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Many people who are dieting and exercising to intentionally lose weight will come up against the dreaded plateau.
The decrease in the number on the scale they had seen for some time stops, and they can’t seem to push below that barrier, even with continued restrictions, said Shana Minei Spence, a registered dietitian in New York. And after they finish a period of restrictive dieting, the weight they lost often comes back.
When that happens, it’s common to point to a lack of discipline or willpower as the cause for not attaining the socially promoted thin ideal. But it may be time to dig deeper into not just how worthwhile it is to strive for that body type, but also whether restrictive dieting practices work to get you there – especially considering our biology, said Sam Previte, registered dietitian and founder of Find Food Freedom in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida.
Enter set point theory, one of a few theories to explain how your body regulates its shape and size, according to Dr. Steven Heymsfield, a professor of metabolism and body composition at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center at Louisiana State University. The theory suggests that each of our bodies has a biological process to keep within a particular range of weight – and it happens outside of our willpower, he added.
The concept is hard to study fully, because the way to test it out on humans would be unethical, said Jeanette Thompson-Wessen, a nutritionist in the United Kingdom who focuses on nutrition without the aim to lose weight. But there are observational studies supporting the idea that people and even animals keep fairly consistent weight, she added.
“There is a little bit of flexibility with weight. But we know that with set point theory, our body is always fighting to get back to that homeostasis to where it likes to be,” Previte added.
That may initially sound disheartening for those who have tried losing weight, especially within a cultural landscape that praises thinner bodies.
“We are taught not to be fat when we are literally like a year old,” said Dr. Asher Larmie, a UK-based general practitioner and activist. “We grow up believing that fat is bad, and we should do whatever it takes not to be fat.”
But consistent cycles of restriction and relaxation, intentional weight loss, and weight gain has been shown to be unhealthy for our bodies, said Larmie, who uses they/them pronouns.
By understanding our bodies’ individual needs and set point, we may be able to embrace the greater variance of healthy, beautiful bodies and better serve our unique health needs, experts said.
What is my set point?
Figuring out your body’s set point comes down to listening to your body.
“Sometimes we forget that we all have a certain weight that our bodies feel comfortable in,” Spence said. “If you have to work out like two or three times a day, if you have to severely restrict yourself – I always say if you’re feeling like you have to just live on rice cakes, that’s not your body’s weight. That’s not really where you are meant to be.”
Larmie is a true believer in the human body telling us what it needs.
When we are cold, we shiver. When we are hot, we sweat. When we need water, we get thirsty. When we need food, we feel hungry, they said.
Society will “never suggest to you don’t wrap up when you are cold or don’t take off your layers when you’re hot – that’s nonsense,” Larmie said.
But people will often encourage people to ignore their body’s signals around food, and the consequences can be harmful to the system as it goes into starvation mode, said Bri Campos, a body image coach based in Paramus, New Jersey.
When restricting foods or calories, the body doesn’t know if you are doing it on purpose for intentional weight loss or if it’s because the food is not available to you, Larmie said. The result is a lot of stress.
“The body panics, and it can cause all sorts of problems including … insulin resistance typical of diabetes and it can cause depression,” they added. If the body is overfed or underfed, it metabolically adapts to correct the imbalance between energy intake and expenditure and stabilize weight, according to research from 2010.
Exercising too much and eating too little or too restrictively pushes a body beyond its limits, and it will trigger biological responses to try to get back to the weight where it is happy, Larmie said.
What do I do now?
It’s difficult to let go of the ideas that have been passed along about what a body should look like to be happy and healthy, Campos said.
Instead of fighting against biology to get to a physical appearance in which your body doesn’t feel good, experts recommend letting go of unrealistic ideals and accept what health and comfort look like on your individual body, Campos added. The process can be difficult though, even if it means saying goodbye to a way of thinking that isn’t making you happy.
Spence recommends curating your social media feed to surround yourself with and celebrate different bodies. And if a company or program tries to sell you nutritional advice without examining your specific needs and circumstances, that is a red flag, she added.
But accepting your body doesn’t necessarily mean feeling great about it, Spence said.
“You don’t have to love it, but you have to respect your body and be kind to it. Otherwise what kind of relationship is it?” Spence said.
“If you were to have a relationship with somebody and you don’t really talk to them, don’t really like them, are annoyed by them constantly and do everything you can not to connect with them – that’s a pretty toxic relationship.”