get ready, get set, point

I guess I am at a standstill. I’ve been 140-141 for several months. It’s a happy standstill! I’m not complaining. I’m thrilled to be in my [Weight Watcher’s] weight range and to have lost twenty miserable pounds. However, I do notice my clothes being comfortably loose or slightly snug, though, depending on the amount of exercise I commit to in a period of time.

Years ago my friend Lana told me she had read about the ‘Set-Point’ theory. She said when you are eating healthy and exercising, your body just stops where it is

According to the set-point theory, there is a control system built into every person dictating how much fat he or she should carry – a kind of thermostat for body fat. Some individuals have a high setting, others have a low one.

According to this theory, body fat percentage and body weight are matters of internal controls that are set differently in different people. The set-point theory was originally developed in 1982 by Bennett and Gurin to explain why repeated dieting is unsuccessful in producing long-term change in body weight or shape. Going on a weight-loss diet is an attempt to overpower the set point, and the set point is a seemingly tireless opponent to the dieter.

The ideal approach to weight control would be a safe method that lowers or raises the set point rather than simply resisting it. So far no one knows for sure how to change the set point, but some theories exist. Of these, regular exercise is the most promising: a sustained increase in physical activity seems to lower the setting (Wilmore et al. 1999).

According to the set-point theory, the set point itself keeps weight fairly constant, presumably because it has more accurate information about the body’s fat stores than the conscious mind can obtain. At the same time, this system pressures the conscious mind to change behavior, producing feelings of hunger or satiety. Studies show that a person’s weight at the set point is optimal for efficient activity and a stable, optimistic mood. When the set point is driven too low, depression and lethargy may set in as a way of slowing the person down and reducing the number of calories expended.

The set point, it would appear, is very good at supervising fat storage, but it cannot tell the difference between dieting and starvation. The dieter who begins a diet with a high set point experiences constant hunger, presumably as part of her body’s attempt to restore the status quo. Even dedicated dieters often find that they cannot lose as much weight as they would like. After an initial, relatively quick loss, dieters often become stuck at a plateau and then lose weight at a much slower rate, although they remain as hungry as ever.

Dieting research demonstrates that the body has more than one way to defend its fat stores. Long-term caloric deprivation, in a way that is not clear, acts as a signal for the body to turn down its metabolic rate. Calories are burned more slowly, so that even a meager diet almost suffices to maintain weight. The body reacts to stringent dieting as though famine has set in. Within a day or two after semi-starvation begins, the metabolic machinery shifts to a cautious regimen designed to conserve the calories it already has on board. Because of this innate biological response, dieting becomes progressively less effective, and (as generations of dieters have observed) a plateau is reached at which further weight loss seems all but impossible.

Adapted from Integrative Group Treatment for Bulimia Nervosa by Helen Riess, M.D. and Mary Dockray-Miller.

At first glance, the theory seems to hold water. Many people complain they are stuck at a certain weight. Even serial dieters complain of gaining back lost weight. However, there has never been an exact mechanism found in the body to support the theory. Some researchers suspect the set point theory can be caused by psychological and environmental factors. They believe people in different cultures are comfortable with different body weights, figures and lifestyles. Some people don’t mind being 20 pounds overweight, while others fight tooth and nail to maintain a lower body weight.

Even if this theory seems to explain why you can’t get to your desired body weight, take heart, there are ways to off-set the set point. Many researchers believe the set point theory contributes to the overwhelming rate of obesity in the United States. They believe it allows people to accept being overweight or obese instead of changing their lifestyles. Weight loss surgeries have been on the rise for years which can indicate people are sort of giving up on conventional methods of weight loss and maintenance.

Personally, I recommend lifestyle changes. Changing your diet moderately can result in significant weight loss. Once weight is lost, it is very important to adopt a different kind of diet [food plan]. Only the most naïve [I almost said “dumbest!] person on the planet would believe you could go back to eating like you were before losing weight — and maintain any of your weight loss!] You need to be able to maintain your weight on your new eating plan but you must also feel satisfied and have variety. Exercise is the BEST way to alter your metabolism. High intensity cardiovascular exercise can help increase your metabolism for short periods of time. Resistance [strength training] exercise that builds muscle is very important. [My favorite!] Muscle is more metabolically active than fat. The more muscle and less fat you have, the more calories you can burn in a day. That means you can eat [a little] more food each day than you would be able to if you don’t exercise. That could mean the difference between continued success or slipping back into Candyland. or Fatville. When you continue to exercise [the rest of your life!!!] you can have more variety and occasional treats, which equals permanent s.u.c.c.e.s.s!

Although my recommendations may sound boring, they have been proven to work. Whether the Set Point Theory is accurate or not, a healthy diet and regular exercise can help you lose and maintain weight. Don’t plan diets for a limited amount of time. Plan on permanent lifestyle changes for long-term results.

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