If you ever feel like your body hovers around a certain number on the scale — no matter how much you clean up your diet or ramp up your workouts — it’s not all in your head. When it comes to weight loss, this is referred to as the set point theory. “It suggests your body will fight to maintain a specific weight and body fat range tightly regulated by your genetics and that you have little control over it,” explains Ryan Maciel, RD, a certified strength and conditioning specialist based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Set point weight could be a result of evolution: Wanting to hold onto excess fuel may have helped our ancestors stay protected from famine. But it could also come down to simple design mechanisms of the human body that aren’t easily amenable to change, notes Maciel. Your body works hard to maintain a stable internal environment, which means it’s constantly adjusting hormone levels, temperature, energy levels and more. So, just as your body starts sweating to cool you off (in the sauna or during a cold-weather run) it also might begin holding onto fuel when you cut calories and work out harder.
However, “while you may be born with upper and lower set point ranges for your weight, you have the power to shift where you ultimately land,” says Maciel. Here, five ways to get started:
AIM TO LOSE A HALF-POUND TO A POUND A WEEK
Fad diets promising quick fixes aren’t just uncomfortable and unsustainable — they’re built to backfire. “In general, the more rapid or drastic a change you make, the more your body wants to fight back,” explains Dr. Charlie Seltzer, a weight-loss specialist. To prevent this from happening, Seltzer recommends setting a goal of losing a half pound per week. “If your body is getting the food it needs to function, or just a tiny bit less than it’s used to, it’s going to be more willing to release that extra energy [to burn fat],” he explains. This not only helps you lose weight, but you’ll be more likely to keep it off long term.
FOLLOW THE 5-10% RULE
“Research has shown losing 5–10% of your total body weight at a time is a smart approach,” says Maciel. “It is theorized that losing more than 10% of your body weight causes the body to fight back and make it more difficult to maintain weight loss.”
TRY LOSING WEIGHT IN PHASES
For example, if you want to lose 20 pounds, set that 5% goal, then try to maintain your new weight for six months before starting another weight-loss cycle, suggests Maciel. “This allows your body to adjust to the new weight and gives you a psychological break from dieting.”
Once you’ve held steady for six months, work on shedding the remaining pounds. While this process takes time, “if you want to maintain your weight loss, you must learn and adopt healthy eating and physical activity habits for the rest of your life,” says Maciel.
KEEP A FOOD LOG
Tracking what you eat is a proven strategy for successful weight loss. While monitoring calories can help you see if you’re overeating, it’s also a good idea to look at your macronutrient breakdown, says Seltzer, who adds that most people aren’t getting enough protein. “Find ways to amp up your protein, so your body spends more energy digesting it compared to calories from fat and carbs.”
Changing your gut bacteria might help with weight-loss efforts and set point weight, notes Seltzer. One recent review of research published in Obesity Reviews found probiotic supplementation helped slightly reduce body weight and fat percentage. If you’re thinking about supplementing or eating more probiotic-rich foods, talk to an RD or your doctor first to see how it can fit in with your goals.