In the U.S., 80% of girls have been on a diet before they turn 10. (source)
Take a few minutes and watch this TED Talk by neuroscientist Sandra Aamodt.
According to Aamodt:
Several long-term studies have shown that girls who diet in their early teen years are three times more likely to become overweight five years later, even if they started at a normal weight. And all of these studies found that the same factors that predicted weight gain also predicted the development of eating disorders.
An estimated seven to 10 million American women have eating disorders. (source)
Clearly we have a problem with dieting, weight loss and our relationship with food in this country. But that’s probably not news to you.
Why Dieting Doesn’t Work
We all know people who’ve successfully lost weight. Losing weight is not the problem. If it were, the U.S. weight loss industry wouldn’t be a $20 billion industry.
The problem is that about 95% of dieters will regain their weight within 1-5 years. (source) And contrary to popular belief, it may not be for lack of willpower.
So all you yo-yo dieters out there beating yourselves up for “failed” weight loss efforts — this one’s for you.
According to the New York Times, six years after losing an average of 129 pounds on TV’s The Biggest Loser, contestants were burning about 500 fewer calories per day than other people their age and size. Why?
Introducing… Your “Set Point”
The body weight set point theory is simple: it postulates that the body uses hormones, hunger, behavior changes, and other physiological mechanisms to “defend” a certain range of body weight (and body fat in particular).
A simple way to think of this is as a “thermostat” or “cruise control” system for body weight and fat levels. Whatever numbers are set are what your body strives to maintain.
Your brain has an idea of what you should weigh, usually within a range of about 10-15 pounds. That’s your set point. Set points are based on genetics, lifestyle, hormones, and other factors (which, sadly, do NOT include current fashion trends) and are different for every person.
When you try to go below your set point, your body may respond with “metabolic suppression,” which slows down your metabolism and burns fewer calories. Not only that, but your body may even produce more hunger-inducing hormones. The result? Slowed weight loss, plateaus, or even the ever-infuriating, I-Just-Gained-It-All-Back syndrome.
If you do succeed at losing weight and keeping it off, does that mean you were always hovering above your body’s set point? Can a set point be permanently altered? Why are some women able to return to their pre-pregnancy weight with no problem, while others never do?
To be honest, at this juncture there are more questions about the body’s set point than answers. And while it may not give you much peace of mind, the moral of the story seems to be that you should allow your weight to remain stable within your set point, rather than constantly engaging in the lose-weight-regain-weight cycle.
This is not to say that you shouldn’t put any effort into maintaining a healthy weight. Remember, it is easier to exceed your set point than to go below it. But as Sandra Aamodt said, focusing on these four habits will keep you healthy and reduce your risk of premature death, regardless of your weight:
- eating lots of fruits and vegetables
- regular exercise (3x per week)
- not smoking
- alcohol in moderation
The 10% Method of Weight Loss
Experts don’t really like the term “set point” because it’s actually more of a range than a fixed number. And some believe that range can be manipulated.
Some studies have shown that losing just 10% of your body weight at a time will prevent your body from fighting back with metabolic suppression. Once you’ve lost 10%, allow your body to adjust to and maintain that weight for six months to a year before going after the next 10%. The research maintains that this slow, gradual weight loss will reset your body’s set point and allow you to keep the weight off for the long haul. (source)
Whether you try the 10% Method or not, it is vital that you develop a healthy relationship with food. Aamodt suggests a Mindful Eating approach. She says, “learn to understand your body’s signals so that you eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re full.” In practice, that means:
- Give yourself permission to eat how much you want — then work on figuring out what makes your body feel good.
- Sit down to regular meals without distractions — people who eat while distracted such as in front of the TV or computer consume as much as 25% more food, and later in the day, too!
You are different from everyone else from the inside out. And that’s what makes you YOU. No one is perfect, we all have things about ourselves we’d like to change, but at the end of the day we get one body and one life. It’s better to be healthy (mentally and physically) and to truly enjoy that life than it is to agonize each day over that which we cannot control.