well this explains everything

I hate excuses, especially when it comes to exercise, weight loss, etc. So now I find myself debating whether I should share a little tidbit that could validate many of those excuses.

This new-found (and disturbing) knowledge has been tormenting me for a couple of weeks now. Misery loves company, so – screw it – I’m sharing.

Here’s the thing.

As it turns out, people revert back to their ‘usual’ weight after a period of weight loss, whether it was a result of dieting or exercise, because their body is determined to get back to its ‘set point’.


You see, your brain (and specifically your hypothalamus) has its own sense of what you should weigh. This is called your set point, and is usually a range of 10-15 lbs.

brain-hypothalamusYou can diet and exercise to move up and down within that range, but it’s much harder to go (and stay) outside of that range.

In other words, your brain will act as a traitor, sabotaging your efforts, in an effort to get you back to your set point.

Well, isn’t that a kick in the teeth?

Thanks a lot, brain. You’re a real pal.

I learned this horrible truth in a TED Talk, Why Dieting Doesn’t Usually Work, by Sandra Aamodt, neuroscientist.

Aamodt explains that hunger and energy use (calorie burn) are controlled by the brain. So when your brain is intent on keeping you at a specific weight, it will adjust things, like your metabolism to get you there.

Scary, huh?

She uses the analogy of a thermostat to illustrate this concept. Much like a thermostat keeps the temperature in your house the same, regardless of the weather outside, your brain works to control hunger, metabolism and energy use to keep stability in your body weight. In the winter you could open a window to let the cold in but that’s not going to change the setting on the thermostat. It will respond by engaging the furnace to work harder to get the house back to the temperature set on the thermostat.  Your brain works exactly the same way.

This explains so much.

Here’s the other thing: evidently set points can go up (i.e. reset to a new higher set point), but they rarely go down.

This explains so much more.


So now what?

Well, there is this concept of ‘best weight’, which I first explored here.

What I really like about Dr. Yoni Freedhoff‘s thinking in the area of best weight is that it recognizes that while someone may fall outside the recommended ranges of things like BMI scales or ideal weight, they can still be healthy and thriving.

He posits that there are some things in your life affecting your weight that you’re not going to be able to change, (set points, anyone???), and suggests that your best weight is whatever weight you reach when you’re living the healthiest life you actually enjoy. 

The healthiest life you actually enjoy…

That’s key.

I gave up bread and pasta for a year a long time ago. My body was slamming, but I was a miserable bitch. I wasn’t living a life I enjoyed.

Now I indulge in all the bread my heart desires, but I do so knowing that it’ll take a LOT of sweating to work it off. Life is all about choices, especially when that damned hypothalamus is determined to act like such a prick.

Keep moving,

xoxo nancy

141 thoughts on “well this explains everything

  1. I had watched the same TED talk and walked away trying to decide if I was going to believe in fate or myself. I am choosing to believe in myself and keep working at it! I would think over long periods of time at a weight outside the natural setpoint the body will trend and adapt! My random thoughts:)

    • I am totally with you, John. I think it’s especially true when the weight loss comes from extra energy use (exercise) versus diet/calorie reduction. When you diet, your body just assumes you’re starving and slows down your metabolism to keep you alive. Another reason to embrace exercise! 🙂

  2. Ah, yes, the set point. That, combined with our slower metabolisms as we get older, can do a real number on weight maintenance once someone loses the pounds. So I agree with you–it gets back to not focusing on a number but rather focusing on living healthy and being fit.

    • Totally, Carrie! I found that when I hit my stride midway through 2013 and the fierce exercise regime, I eventually plateaued, unable to lose the last 15 or so that I felt would put me at an ‘ideal’ weight. It’s somewhat comforting to know that it wasn’t because I wasn’t working hard, but because my set point might have bottomed out.

      For me, it’s enough to know that if I get chased by a psycho clown (or bear in the mountains) that I now have some small chance I might be able to hold my own, whereas in the past I would have just waved the white flag and said, just get it over with already. 🙂

    • Yup, I am just so stoked that I can now run, climb tall mountains, lift heavy things – all with a smile on my face most of the time. That is worth so much more than losing 15-20 extra pounds.

  3. I am totally on board with the idea of the “best weight.” People often ask me what my goal weight is, and I honestly don’t know. According to the BMI charts, I shouldn’t weigh more than like 133 pounds, which I can’t even fathom. I figure I won’t know until I’m at my “best weight,” so the plan is to live a happy, active, healthy lifestyle and just see what happens.

    This is a great post, though it is rather discouraging! But I kind of figure if I do successfully implement a lifestyle change, rather than a radical diet, the odds should be slim that I end up back over 300 pounds. I hope.

    • Hi Alison, thank you for stopping by and taking the time to share your thoughts! If you get a chance, click on over to that original post on ‘best weight’ that i linked to and then listen to the radio interview (embedded). Dr. Yoni does such a great job of explaining it.

      To your point, I totally agree that the ONLY way to maintain weight loss long term is to adopt a different lifestyle — and one that you can be happy living. For me, dieting wasn’t an option. I love to eat, and I’m going to eat! I embraced daily exercise 2 years ago and haven’t looked back. For me, it’s the way for me to get closer to my ideal/best weight while being a happy gal. No one needs to be around a perma-bitchy Nancy. That’s just inhumane. 🙂

      • I am the opposite! It’s so hard for me to get into a groove exercise-wise, but I really love cooking. I took that love for cooking and used it for powers of good, instead of evil! But isn’t that the key? Everyone is different, and it’s important that people learn there isn’t a one-size-fits-all sort of healthy lifestyle.

      • Absolutely! Whatever works – and works long term as a lifestyle – is what you need to do. Best of luck on your journey! p.s. Will def check out your recipes. When I say I love to eat – it’s not cheetos I’m talking about. I love real food/ good food! 🙂

  4. I decided last year that I was never going to diet again. It was like an epiphany! Since then I’ve been searching for a lifestyle way of eating, etc. I think I’ve found it … I’ve been meaning to blog about it for a while. Guess I should do so soon… 🙂

    As for your response to her speech, maybe you missed something she said that’s really encouraging regarding achieving optimum health. There are four factors – moderate drinking, not smoking, eating enough fruit and vegetables (which I think translates to eating a healthy, natural diet), and exercising several times a week. What aren’t you doing? Maybe you’re not at your “ideal weight”, but don’t you feel good?

    I really, really hope she’s not right about all this. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life weighing nearly 300 lbs. But I’m convinced of one thing – she’s right about diets being fattening. And that’s what I’m pegging my hopes on … You have to have a healthy lifestyle, and the rest will follow. And if I end up a Rubens instead of a Vogue … I guess I can live with it … 🙂

  5. You should enjoy bread!! Bread is yummy!! You’re beautiful and perfect just like you are!! Live life like ya wanna and be happy- that’s what I think!! XOXO

  6. I completely understand/live this set point idea. 144. Anything less and I have to get super restrictive. Anything more and I feel like crap. Since I love the breads, I’ve decided I’m cool with that. It’s become my mission instead to be the leanest, healthiest version of 144 I can be, though.

  7. Believe it or not I’ve weighed exactly the same weight (to the ounce) three annual physicals in a row. My Dr and Nurse actually laughed! Yep, I definitely have a set point. 🙂 I go up and down by a little during the year and yeah I wish it were 10 lbs lower but I’ll take healthy over a smaller dress size.

    • Well it’s super encouraging to hear that your set point hasn’t moved up as you’ve aged! I read somewhere that every year after a certain age (can’t remember if it was 40 or 44), if all things remain equal (exercise and diet) you gain ~5 lbs just from a slowing metabolism. Good to know the set point sometimes works in our favor! 🙂

    • Right? I’ve watched the video 5 times since i found it Jan 1st.i alternate between being excited that I now understand the plateau, and then angry that I’m unlikely to ever hit the goal weight I was targeting.

      • Someone else posted ain interesting link about how you can lower your set point and it just takes time!
        That gives me some hope!

        I also think that we, who are doing this through a lot of exercise rather than starvation have a much better chance!

      • I completely agree, Sam. The brain/body will always adjust against what it perceives as starvation by slowing the metabolism to prevent death. I think exercise is likely the better way to reset the set point.

      • me too! restrictive starvation type diets never seem that sucessful, but I eat quite a lot now, just mostly healthier stuff and I do enough exercise to keep my metabolism going!

        It is interesting though that there is such a thing as a set point…it does explain a lot of things about the way we gain / fail to lose weight!

      • I just read the article that Nancy Hatch linked to, and it is actually a 7 part online series on resetting your set point. It’s hosted on the Harvard Medical site, so I’m thinking it’s legit. I’ve bookmarked it to review later when I’m not so distracted with work. It seems a sensible way to approach overcoming your set point (although it takes time and patience…)

        p.s. I’ll email you shortly. I just booked my travel. I’ll get to London by the Friday night and have all day Saturday before flying back to Toronto Sunday morning. YAY!!

      • Bookmark your calendar: I’ll be London the evening of the 20th (Feb) and all day the 21st. Please tell me you’re available and that we can walk and walk and walk to help you train for your crazy walk-a-thon thingy!

  8. ugggg….all the Italian women are eating pasta and bread….but they have very healthy relationships with food here and their bodies (at least relative to Americans). They also don’t have cellulite…what is up with that?!?!?! Anyway…I don’t like the weight my body choose for me! 🙂

  9. Wait wait… you’re saying my brain is conspiring against me? When did this start? Flipping brain… I have a good mind (so to speak) to show you what’s what… Actually, I guess intuitively I knew this was probably true – nature seeks balance points, and pushes us in that direction.

    I love your attitude, Nancy. We should get together for a loaf of potato bread sometime.

  10. Life without cake. Not worth it. It would be a total battle. I take those extra few pounds, thank you, as long as I still look slim with my clothes on. Or rather, in the “right” clothes. As long as I exercise, that is.

  11. Nancy, this really does explain a lot. I share your goal to be healthy and strong, not skinny. I may never be tiny, but I feel good and that is what matters. .Oh, and I can eat what I like, within reason!!!

    • I know, Jo, trust me. That said, click over to the link that Nancy Hatch posted last night. I skimmed through it (have bookmarked it for a deep dive later) and it does explain a sensible, scientific way to reset your set point – IF you have the time and patience to do so. 🙂

  12. Well, that’s crappy news. So now I have to wait for some synapse altering drug to change my range, or just live with what my brain thinks is good for me? ugggh.

    • The REALLY unnerving part is it apparently decides on the set point while we’re still in utero. Crazy! Then our behavior and diet choices can reset the set point UPWARD. thoroughly depressing. 🙂

      • yesterday, after a particularly brutal set of workouts, I asked myself, does this ever get easier. I think we both know the answer to that question. 😦

  13. Too many comments to read through! I’m not on board with the whole set-point thing. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me I guess. True or not, I’m going to continue to aim for a “healthy” weight and continue trying to get stronger physically.

    • I’d like not to believe in the set point, too, Cynthia – but it does make a whole lot of sense. I know that once I hit a 15 pound weight loss midway through my 2013 daily-sweat project, I plateaued. Doing all the same things I had been doing the previous months (months I had lost weight) resulted in nothing but same weight. It’s like my body just stopped responding to the exercise. At least now I understand why. Doesn’t mean I can’t push past that, but I now know it will take a much bigger effort (and a lot of patience).

      • I don’t disagree with some parts of the theory, including plateaus. I just can’t relate the whole thing to my experience I guess. And I do believe we need to enjoy life and eating. But I’m not willing to accept that my “best weight” may be outside of the range that is conventionally considered healthy. I will certainly research this idea more, just no one has convinced me on it yet (I can be pretty stubborn to accept new ideas).

      • If you scroll to the comment left by NRHatch, you’ll find a link to a Harvard Medical program geared towards helping people reset their set point. It’s an 8-week series – I skimmed through it, but bookmarked for later deep review – but it focuses on the lengthy (but possible) way to lower your set point.

        I’m thinking that if neuroscientists and Harvard Med all agree the set point exists, that’s not up for debate in my mind – so I’m more focused on how do you successfully (and long-term) lower your set point. That’s what NRHatch’s link points to.

      • Thanks, Nancy, I’ll check that link out. Ah, you have more faith in neuroscientists and Harvard than I… but I really haven’t looked into this (I will now!)

  14. The hypothalamus deserves an ass whipping! This post is really helpful, Nancy. It says to me that meditation/mindfulness have to be part of fitness. Lots of reasons, probably boring. Anyway, you got me thinking. Thanks, John

    • There is a ton of science that supports why meditation and mindfulness are indeed a big part of fitness and good health. I just need to get a whole lot better at it. 🙂

  15. Very interesting. I have noticed over the years what my set weight it. I may gain and lose here and there but I always end up around the same spot. I love that…the healthiest life you actually enjoy! I am all about moderation and very little deprivation so this is a great concept to live by.

  16. Pingback: Making friends with fat | American Soustannie

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