For most of us, weight gain happens oh-so-gradually. An extra two pounds over the course of a year can easily go completely unnoticed (and often does). Over time though, those pounds add up, and after 10 years you suddenly realize you’ve got 20-plus pounds to lose.
Ironically, many successful weight losers will tell you that shedding those pounds wasn’t actually the hardest part — rather, keeping that weight off in the long run proved to be more difficult. Old habits die hard, but as it turns out, weight regain can’t always be blamed on our love for pizza, dessert and lazy weekends on the couch. A study of 14 former Biggest Loser contestants, many of whom successfully shed hundreds of pounds as a result of being on the show, highlights some of the complex ways the body fights weight loss. Thanks to a thing called “set point,” we now know that even the most dedicated fight an uphill battle against biology to keep those pounds off.
The Point of Set Point
Simply put, set point is a complex weight-regulation system driven by the brain that works to keep the body within a certain weight range. The biological benefit is harder to appreciate these days, but this is actually a protective adaptation to help humans survive when food is scarce.
An individual’s set point is determined partly by genetics and partly by lifestyle factors. (Think: diet, activity level, exercise, sleep, stress, etc.) It varies from person-to-person but can also change throughout our lifetime. Gradual weight gain is one way this can happen — we’re talking as little as a 1–2-pound gain every year for a decade or two — which ultimately makes it more difficult to shed those unwanted pounds and also maintain your previous weight.
Where the Biological Battle Begins
When trying to lose weight, the body fights to hover around its set point by conserving calories, increasing appetite and decreasing satiety signals. This telling trifecta is the main reason why losing weight and keeping it off is so hard:
1. Fewer calories burned. It’s been accepted as fact that anyone who intentionally loses weight — regardless of how much they had to lose — will have a slower metabolism in the end. Two big things drive this: a shift toward energy conservation and the loss of lean, calorie-burning body mass. These physiological changes result in a slower metabolism, an effect that one small study found can endure for years.
2. Higher hunger levels. During periods of weight loss, the body also increases production of certain hunger signals, one being ghrelin, a hormone that stimulates hunger and appetite. Biologically this makes sense, as an increase in appetite could prevent additional unintentional weight loss, but unfortunately for those of us trying to shed pounds, it only increases our drive to eat. The effect seems long-lasting as well. One study found that, while ghrelin levels decreased after an initial weight-loss period, they remained significantly elevated for at least one year after.
3. Less desire to eat less. Additionally, the body fights weight loss by decreasing its satiety signals. Leptin, the body’s primary satiety hormone, plummets during weight loss. This means you don’t just feel less satisfied, you actually are less satisfied — and not just while you are losing weight. One recent study found leptin levels were still 35% lower one year after the initial weight-loss period.
5 Tips to Reset Your Set Point
1. Tackle 10% at a time. The research around set point suggests that modest, incremental decreases in body weight may be most effective in resetting your body’s set point. Setting an initial weight-loss goal of about 5–10% of your current weight can have many positive health implications while minimizing the metabolic shock.
2. Work on weight maintenance. Once you lose that initial 10%, consider working on maintaining your new, lower weight for a few months. A gradual approach to weight loss will likely lessen the metabolic toll on your body and will also allow you to practice weight maintenance, an important skill you’ll need to learn to hold onto your hard-earned weight loss.
3. Consider calorie cycling. Calorie cycling, one form of intermittent or short-term fasting, might be beneficial in minimizing the metabolic slowdown brought on by sustained calorie restriction, and it might actually be easier to adhere to in the long run. (Check out this article to learn more about this calorie cycling for weight loss.) If you decide you want to give it a try, consider upgrading to MyFitnessPal Premium via the web or in the app to set different calorie goals for different days.
4. Optimize your protein intake. When it comes to weight loss, dietary protein can have many positive effects. Research suggests increased protein intakes may lessen the slowing of metabolism, likely by offsetting the amount of lean muscle that is burned for energy, in addition to fat, during a calorie deficit. For tips to optimize your protein intake, check out What’s the Best Carb, Protein and Fat Breakdown for Weight Loss?
5. Ditch “dieting” for good. Yo-yo dieting not only has negative impacts on metabolism, but research also has linked repeated weight-loss/weight-gain cycles to other serious health problems including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, depression, heart disease, cancer and more. Sustainability is the name of the game here. Small, gradual changes in your daily habits translate to long-term success and, over time, will also outsmart your body’s biology to regain that weight.