Set Point Theory

A huge, huge, HUGE part of recovery for me is body acceptance. I’m not saying we have to love our bodies…we just have to deal with them. As someone who is in recovery from an eating disorder, learning to accept my body and be comfortable living in it has been a trip and a half. I started this blog and my Instagram as an outlet for my own recovery journey as well as to help others who are struggling with body acceptance.

I’m a firm believer that diet culture is a sneaky little beast that a lot of people fall prey to. We are constantly bombarded with images of people with the “ideal” thin body (especially the bodies of women) and we are told what is attractive and shamed when we don’t match up.

What a lot of people don’t realize, however, is that bodies are intelligent creatures that know exactly what weight/shape/size they need to be. Believe it or not, we don’t need to control what we eat and how we exercise, our bodies are smart enough to handle themselves all on their own. This is called the set point theory.

I like to describe the set point theory in a pretty simple way: bodies come in different shapes and sizes, and when fed sufficiently and when active (enough), they will fall in a pre-determined weight range that is comfortable for your body. Researchers from MIT Medical share that:

there is a control system built into every person dictating how much fat he or she should carry – a kind of thermostat for body fat. Some individuals have a high setting, others have a low one. According to this theory, body fat percentage and body weight are matters of internal controls that are set differently in different people.

Unfortunately, due to the messages we receive from the media and diet culture in general, a lot of people deem their “set point” to be too high for their liking. The set point theory explains that while an individual’s body type is determined by many factors, our genes determine our set-point. Some people have bigger bodies, some people have smaller bodies. That’s just how it goes.

Okay, I get it, so what about when your body weight does go down?

Great question, reader of my blog! If you’re losing weight, there are two likely scenarios at play.

  1. You are purposely manipulating your intake and exercise regimen to lose weight.

If you look back above at the definition of the set point theory, you might have a gut feeling about what my answer is going to be. Your body has a natural range in which it functions optimally, based on your genes, your environment, and a lot of things in between. I believe, although this is hard, that people live happier, healthier lives if they focus more on their relationships than their bodies.

I also understand that weight loss can sometimes be beneficial for people at risk for certain health concerns. Sometimes people with bigger bodies are more at risk for heart disease or diabetes. I believe that weight loss should be the LAST attempt at gaining health.

If there are other ways to gain health and fix a medical problem besides losing weight, I feel that it’s probably a better way to go about it anyway. If weight loss is the last resort, it should be slow and monitored by professionals who can help you make healthy decisions about your weight loss, like a dietitian who has knowledge about intuitive eating, diet culture, and operates under the Health At Every Size model.

If you don’t need to be losing weight for very specific health reasons, my answer is very simple: don’t.

Now, I get it, people want to “be attractive” and they want to “look good,” but I urge you all to consider how the moralization of bodies is toxic and only an extension of the patriarchy (and other problems in our society). Bodies, like tables, come in all different shapes and sizes. You can have larger, taller tables. You can have shorter, square tables. You can have a medium table that has super cool, antique legs. All tables are amazing.

SO ANYWAY. The other option, if you’re losing weight is:

  1. Your body is losing weight naturally, and you have done pretty much nothing to spark this change.

So your body is losing weight. Have you been sick? Did you recently change your diet for a health reason, like a new allergy, perhaps? If the answer to the above questions are no, then your body is losing weight because it decided a lower weight would be more optimal for you at this moment in time.

While it’s extremely unlikely that someone’s body will all of a sudden just decide to drop 10lbs, it IS possible that your body decides to drop 3lbs, or even 5lbs. Weight fluctuation is normal. In fact, if you were to weigh yourself three times a day (which you should NOT be doing) you’d get three different weights.

But what about the set point theory? I thought our bodies were supposed to stay in the same range for most of our adult lives?

Another great question!

In the world of eating disorder recovery, the notion that body weight fluctuates is pretty common, but I don’t think this idea is accepted amongst non-recovery people. Many people think that their body should stay the same weight morning and night, summer and winter, young and old.

But that’s why your set point is a range! Most people’s bodies will typically fluctuate within a ten-pound range and you (and others) won’t even notice.

Another thing about the set point theory is that is can help us establish a sense of trust with our bodies. A lot of women spend years trying to control and manipulate their bodies in order to be a specific size. For those of us in recovery from eating disorders, disordered eating, or dieting, understanding the set point theory can really help drive home the idea that our bodies are in control of our bodies, not our minds.

That may sound kind of silly, but I encourage you to think of it like this: if you are not a car mechanic, you wouldn’t walk in to the garage down the street and tell a car mechanic how to fix your car.

Similarly, your brain (especially a brain that has some disordered eating tendencies) has no clue what is best for your body. That being said, your brain needs to butt out. It’s our job to listen to our bodies and respond appropriately to the hunger and fullness cues that they give us.

The bottom line is pretty simple: people come in all different shapes and sizes. The problem here is never someone’s body; the problem in how we, as a society, have moralized food and bodies in order to shame people who are bigger in size. While we can’t change this overnight, we can change the way we think and interact with our bodies. I aim to appreciate my body for what it IS, not what it ISN’T, especially because I understand that it’s really none of my business what my body decides to do when it comes to weight. I’ll leave that up to my body, I’m working on trusting it.

What I’ve learned in my own recovery is that our bodies DO change, but normal body changes are rarely enough for people to really notice. Your tummy will look different after you eat three meals a day, just like your body will change if you become pregnant, go through puberty, etc. While accepting and living with these changes may be hard, it’s a lot easier than spending all of your time and energy on controlling your body. Controlling your body is pretty freakin’ exhausting.

Our bodies are smart enough to decide when/if we need to carry some extra weight, when we don’t need as much, and all times in between. Our bodies are bound to go through different seasons, and my goal is to help others accept their body in EVERY season of life.

I’ll end this blog with my favorite saying about body acceptance:

Your weight is seriously the least interesting thing about you.

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