, 2016). 

A cohort study looked at the long-term effects of bypass surgery in humans. It found people who underwent surgery experienced more significant long-term weight loss than people who didn’t have weight loss surgery (Maciejewski, 2016).

However, the success of surgery depends on several physical and mental health factors. Weight loss surgery is most successful when combined with diet, physical activity, and other lifestyle changes (Knuth, 2014).

If you’re considering bariatric surgery, be sure to discuss all the potential benefits and risks with your healthcare provider.

Set point theory: the bottom line

There is still a lot we don’t know about why weight is more challenging for some people to manage than others and why weight shifts over time. Likely, habits, genetics, stress, hormones, and environmental factors all play a role. 

If you’re experiencing challenges with your weight, you’re not alone. Don’t hesitate to reach out to your healthcare provider, a registered dietitian, or support groups for help with weight management.

References

  1. Hall, K. D. & Kahan, S. (2018). Maintenance of lost weight and long-term management of obesity. The Medical Clinics of North America, 102(1), 183–197. doi: 10.1016/j.mcna.2017.08.012. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5764193/ 
  2. Hao, Z., Mumphrey, M. B., Morrison, C. D., Münzberg, H., Ye, J., & Berthoud, H. R. (2016). Does gastric bypass surgery change body weight set point?. International Journal of Obesity Supplements, 6(Suppl 1), S37–S43. doi: 10.1038/ijosup.2016.9. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5485884/ 
  3. Knuth, N. D., Johannsen, D. L., Tamboli, R. A., Marks-Shulman, P. A., Huizenga, R., Chen, K. Y., et al. (2014). Metabolic adaptation following massive weight loss is related to the degree of energy imbalance and changes in circulating leptin. Obesity, 22(12), 2563–2569. doi: 10.1002/oby.20900. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4236233/ 
  4. Maciejewski, M. L., Arterburn, D. E., Van Scoyoc, L., Smith, V. A., Yancy, W. S., Jr, Weidenbacher, H. J., et al. (2016). Bariatric surgery and long-term durability of weight loss. JAMA Surgery, 151(11), 1046–1055. doi: 10.1001/jamasurg.2016.2317. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27579793/
  5. Müller, M. J., Geisler, C., Heymsfield, S. B., & Bosy-Westphal, A. (2018). Recent advances in understanding body weight homeostasis in humans. F1000Research, 7. doi: 10.12688/f1000research.14151.1. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6039924/ 
  6. Speakman, J. R., Levitsky, D. A., Allison, D. B., Bray, M. S., de Castro, J. M., Clegg, D. J., et al. (2011). Set points, settling points and some alternative models: theoretical options to understand how genes and environments combine to regulate body adiposity. Disease Models & Mechanisms, 4(6), 733–745. doi: 10.1242/dmm.008698. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3209643/ 
  7. Stubbs, R. J. & Turicchi, J. (2021). From famine to therapeutic weight loss: Hunger, psychological responses, and energy balance-related behaviors. Obesity Reviews: An Official Journal of the International Association for the Study of Obesity, 22 Suppl 2, e13191. doi: 10.1111/obr.13191. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33527688/