Set Point Theory: Why Dieting Doesn't Work

Our bodies are magnificent vehicles that allow us to accomplish many things. They enable some to walk, run, hike, bike, and be active. They allow us to engage in meaningful relationships, and do things that make us feel fulfilled in life. We are present on earth doing amazing things because of our bodies. While we are making the most of our lives physically and mentally, our bodies take care of us on a deeper, physiological level. We have an equilibrium to maintain so we can stay alive-this includes temperature regulation, hormone balances, our heart beats. Our bodies also engage in unconscious weight regulation, which some try to fight with dieting.

If you’re like me and 95% of the world’s population, you have attempted to diet. Do you remember your first diet? Did you notice how easy the weight came off the first time? You begin to cut back on food groups, start moving your body intensely, and you lose a few pounds-no problem. A few weeks go by and you feel your energy levels plummeting. Your weight begins to plateau and you can no longer keep up with the demanding exercise and rigid eating patterns you’ve been following. You may find yourself back at your original weight in no time-maybe even higher-and now you are considering trying a different diet. This, my friend, is Set point theory.

Set point theory is the idea that everyone has an ideal weight range that their body wants to stay within. The human body will fight HARD to stay at this weight. With dieting and food restriction, our bodies go into “starvation mode.” This mechanism comes from times of famine when cavemen were unsure of when their next meal would be, and they needed to save energy to fight off predators. The under-fueling that comes with dieting sends our bodies into this same energy-storing mode to protect itself, typically in the form of fat. When you stop restricting food and stop over exercising, your body tends to settle back to its set point weight. Going on and off diets can actually RAISE your set point over time. Check out the visual below-I found this online from another intuitive eating, health at every size dietitian.

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I know this is hard to hear. Going on a diet is often thought of as exciting. Dieting gives us false promises that life will be better and we will be more valuable if we can just drop “X” pounds. I’ve SO been there. For many people, dieting is almost like a religion or way of life, which makes it challenging to stop. But research shows us how detrimental dieting can be, physically and mentally. Dieting causes anxiety around food, can lead to feelings of unworthiness, and can cause disordered eating behaviors. We must disassociate dieting from health-they are not the same thing.

Instead of dieting to improve your life, I suggest trying self-care strategies to honor your body.  Sometimes this means getting a good “sweat session” in at the gym and/or making yourself a home cooked meal. This can also look like going out to dinner at your favorite restaurant, and enjoying a delicious pasta dish that makes your belly and heart full. Neither option is better than the other; they’re just different depending on what your needs are in that moment.

I’m here to tell you it’s OK to ditch the diet mentality and not be hyper focused on your weight. Enjoy a variety of foods and move your body in ways that invigorate you-these are great ways to take care of yourself. There are other ways to engage in self-care outside of food and exercise (ex. going for a walk, reading a good book, calling a friend) which can be its own blog post (future post inspiration?). Allow yourself freedom from dieting and forced exercise. Also, don’t be hard on yourself. Next time you have a long day and your plans to exercise turn into a nap, enjoy the rest-you are taking care of yourself in a different way.