If you ever feel like your body hovers around a certain number on the scale — no matter how much you clean up your diet or ramp up your workouts — it’s not all in your head. When it comes to weight loss, this is referred to as the set point theory. “It suggests your body will fight to maintain a specific weight and body fat range tightly regulated by your genetics and that you have little control over it,” explains Ryan Maciel, RD, a certified strength and conditioning specialist based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Set point weight could be a result of evolution: Wanting to hold onto excess fuel may have helped our ancestors stay protected from famine. But it could also come down to simple design mechanisms of the human body that aren’t easily amenable to change, notes Maciel. Your body works hard to maintain a stable internal environment, which means it’s constantly adjusting hormone levels, temperature, energy levels and more. So, just as your body starts sweating to cool you off (in the sauna or during a cold-weather run) it also might begin holding onto fuel when you cut calories and work out harder.
However, “while you may be born with upper and lower set point ranges for your weight, you have the power to shift where you ultimately land,” says Maciel. Here, five ways to get started:
Fad diets promising quick fixes aren’t just uncomfortable and unsustainable — they’re built to backfire. “In general, the more rapid or drastic a change you make, the more your body wants to fight back,” explains Dr. Charlie Seltzer, a weight-loss specialist. To prevent this from happening, Seltzer recommends setting a goal of losing a half pound per week. “If your body is getting the food it needs to function, or just a tiny bit less than it’s used to, it’s going to be more willing to release that extra energy [to burn fat],” he explains. This not only helps you lose weight, but you’ll be more likely to keep it off long term.
“Research has shown losing 5–10% of your total body weight at a time is a smart approach,” says Maciel. “It is theorized that losing more than 10% of your body weight causes the body to fight back and make it more difficult to maintain weight loss.”
For example, if you want to lose 20 pounds, set that 5% goal, then try to maintain your new weight for six months before starting another weight-loss cycle, suggests Maciel. “This allows your body to adjust to the new weight and gives you a psychological break from dieting.”
Once you’ve held steady for six months, work on shedding the remaining pounds. While this process takes time, “if you want to maintain your weight loss, you must learn and adopt healthy eating and physical activity habits for the rest of your life,” says Maciel.
Tracking what you eat is a proven strategy for successful weight loss. While monitoring calories can help you see if you’re overeating, it’s also a good idea to look at your macronutrient breakdown, says Seltzer, who adds that most people aren’t getting enough protein. “Find ways to amp up your protein, so your body spends more energy digesting it compared to calories from fat and carbs.”
Changing your gut bacteria might help with weight-loss efforts and set point weight, notes Seltzer. One recent review of research published in Obesity Reviews found probiotic supplementation helped slightly reduce body weight and fat percentage. If you’re thinking about supplementing or eating more probiotic-rich foods, talk to an RD or your doctor first to see how it can fit in with your goals.
Believe it or not, the number of calories you burn during exercise is relatively small compared to the calories we burn through our daily activities like putting away groceries, taking out the trash or just fidgeting, says Katie Rickel, PhD, a clinical psychologist and CEO of Structure House, a residential weight-management facility in Durham, North Carolina. This moment-to-moment calorie burn is known as non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT). When you’re losing weight (and taking in fewer calories), you tend to subconsciously move less as your body wants to conserve energy and maintain weight. The fix: Add more NEAT to your life by taking the stairs, working at a stand-up desk, tending to your garden instead and cleaning up around your house when you have downtime.
Your basal metabolic rate (BMR) is the number of calories your body burns when you’re at rest (aka when you’re just sitting around breathing or while you’re sleeping). One way to shift your weight into a healthier range is to raise your BMR, says Rickel. Here, body composition is key: Since muscle tissue burns more calories than fat tissue, aim to preserve (if not increase) your muscle mass by doing compound movements (working on multiple muscle groups at the same time) such as squats, deadlifts and pullups, suggests Maciel. What’s more, recent research suggests both low loads (25–35 reps) and high loads (8–12 reps) are effective for increasing muscle mass.
“Appetite is a basic bodily function and is not always controllable with willpower,” says Dr. Ethan Lazarus, president-elect of the Obesity Medicine Association. Quality sleep helps optimize the balance of hormones that support your weight-loss efforts, which makes 7–9 hours of sleep per night an essential part of slimming down, says Dr. Lazarus. In particular, “while you’re sleeping, your body produces more leptin, a hormone that helps keep your appetite in check,” he explains. When you’re low on sleep, levels of leptin can drop, and levels of ghrelin (a hormone that makes you hungry) can surge, potentially leading you to crave high-fat, high-carb foods and overeat.
Having a nighttime routine, where you unwind at the end of the day, can help prime your body for a good night’s rest. It’s also important to “go to bed at the same time each night and wake up at the same time each morning to help regulate your hormones,” says Lazarus.