Losing weight is hard. Gaining it back, however, seems to be so much easier.
Talk to just about anyone that’s tried to lose weight and you’ll hear the same thing again and again: the classic yo-yo pattern. You lose weight just to gain it right back. You lose weight, you gain weight. Over and over again.
Why does this happen?
One theory explaining this phenomenon is the metabolic set point theory.
This theory suggests that your body has a natural inclination to want to be a certain weight.
And when you do something that could simulate a weight loss or increase (e.g. decrease your caloric intake by consuming fewer calories or increasing your physical activity level to increase caloric expenditure), mechanisms within your body will kick in to keep you where you are.
These mechanisms that kick in involve hormones, feelings of hunger, and changes in behavior.
It was once thought the metabolic set point was purely determined by your genetics. If your family is by and large on the huskier side, then you will be too.
On the flip side, if your family is on the lean and skinny side of the spectrum, you will likely be lean and skinny.
Research now suggests that there is more to it than just genetics. In fact, genetics seems to be a relatively small component that can be overcome by changes in diet and exercise.
Factors that contribute to your metabolic set point in addition to genetics are: your level of physical activity, your diet, and your hormones.
We’ll go through how each of the these influences the metabolic set point one at a time.
1. The role of your genetics
Research suggests there are a few genes that influence weight gain substantially, and hundreds of others that play a more minor role.
Collectively, these genes play roles in processes like how hungry you generally are (appetite), how full you feel (satiety), your food cravings, body-fat distribution, and your tendency to stress-eat.
How much of an influence your genes have on your weight differs from person to person. For some genetics contributes as little as 25%. For others, it can be as high as 80%.
Whatever the percentage may be, the fact of the matter is that it is: it’s only part of the equation.
Your genetics can be overcome with the proper lifestyle modifications. It just may take a little longer if your genetics significantly influence your weight.
2. The role of hormones
Hormonal responses seem to be the most immediate responders to fluctuations in caloric intake: they’re the first line of defense attempting to keep your body weight exactly where it is.
Leptin is often referred to as the hormone of energy expenditure.
It’s mainly produced by fat cells and helps regulate your energy balance by inhibiting feelings of hunger. When leptin levels are high you feel full, or satiated. When leptin levels are low you feel hungry.
Ghrelin performs the opposite function of leptin. It is a peptide hormone produced by cells in the gastrointestinal tract. When ghrelin levels are high you feel hungry. When ghrelin levels are low you don’t.
Both leptin and ghrelin act on the same cells in the hypothalamus to exert their hunger-inducing or hunger-reducing functions.
Changes in calorie intake or expenditure can modify the production of these hormones and your feelings of hunger or fullness.
Clinical studies suggest that weight loss decreases leptin. This fits into the metabolic set point theory as a first line indicator of your body no longer being at the weight it used to be at, and your leptin levels responding by making you hungry, so you can get back to where you used to be.
3. The role of physical activity and diet
Physical activity and diet are the two most modifiable components of your lifestyle that determine your metabolic set point.
Basically, your body responds in a way that is ideal for your lifestyle. If you consistently take in more calories than you need to burn, your body will store it as fat – because that’s the most efficient way to store energy in the long term.
If you consistently expend more calories than you take in, your body will mobilize energy stores to supply the needed fuel for that extra energy expenditure.
Over time your metabolism will adjust to accomodate the deficit or the excess calories intake.
How to alter your metabolic set point
Altering your metabolic set point takes time and persistence.
It’s done by first altering your weight by changing either the amount of calories you ingest OR by increasing the amount of calories you expend. Then you lock it in by maintaining that weight for a long period of time – the longer the better.
To prevent huge hormonal responses in leptin and ghrelin, weight loss should be done gradually (ideally at a rate of 1-2 pounds per week).
Doing it slowly and consistently allows your body to get accustomed to its new weight before you take a little bit more off.
Going at this rate you may experience a little bit of hunger as your body produces less leptin to try get you to eat more. But, you won’t feel like your starving like you would if you tried to drop a whole bunch of weight really fast.
The long term nature of changing your metabolic set point means there isn’t one diet or workout routine that’s going to do it for you fast.
We’re talking complete lifestyle change here. So choose a diet and exercise routine that you can see yourself maintaining for the foreseeable future. Too much too fast and you’ll quit, pick up your old habits, and find yourself back right where you started.
Metabolic set point is one theory explaining why weight loss can be difficult. It is determined by some factors that are outside of your control (i.e. genetics), but there are also facets of it that you can alter – diet and exercise.
The one thing that is going to dictate whether or not you successfully alter your metabolic set point is longevity. The longer you can stick with a diet and exercise plan the better it is in terms of changing your set point.
Have any questions? Feel free to contact me. Also, like the post, follow the blog, and find Healthy Wheys on social media (Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter) for new content every week.
And please let me know if you have any feedback or topics you your like me to cover!