We live in a society obsessed with body weight. Too much emphasis is placed on body shape and size. The media has created unrealistic weight expectations. We are constantly bombarded with images of the “perfect body.” I’ll admit that I can easily fall into this trap when scrolling through Instagram. I follow many famous athletes, and it’s easy to create an unrealistic “ideal body” based on their photos. However, we all come in unique shapes and sizes. Just like height is largely determined by genetics, so is weight.
The idea of a weight being largely pre-determined can be explained by the set-point theory. According to this theory, each person has their own unique reference point around which the body tries to keep weight stable. This “set point” is a place where our weight naturally falls. When we try to fight this natural weight by restricting food or increasing exercise, our bodies don’t like it. Our bodies respond by producing hormones that make us obsess over food and signals hunger as a way to stop further weight loss. As our weight is driven below its natural set point, it can cause depression and lethargy as a way to decrease calorie expenditure. With long-term calorie deprivation, there is a turned down metabolic rate. As a result, even when following a very stringent diet there is no longer any weight loss. When we are no longer able to maintain this diet, we gain the weight back plus a little more as an insurance policy. This creates a new higher set point as our body weight.
Does this mean that there is no point in trying to change weight? Absolutely not! We all know someone who has lost weight and managed to keep it off. However, these people were probably above their natural set point to begin with. The further you get from your unique set point, the more difficult it is to maintain this weight. Because of this, we must set realistic goals and use healthy approaches for sustainable weight loss. When I’m determining if a client’s desired weight is realistic, the areas that I like to explore are the following:
- Family body size and shape. This provides insight into our unique genetic makeup. For instance, if everyone in your family has “large thighs” or is “heavyset,” it’s unrealistic to expect that weight loss will cause all the fat on your thighs to vanish or that you can survive on celery sticks until you’re a size 2.
- Body fat percentage. The number on the scale does not just reflect body fat. After determining a client’s body fat percentage, some clients realize that they are actually already very lean and just have a lot of muscle and big bone structure. In this situation, too much weight loss could cause substantial loss of muscle mass not just body fat.
- Weight history. Those with a history of yo-yo dieting have a harder time with weight loss. I like to find out where my clients body weight was most stable in the past. For instance, if you drop below your natural set point, you may become obsessed with food and feel fatigued. On the other hand, if you are above your set point, you may feel flabby and uncomfortable.
Make sure that you are setting realistic body expectations. If you do need to change your weight in order to improve health and wellness, view it as a lifestyle change rather than a diet with a set end point. Any changes implemented you should be able to maintain lifelong. Otherwise, when you are no longer able to maintain this change, you will gain back the weight plus a little more. This puts you in an even worse situation since it’s healthiest to let your body remain at a stable weight rather than yo-yo diet. Most importantly, don’t let your happiness be determined by your weight. Learn to love the body you have and treat it well by listening to it, viewing food as fuel and accepting your body’s natural set point.