What if you could depend on your body to monitor your weight?
What if it could tell when you needed to lose weight — and made you less hungry so you would eat less?
What if it could also encourage you to eat more — but only when you needed to put on a few pounds?
Those "what ifs'' may be exactly what your body was designed to do. But when your body's idea of the right weight clashes with your brain's notions, there may be trouble.
Have you ever noticed that despite your most rigorous dieting efforts, the scale won't budge? Or maybe your weight does change, only to go right back to where it was the minute you let up on your vigilance.
Set Point Theory states that the body is programmed physiologically to stay around a certain body fat level. If it finds itself outside of that range, it influences us, through changes in metabolism and appetite, to return to its set point. Everyone has his or her own set point, so you and your friend can be equal in every respect (sex, height, activity level, calorie intake) yet have different amounts of body fat.
Set point is thought to be part of an adaptive mechanism to help us survive. If we're not eating enough, for example, the body will react by increasing appetite, encouraging us to eat and return to health.
Although there are studies supporting that a physiological set point may indeed exist, Set Point Theory hasn't been conclusively proven.
Critics point out that the fact that our population continues to get fatter is not well explained by Set Point Theory. Are set points increasing? Or is it just that our environment — whether we're tempted by fattening foods and inactivity — is a more powerful predictor of weight?
Maybe we return to behaviors that support a certain fat level for reasons other than physiological ones. For example, you might go on a diet and exercise program, but the new behaviors don't feel comfortable. You struggle for a while trying to maintain that new lifestyle but ultimately give in to the old, more comfortable behaviors, even if they're not the healthiest. Before long, you're back to your old ways and your old weight.
So, is set point really more of an environmental/psychological matter than a physiological one?
Both views seem to have merit. People who don't diet and are consistently active usually report that their body tends to remain around the same weight. Frequent dieters who later stop off-and-on patterns of rigid dieting often report that their weight stabilizes, except for the occasional vacation indulgence or drop in weight due to illness.
Where the balance seems to break down is in people who are inconsistent — those who alternate rigid dieting with splurging, and exercise only sporadically. If Set Point Theory is right, extreme attempts to control weight may get in the way of natural programming. Instead, we suffer frustrating and unhealthy weight fluctuations with the body continually trying to maneuver back to its predetermined body fat level.
Couple that with the temptations of our modern environment, and you get the classic double whammy. It's a lot easier to slide into a comfy car rather than walk, and to pick up fast food rather than prepare a nutritious meal.
So perhaps there are really two Set Point Theories — one based in physiology, the other in psychology.
What if you've learned where your set point seems to lie and would like to lower it? Some think that through sustained exercise, one can physiologically lower the body fat range at which the body wants to remain. The only catch: You have to maintain that high level of activity.
Learning to permanently change eating and activity behaviors to healthier ones also will keep the body in a lower fat range.
So, it's all good news. The body may very well have a nice monitoring system that can keep us in balance. And our brains also get to have some say in the matter.
It's all about letting go of the extremes and listening to your own body's cues, not the outside influences that can so easily push your body out of balance.
Lavinia Rodriguez, Ph.D., is a Tampa psychologist and expert in weight management. She is the author of "Mind Over Fat Matters: Psychological Barriers to Weight Management." She can be reached through her website: FatMatters.com.