Why You Shouldn’t Worry if You Gain Weight on Vacation: An Introduction to Set Point
Vacation is the best. You get to go new places, do new things, and eat a bunch of new foods. Your everyday schedule goes out the window, including your normal eating habits. Maybe you get up at 6 AM to go on a sunrise hike that (unbeknownst to you) did not include breakfast. You find yourself starving by the time you go to that cute little brunch place, and you eat past comfortable fullness. You wait to eat lunch until mid-afternoon, but soon after, you have dinner plans at a fancy steakhouse known for its dessert. By the end of the day, you’ve done a lot of fun things, but you may have eaten more than normal and also moved your body less than you usually do.
When you get home, you realize your pants fit a little tighter and you’re slightly more lethargic. What should you do? Have a breakdown because of your lack of willpower? Throw away all the sweets in the house and go on a two-week detox? Hit the gym and get in a two-hour workout to make up for all that time you spent sitting down?
Actually, you don’t need to do anything at all.
Let me tell you why.
A lot of people think weight is arbitrary — i.e. we have complete control over it. If we could just exercise more and eat less, or eat the right foods, we would attain the perfect weight. After all, all you have to do to lose weight is to create a caloric deficit…right?
A lot of people think we have complete control over our weight. We simply don’t.
Set point theory holds that your body has a genetically predisposed weight range which it will naturally fight to maintain. Think of it like a thermostat. When the room gets colder, the heat kicks on the maintain the set temperature; when the room gets warmer, the air kicks on. Your body does the same thing. If you are eating intuitively and listening to your body’s natural cues to know what and when to eat, you will be at your set point. But if there is some disruption that causes you to either gain or lose weight, your body reacts with compensatory mechanisms.
Going below your set point
Let me explain in further detail. If you lose weight below the point at which you were designed to be, your resting metabolic rate (RMR) will drop in an effort to conserve energy. This means you might feel constantly tired, cold, and unmotivated in general. Additionally, your brain will ramp up cravings and thoughts about food (thus the common post-diet binge and subsequent weight gain).
If you continue to maintain your weight at this low point, your body will begin to shut down processes that are not necessary for survival — like reproduction. Amenorrhea, or the loss of a normal period, is common in eating disorders/disordered eating and is a direct result of hormonal imbalances caused by malnutrition. If you are a female and not currently having your period along with restricting food intake and/or exercising excessively, chances are you’re below your set point.
One final note on existing below your set point — it is possible to maintain this low weight, but only with extremely close attention given to your eating and exercise habits and increasingly disordered behaviors. And this is the question you really have to ask yourself — is it worth it? Is it worth spending the rest of your life fighting against your body, obsessively tracking weight and food intake, and doing exercise you don’t enjoy? What relationships and pursuits might pay the cost of this decision? Is it worth your family? Your marriage? Your relationship with God? Your career?
Personally, I maintained a weight below my set point for quite some time through excessive exercise and food restriction. Contrary to what diet culture made me believe, it never got easier. I reached a point where I realized the sacrifices I would need to make to sustain this weight were not worth it, and I hope you might come to a similar place if this is you.
Going above your set point
Conversely, you may gain weight above your set point for any variety of reasons — vacation, an emotionally distressing time, an injury, etc. The body is less resistant to such a change because it does not directly put your health in danger, but the thermostat will still eventually kick on to slightly reduce appetite/cravings and increase movement — if we let it do its work.
The problem is, we don’t trust our bodies. We think weight gain is a sign of failure, and because weight is such a morally charged subject in today’s society, we do everything we can to lose the weight. Unfortunately, many of these “weight-loss” behaviors — restricting food intake, eliminating certain food groups, increasing exercise without providing enough fuel — signal to our bodies that we are no longer listening to them, and may actually cause our bodies to hold on more tightly to that weight we’re trying so desperately to lose. “Diet mode” causes the same response as “below set point” mode — a decrease in metabolism, increase in appetite, and increased reward responses to food.
The only way to find our natural set point is to listen to our bodies. That means embracing all the concepts of intuitive eating — consistently honoring hungry/full signals, allowing all foods in your diet in balance, variety, and moderation, learning to cope with emotions without using food, and letting exercise be guided by how your body feels rather than strict rules. This process will eventually lead us to settle in a range that is healthy for us.
How do you know what your set point is?
There is actually no way to know what your set point is without letting your body tell you. You can look at your parents’ and grandparents’ body size/shape to get an idea of what might be programmed in your genes, although this is not a definitive indicator. Only going through the work of intuitive eating will reveal what your set point is.
Remember these things:
- Set point varies widely from person to person.
- Your set point is not an exact number, but a range from 10–20 pounds (which means your body can comfortably lose/gain weight within that range without activating compensatory mechanisms).
- Set point can fluctuate throughout your lifetime — early adulthood, postpartum, menopause, old age — depending on what your body needs at that time.
- Set point is about actual health, not just the “appearance” of health, and it is 100% possible for you to be healthy at a weight society would deem unhealthy (see below on Health At Every Size).
A note to those with a history of dieting
It is possible to increase your body’s set point through yo-yo dieting and weight fluctuations. By forcing yourself to lose a lot of weight in a short amount of time, the body learns it cannot trust you to feed it — so it ramps up that “healthy weight” threshold.
If you are sitting at a higher weight right now due to past dieting behaviors (or if you are fighting to keep your body at a low weight), it may be discouraging to hear that your weight may not settle in the place you would ideally like it to. I understand this struggle, and it is valid to have emotions of anger, frustration, and shame.
But at some point, we all must make a decision — will we choose to accept where we are and believe that life is about more than our body size, or will we spend the rest of our lives fighting our bodies?
Something that might help you in this process is this fact:
There is not one single proven way to lose weight and keep it off for more than 3–5 years.
Please read that again.
For as often as weight loss is prescribed and we hear wonderful testimonials of how certain methods/diets have “worked,” not one has been scientifically proven to last more than several years without the development of disordered behaviors. Thus, it is more fruitful to focus on developing trust with your body and implementing healthy behaviors at your current weight. It is possible to improve markers of health such as blood pressure, lipid panel, and insulin resistance without focusing on weight — if you’re skeptical, check out the evidence behind Health At Every Size.
Life is more than weight. It is WAY more than weight. Learning to broaden your definition of health and let your body care for itself will lead to a level of freedom you may have never experienced.
If you have more questions about set point, intuitive eating, or Health At Every Size, I would love to chat! And if you like researching for yourself, here’s an article from Christy Harrison and another from Robyn (both non-diet dietitians) with some resources you can explore on your own.
How can I connect with you?
Because finding freedom in body image and food is such a big part of my own story, I’m dedicated to helping others find it too. If you want some help diving into intuitive eating, I am now offering private nutrition counseling services! Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or find me on Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter.