The real deal on set point weight theory

Learn the science of set point weight to understand what's happening both physiologically and psychologically.

A person standing on a scale.

Show Notes
Program note: Hey, glad you’re enjoying the podcast! In this episode, you might hear Claire talking about Nutritional Freedom and Foundations. Since we launched the podcast in 2020, we've undergone a makeover to improve the membership experience. For more, listen to our "And we're back! All the updates!" episode.

Claire Siegel: You're listening to the Flourish podcast. I'm your host, Claire Siegel, founder of Flourish. We're on a mission to help women get healthy for good. Join me each week for a new episode that'll help you sustain healthy habits and nourish your body so you can Flourish in life.

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Welcome back to the Flourish Podcast, y'all. It feels so good to be back. I've probably said that in every episode that we've posted so far. But seriously, just the act of like doing the research for these episodes and scripting them and then recording them, and of course, getting your feedback is absolutely the best part.

So please keep it coming. Let me know what you wanna hear. Let me know how you like what you're hearing. Um, and if you don't like it, tell someone else. . Just kidding. Sort of. But it's good to be back and, and I've definitely heard from some of y'all that last week's episode about all the thoughts and feelings that we have about weight loss i, I definitely heard that that was helpful. So let's keep it up. That's really what this podcast and certainly the series is here to do. I think on one hand it's literally just about opening a little bit of the conversation and providing some connection and empathy and a space to untangle some of the perhaps complicated feelings you might have about weight and weight loss.

So it's connection on one hand, and it's also context on the other. We're gonna talk about some science certainly today, and probably other episodes in this series. I'm kind of like building it as we go based on your feedback, so definitely keep that coming. But today, certainly when we're talking about the science kind of underlying set point weight theory, which is today's topic, I want to provide you with the context, specifically your body's context.

What's happening physiologically, what's happening, um, psychologically, in terms of weight, weight loss, weight regulation, so that you understand the why behind some of the perhaps frustrations you've experienced with past weight loss attempts, and so that you also have a new strong set of filters to then venture out into the world and hear weight related information because geez Louise, I scroll through TikTok as we do, and the amount of just absolute bollocks that you hear or see on that platform related to weight.

It's, I mean, it's crazy making, you know, So I hope that this series and the Flourish podcast in general, and, and Flourish as like a brand can be kind of like your, your grounding , your grounding area, your safe space, your like, come back to center vibe. Does that make sense? I don't know. So we're trying something new and so if I sound a little bit distracted, it's because I am, because I'm recording this on my computer, but I'm also recording it on my phone. We're doing a video situation, so like I see myself outta the corner of my eye. I don't know where to put my eyes, but we're trying to get clips of video from the podcast to then put on TikTok. So all of us to say, if I sound distracted, I'm sorry. I'm getting a hang of it. And number two, if you see podcast clips of me on TikTok, tap the heart. I need it. We need it. We're working hard on this. We're putting it out here. We're trying to get it to more, more people. So thank you in advance. 

Now let's get into the topic at hand, which is set point weight theory. This was one of the most highly requested topics when I introduced the idea of this series. So I wanna know if you have ever felt like you're kind of in this cycle of losing and regaining the same weight.

Like no matter how hard you try to eat, like the right amount, or to eat at the right time, or to focus on eating the right foods, your weight just kind of keeps returning back to the same point. I've heard that from many, many, many people. I've definitely experienced that myself, and there is absolutely research out there that suggests that this pattern is evidence of what's called a set point weight.

Or you may be sitting here thinking, "No, that would be nice. I actually feel like I just keep gaining and gaining more weight and I'm like, Okay, so what is my set point going to kick in? Where is my set point? We do not know her." So in today's episode we're gonna talk about what set point weight theory is, how it's proposed to work, some kind of questions or factors that it leaves unanswered or unaddressed.

Um, we're gonna cover, at least at a high level, a few alternative theories, and then of course we're gonna close with what the heck you should do with all of this information because at the end of the day, I think that's what actually matters to you, right? So let's get into set point weight theory, beginning with a little bit of history.

All right. So, Dr. GC Kennedy was one of the first to discover the potential of a weight set point back in the 1950s through, um, discoveries he made while doing research on rats. So what he suggested is that there exists a feedback loop between the brain and the body, and if there were ever a discrepancy between the expected set level of body fat and the actual level of body fat, the brain would trigger a cascade of responses through both energy intake and expenditure to bring body fat levels back to the original set point.

Then if you fast forward through decades of research, and this theory actually continued to be upheld, most notably with the discovery of lectin in 1990. Now leptin is a hormone. It is produced by the fat cells, and it sends signals of satiety or fullness satisfaction to the brain in order to regulate energy intake. So more leptin means more feelings of fullness, and less leptin means less feelings of fullness. 

All right, now I wanna explain the mechanism via metaphor. That's always fun, right? So the specific area of the brain that we're talking about here is, is the hypothalamus. So I want you to imagine that your hypothalamus is like the thermostat in your house. Okay? So let's say you set your thermostat to 70 degrees. Now the thermostat, aka your hypothalamus senses a higher temperature. If it, if it senses a higher temperature, it's going to blow cool air back in to bring it down to. If the thermostat senses a cooler temperature, it will blow warm air in.

Similarly, it's thought that the hypothalamus upon sensing changes in the body will trigger changes in food intake, energy expenditure, or both to bring the body back to its set point. Now that sounds all well and good. But when we really start kind of, um, double clicking into it, which can I just say double clicking into something that, um, was a new piece of corporate jargon to me as of like a year or two ago.

And I hate it so much and I hate that I just used it, but here we are and I don't know what else to say. We're gonna double click into it because set point theory does actually leave a, a bit to be desired or I guess a bit unexplained. Set point theory doesn't explain why our bodies seem to be much more resistant to weight loss versus weight gain.

Right? And when we think about that kind of like big picture on this related note, it also doesn't explain the population level increases in weight over time. And in kind of the scientific community, setpoint weight theory isn't universally agreed upon by experts because it focuses mostly on physiology, genetics, and biology, and it doesn't address the social, economic and environmental influences that impact body weight.

So in response to some of these questions, Unaddressed factors, a few other theories have been proposed. One is settling point theory, the second is the general intake model, and the third is the dual intervention point model. And I wanna give you a super high level overview of these. Honestly, you don't like need to understand how they all work and the different nuances, but I don't know, you're here, you're a nerd like me.

You obviously wanna understand it, right? And we're gonna go through it really quick and then we'll talk about, "Okay, so what?" because I think that's probably what you're most interested in, right? So let's talk about settling point theory. Not to be confused with set point theory. I mean, gosh, could we make that any more confusing?

Um, okay. But we've got a new metaphor. Forget about the thermostat set point weight theory is the thermostat. We're gonna forget about that for now. The new metaphor we're using to describe settling point theory is a lake with a reservoir for overflow. Okay, So in this metaphor, rainfall is your energy intake.

The lake is your body fat stores, and the outflow is your energy expenditure. So as you can imagine, with more rain, the depth of the lake increases and so does the overflow to the reservoir until a natural equilibrium is reached. So the key difference here between settling point, the lake versus set point, the thermometer is there is no specific set point for the lake.

Rather, there's like this more kind of like passive regulatory system in place that leads to the lake's eventual settling, i e settling point versus set point. Whereas set point, like I said, is mostly grounded in physiology, settling point is mostly grounded in the environmental factors that are relevant in weight regulation.

So when we're talking about settling point, this, this model or theory, population level, increase in weight is explained by changes in the food environment. Whether we're talking about increased access to food, eating away from the home, more often, increase in portion size, things like. And you're sitting here thinking, Well, that makes so much sense and alas, there are also holes to be poked in settling point theory, particularly when we look at weight loss studies.

Um, so like by and large, weight loss studies show two significant counterpoints. Number one, during weight loss, energy expenditure actually drops at a greater rate than can be explained by the weight loss alone. So we know that, you know, as your body size becomes smaller, your metabolic rate becomes lower, but that actually happens at a greater rate than can only be explained by existing in a smaller body.

Hopefully that makes sense. So that's something, right? The lake and reservoir analogy kinda like falls apart when we actually look at what's happening in. Live human bodies. Okay, So that's the first counterpoint. Number two, the environmental stuff makes sense with settling point, but again, it doesn't account for the physiological and psychological factors that we know also drive weight regain, or that take place or are relevant when we're talking about weight regulation.

So, uh, settling point theory. Get outta here. Can we make science fun? I'm, we'll have to do like a Bill Nye situation, like the whole set or something for the next science episode. Okay. 

The third model is called the general intake regulation model. And what's cool about this model, it's basically an equation and it takes into account the many factors involved in weight regulation.

We've talked about them. I'm talking about the physiological factors, the environmental factors, social factors, psychological factors, dietary factors. All the things and it distinguishes which factors are affected by energy intake versus which ones aren't. So what I mean by that is, for example, physiological factors are affected by energy intake.

There is a feedback loop between physiological factors of weight regulation and energy intake. There is not that same feedback loop from between energy intake and the environment . Okay. Now it should be noted because we're talking about set point theory, right, that the general intake regulation model does not assume that there are specific set points, but that your defended weight can change based on changes in environment, changes in like age or kind of, um, part of the lifespan that you're in, for example.

Okay? So that's kind of cool, right? That that is starting to make more sense. It's starting to feel more full picture, but it's not my favorite. Mm-hmm. 

My favorite. The final model, the one that I think just makes a lot of sense in the context of the other three, given the many factors involved in weight regulation, and also when I think about just the lived experience of the, the members I've worked with is our final model, the dual intervention point model.

All right, so. This model assumes that individuals have a defended weight range rather than a single set point. So that essentially you have a band of weight that your body wants to be in, you have a floor and a ceiling, and then within that range your weight is regulated in the way that settling point theory proposes, right, so the rain, the lake, the reservoir. Which I'm like, Okay, that is making sense. Yeah, Right. Are you with me? Now, how narrow or wide one's defended weight ranges is incredibly individual and it's likely determined, at least in part by genetics, which explains why people in the same food environment can have very different responses in terms of their weight and their propensity to lose or gain.

We all know people who eat so much food and just don't seem to gain a pound. Right? And vice versa is, is true. Now, I often think about evolution.

I am so fun to hang out with. No, but really, whenever I'm coaching a member on something and there's like a, a trouble spot that we're working on. I, I often, you know, think through like, is there an evolutionary reason why this might be the case? And when we're talking about weight regulation and this defended weight range, it makes total sense, right?

When you think about evolution, our bodies have this weight floor in place to resist starvation and then a weight ceiling in place to protect against being preyed upon. Okay, so I'm like, this is starting to click and none of these theories have reached scientific consensus. So what the heck is the point of this podcast?

Good question. I do think that there are some really important takeaways here and I'm glad we had this talk.

Y'all. It is the end of the day. It is seven o'clock. I should not be recording a podcast right now, but deadlines are deadlines. So let's talk about the takeaways and then I'm gonna have to leave you to it because this is, We're going off the rails quick. So I have two takeaways. Number one, let's not get, what do they say?

Let's not lose the forest for the trees because there is a central phenomenon that these theories are seeking to explain, and I think that's, Important to like stay centered around or to like bear in mind as we're having this conversation, like why do we actually need these theories? Why do we care?

What are we trying to explain? We're trying to explain the fact that our bodies asymmetrically regulate weight. What do I mean by that? Our bodies asymmetrically regulate weight, meaning that our bodies resist weight loss more than they resist weight. Let me say that one more time. Our bodies resist weight loss more than they resist weight gain, or at least this is the case for the vast majority of people.

And chances are you've actually experienced this personally without necessarily recognizing that this is a very well known phenomen. You just don't see people on TikTok talking about this, right? So you open up social media, you see some fitness bro talking about weight loss is just calories in versus calories out.

And low and behold, you feel like total shit as a result. Hmm. Like you just don't have the self-control or willpower required. But in reality there is a lot more going on beneath the surface that My Fitness Pal doesn't account for. And that's just the facts, Jack. All right, so that's the first takeaway. Like again, what are we, Why does this theory matter?

What are we trying to explain? In some ways I think is more important than like how we try to explain it, if that makes sense. So bear that in mind. The second kind of takeaway is that your weight is multifactorial. There are genetic, physiological, environmental, social, psychological, and dietary factors at play.

There's even like the ways in which your environment can impact your genes. That's a thing. Whoa. We don't fully understand it. So like there's a lot going on. Some of these factors are under your conscious control and some aren't. And again, many of these factors affect each other. It is a Pandora's box, and this is where I just always come back to focusing on sustainable behaviors and to the extent that you're able to, um, crafting a supportive environment, whether that's like literally physically your home or you know, where you choose to move your body, or if we're talking about your social environment, focusing on sustainable behaviors and a supportive environment is really of utmost importance in order to arrive and stay where your body wants to be. Maybe that's not the sexiest punchline, but I don't think y'all are here for sexy punchlines because sexy punchlines have really screwed us over in the past, haven't they?

So we've really just, gotta do the unsexy thing and just like take good care of ourselves, sustainably, consistently, in ways that feel good, physically, mentally, emotionally, socially. Boring, but effective. I have got to close this episode out because I fear that if I keep talking, I will have to start over because I will ruin this episode.

So this was a fun, goofy, nighttime podcast. I consider 7:00 PM nighttime because I will be in bed within the next 90 minutes. I hope you enjoyed today's episode. I would be really curious to hear which of these theories or models kind of makes the most sense to you based on your lived experience. Send me a DM on Instagram, Share the pod with a friend, come hang out and Flourish, come hang out on TikTok. Do send me a DM on TikTok or Instagram with anything else you want me to cover in this series. Any questions that you might have. Um, like I said, we're, we're building the plane as we fly it, as we do. Um, so this is gonna be fun. It's a choose your own adventure game, me and you.

All right. Have a wonderful rest of your week. Thank you for being here, and I'll see you next week on the Flourish Podcast. Bye y'all.

Claire Siegel:

Thank you so much for joining me for today's episode of the Flourish podcast. If you enjoyed it, please take a second to leave us a five-star review or better yet, share it with a friend. And if you're ready to start your own journey to get healthy for good with accountability from expert coaches and the support of an incredible community, head to the show notes to get started on your Flourish journey.

I'll see you in the next episode.

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Claire Siegel
Co-founder, CEO
Claire Siegel is the founder and CEO of Flourish. Claire has made it her life’s mission to help women create a sustainable approach to their physical and mental well-being.

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