Set Point Theory: What You Need to Know

One of the first goals of recovery should be to reach and maintain your weight at your genetic set-point. What is your set point? It will differ for each person, based on their genetics, but it is the weight range (usually around 5 to 10 pounds) your body will maintain comfortably without any external input from you- that is, without calorie counting, food restricting, excessive exercise, or purging.

I think that many professionals buy into our fears over reaching our set-point weight and say that if you weigh X pounds, you'll be "healthy" because they're afraid you'll freak if you hear the truth. But if the truth is that you need to weigh X+5 or X+10 pounds in order to be "healthy," they're really condemning you to a life of illness and misery.

Our culture buys into it as well- they celebrate abnormally low weights. I saw in one of the tabloids that described--in depth!--the "unhealthy" ways in which stars dieted.* How many people are going to use these methods because of this article? And how many lives are being blunted, whether in years or in scope, because we can't accept that people come in all sorts of shapes and sizes?

The blog Treatment Notes had a recent post on Set Point and Weight Regulation, and there was a link to a simple explanation of the Set Point Theory. I was hooked from the first paragraph:

Height is mostly determined by genetic factors.
No-one seems to dispute the fact you cannot
successfully change your height - some people are
just shorter than average, others are taller, and
that’s just the way we are. The same principal
applies to weight.

It's a fantastic explanation, and should be required reading. I'm adding it to my list of permanent links on the right hand side of the blog.

*That's what the headline said- I didn't read it.

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Bron said...

That's a brilliant article. One of the things I struggled with (and still do) is finding what my 'normal' weight should be. It's so true that people don't think they are responsible for their height but are for their weight, but when you think about it, it makes perfect sense that your body will have an equilibrium range, and that what this is is determined only by your own unique body, not by any external measure such as BMI etc.

Thank you for linking to this Carrie!

Gaining Back My Life said...

This is so incredibly true, and was a major epiphany during one of my dietician appts.

My setpoint weight will naturally be on the higher end of normal, due to my muscle mass. That's hard for me to accept, and one of the reasons I'm having such a hard time getting back to where I'm supposed to be.

Thanks for such a great article.

Carrie Arnold said...

My set point is still well within the "normal" range, but also a bit above the standard formula of 100 pounds for 5 feet, 5 pounds for each additional inch. Not much- about 5 ish pounds, but it makes all the difference. I have a larger frame, as do most people in my family.

And my dietician was totally straight up honest with me about what my target weight would need to be, which was mucho uncomfortable at the time (people had lowballed my weights for a long time), but ultimately helpful.

Kim said...

Great post. I need to be reminded of this quite often. I know it logically (especially when I think about the height comparison), but it's very easy to get caught in the messages that we can/should manipulate our weight to fit a certain "ideal." I know what my weight was before I was ill, but I was 17 then... I'm 29 now. I think I have 10 pounds or so to go, but it might be a lot more than that. It's kind of scary, but also exciting to think about what my body wants. I wish there were more people fighting the ridiculous notion that we all have to fit a formula.

Lauren said...

I read your blog all the time but have never commented until now, because this article was so true!

I struggled so much with this concept, because after continually gaining during recovery, it is hard to believe that the body would just stop. However, my weight has maintained itself for months, and I finally saw that my body is normal, and does have a set point. It is so refreshing! Yes sometimes it is down, and sometimes it is up... but it has been within a certain range.

Thank you for bringing this up!

Sarah said...

But Carrie! I can be taller! That's what the man selling growth hormones told me...


Kim, I can understand your fears. I weigh more than I have ever weighed right now now, and even though I am shocked by the number on the scale, I have to admit that this is where my body settles when I'm not abusing it. I've been abusing it since I was 17. I've never given it a chance until age 21 to be an adult body. It sort of makes sense that my weight would be slightly higher since, like, I have breasts and mini hips now. And don't spend hours at the gym every day wasting my life. I'd encourage you to push past your fears and go for health!

A:) said...

This is something I am TERRIFIED of -- so thank you for bringining it up -- I have never been at a "lowballed" target for a substantial period of time, let alone let my body sort out where it actually wants to be. . .

However, my dietican has explained that my body will naturally find its proper weight once weight restoration is finished (to a BMI of 20) -- my "actual weight" may be more than this depending. . .

It is reassuring to hear that weight does find an equilbrium at some point with proper nutrition/lifestyle. . .


Christina said...

Sigh of frustration and panic.

See, I can't seem to accept this. It literally terrifies me to even think about set point or target weight. Literally, my heart is pounding and I want to crawl out of my skin right now, just reading your post - w/o even clicking on the article. I can't seem to get past this. I get confused because weight is determined by what you eat and expend. So if you don't eat only according to hunger and don't exercise every day or whatever healthy amount is designated, then your weight would become artificially high since you're eating more than you need, exercising less than you need. Sigh. This is what I KNOW I need to somehow get over/deal with or do something about, but I don't KNOW why I'm so scared. It frustrates me so much I cry. I also get confused because my mom's side of the family is tiny, my dad's is a bit more, uh, substantial I guess? So how do I trust which side I am supposed to be on? I'm taller than everyone in my family, so I have no reference, plus I started struggling with anorexia in my early teens, so I don't know what I'm supposed to be at - there's no weight to get back to. I am 32 now.

Carrie Arnold said...


Here's the thing: what you eat determines a small part of what you weigh, but it's mostly genetics. When you exercise more, your metabolism will speed up to meet your needs and tell you to eat more. When you exercise less, the opposite will happen. If you eat more, you'll stay full longer OR your metabolism will speed up to burn what you've eaten. If you eat less, again, the opposite. Our society doesn't think this, and no one really told me this, either- I had to read about it independently.

The best way to start figuring out what weight your mind and body will feel the best at is to find your old growth charts from when you were a kid. I've never done this formally, but I have a few points I remember, and I've tracked around the 60-65% for height and weight pretty much my whole life.

Of course it's distressing to think about- if it weren't, we wouldn't have an eating disorder, right?

sarah-j said...

I know that it can be difficult to accept this, especially in your mind before you reach your set point weight... but sometimes I find myself just kind of marveling at how good it can feel once you're at it and not so scared by it. It's a strange but not unpleasant irony that at your natural weight, you can suddenly feel so much less fat than before. And wasting so much time and emotion feeling fat is definitely a good feeling.

sarah-j said...

whoops, obviously I meant 'not wasting so much time and emotion feeling fat is a good feeling.'

(It's very very late where I live....!)

MelissaS said...

i want to give this post to everyone! i love the thought that you can't change the height your body chose, why should be able to change your natural weight? it's such a calming thought for me.

i'm in the same boat -- my natural weight is probably 10 or 15 pounds over the charts you reference. i'm 5'5 and a half. my body longs for 135-140. i'm not on board, and the fight is exhausting.

my dream to accept (and even cherish) the body i was meant to have. that's my challenge, and i really want to achieve my goal.

Christina said...

Melissa S.

Seems like we're about the same height. 5'5''. I can't accept mentally even the referenced weight range. Yet. However, my 'mentally accepted weight range' has certainly increased over the past 3 years so...there's hope, I hope! And getting to even that previous point as acceptable and logical was not easy!

I find it ironic that once I lose any weight, the resistance to restoring even that fraction of a pound sometimes rears up so illogically. Full blown panic, anxiety etc. It makes no sense to me, yet it's my body/brain doing the illogical reaction. Though at this stage of recovery, my thought is "oh shit, I can't lose any more if I see it go down, but then the stupidity arises where I feel like I can't gain it back either.

This is a relatively new revelation for me, in the past month after my life fell apart, so I'm still analyzing it and how to circumvent the ed voice in my head pre-panic attack, rather than post.

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I'm a science writer, a jewelry design artist, a bookworm, a complete geek, and mom to a wonderful kitty. I am also recovering from a decade-plus battle with anorexia nervosa. I believe that complete recovery is possible, and that the first step along that path is full nutrition.

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