Set Points and Why You May Find Yourself “Stuck”

We see it far too often. New Years approaches, and along with it come New Years diet resolutions. Many times the month of January is filled with quick progress, the fat burning off of the dieter’s body at a rapid pace. Then, something happens. It is almost as if the body says “enough is enough” and the fat loss stalls, seemingly forever to the dieter. Many times, the dieter will get frustrated and consequently dietary compliance begins to suffer. Eventually, most folks return to their pre-New Years state and the cycle repeats itself. Well, why in the world does this seemingly predictable “stall” happen?

As far back as Kennedy (1953) (1) there have been theories circulating in scientific communities that body fat levels may be regulated by what is known as a “set point”. You can think of this as your body’s homeostasis point in terms of body fat percentage. In other words, within reason, this is where your body wants to be. Some folks may have higher set points and others may have lower set points (this is not to be confused with somatotypes which are downright quackery). For many years, the theory was that body fat regulation was regulated via feedback mechanisms in the body however it wasn’t until around 1994, when leptin was discovered (2) that the mechanisms became much more understood.

Anecdotally speaking, I’ve seen this time and time again with both myself and folks I’ve worked with. It is almost as if most individuals have a level of leanness that can be reached fairly quickly, often effortlessly, before dietary plateaus are reached. Once this point is hit, fat loss stalls and it can often take extra dietary manipulation or energy expenditure to get past it.

So, can set points be manipulated? There is some evidence that it can through drastic increases in energy deficit simultaneously combined with body fat loss (3)(4)(5). In other words, if a state where leptin does not decrease, ghrelin does not increase, and yet fat loss continues can be held for an indefinite time, then there may be a set point reset. We must be careful thinking this is an easy task to accomplish though. Because, conversely, a lot of data suggests that once dieting or overfeeding ceases subjects tend to regain any lost fat, or lose the accumulated fat, and return to the original body fat levels they were at before making their dietary changes (6)(7).

The biggest take-away here, is that diets are not a linear progression. There will undoubtedly be plateaus however this should not frustrate or deter you. There are many different strategies that can be enacted during times of “non progress” including refeeds and diet breaks. Just don’t focus on the scale for a few days and decide that the diet is a failure because it is never as simple as that. Try not to over-complicate things, and don’t be afraid to take a break from dieting for both mental and physical health. Lastly, don’t hesitate to ask friends for a second set of eyes or even find a trusted resource to help guide you on your weight loss journey.


Comments are closed.