Way way back in my history of dieting, the early 80s in fact, in the days when I was reading every new diet book that came along, I remember reading about set point theory.
This is the idea that your body has a weight it likes to be. That weight is determined both by genetics and the food supply. I suspect there’s also an epigenetic effect in that the food supply your mother had access to is also coded into your own gene expression.
Your body micro-manages itself around that setpoint. So if you are in a phase of eating a lot of calories, say when you’re on holiday, your body will speed up its metabolic rate to use up the extra calories so your weight will stay stable.
And if you’re in a phase of eating fewer calories, say you’re in a mega intense phase at work, your body will slow down your metabolic rate so your weight will stay stable.
So goes the theory.
You probably remember that the aerobics craze really kicked in in the late 70s and ramped up from there. So did jogging. And we had two new industries: scientific-sounding running shoes, and gyms where we’d go to do the amazing variants of aerobic exercise. All that extra movement was about maintaining or increasing our metabolic rate while we were trying to lose weight.
My own experience with setpoint as I’ve aged and experienced various health problems is what’s shaping the rest of this post.
After I went on the Pill at 19, my weight took a leap of about 8kg. I was very thin pre-Pill, an Aussie size 9. That great weight leap is what prompted me to go on my first ‘official’ diet, the Pritikin Diet. I didn’t know it then, but what happened next was normal for a diet – I lost weight for a few weeks, then the weight loss stopped. That’s when I got interested in set point theory. I joined the gym at my University and went to my first aerobics class.
Of course I look at the photos now and I can see I was thin. I was also 19 years old and hadn’t yet reached my full adult growth, that happens around age 22. But I didn’t know that until years and many more ‘failed’ diets later.
And somehow during the 80s, people just stopped talking about set point.
But the idea was in the back of my mind during those years I was dutifully weighing myself regularly to make sure I was thin enough, or to beat myself up when my weight seemed to spiral out of control.
Because what I noticed was that every time my weight changed, always taking a leap upwards as something significant changed in my life – like my first pregnancy – it stayed at around the same weight without me having to do anything about it.
After my partial thyroidectomy in the early 1990s, my weight took another leap upwards, and no matter what I did to increase my movement or reduce my calorie intake, there it stayed. I’d like to give numbers but I just can’t remember them, maybe I’ve blotted them out 🙂 I know I went from a size 12 to a size 14.
Six months after the thyroid surgery I had a car accident and was left with a whiplash injury. I had a huge amount of emotional stress around all that, I didn’t seem injured and yet I couldn’t pick up my small children, I couldn’t do my gym routines, I looked fine but was pretty much immobilised for three years until I found Bowen therapy and finally healed the injury. Again, my weight took a great leap upward and I was wearing a size 16, and stayed there no matter what I did to shift it down again, and there I am to this day.
If you’ve read anything else on this site, clearly I no longer fight my body, but have learned to honour and nurture it. I do know that since I’ve followed the Health At Every Size principles, I’ve been happier with all of me than ever before, I’ve really learned to love and accept myself and switch off that bitchy inner critic. That is the most important thing we can do for ourselves as women, regardless of our size, in my opinion.
Would my weight have stayed lower if I’d not dieted? I don’t think anyone can answer that, that’s not where the research dollars are.
But I’m pretty convinced about the body’s setpoint, and how the body micromanages thousands of little processes that we’re only beginning to discover – we don’t know what we don’t know, you know? – to maintain its weight.
I’ve watched for news on setpoint over the years and there hasn’t been much that’s made it to the mainstream. Until the last few days, what I’ve known about setpoint is this:
when you reach a new weight, you need to maintain the weight for about 9 months for the body to accept the new setpoint and maintain it easily.
So think about that in the context of diets, and you’ll see why it’s so hard to maintain weight loss. You get to ‘goal weight’, and your body’s still fixed on a higher setpoint, and for nine months it will work to get back there. Then one day it switches to the new lower setpoint.
That’s what I’ve believed.
In the last few days I’ve come across the work of Seth Roberts, a psychology professor who is known for his self-experimentation. The work I’m interested in is of course his work on setpoint and how we can easily reset our own setpoint using food. I’ll be trying out his theories during the next few weeks.
If anyone is interested in my results please post a comment, if I get ten comments I’ll post regular updates as I go.