Setpoint theory and eating disorders

The Set-point weight theory is probably one of the most valuable studies researchers have done when it comes to recovery from dieting, food restriction and eating disorders, such as anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder, and orthorexia. 

What is the definition of the Setpoint?

Setpoint is the body’s weight range in which our body is meant to function optimally. The Setpoint theory is the study that holds that one’s body will fight to maintain in that specific weight range.

Every one of us is born with a certain amount and size of fat cells which is the reason why some people are leaner and some carry a bit more fat on their body. The number of fat cells can be changed throughout our lives, especially during our childhood and teenage years for several reasons, such as lifestyle, environment, medications, and health circumstances. 

In our early adult years, our body wants to settle and will try to stay on its preferred body fat cells number, which means when we lose weight our fat cells shrink in size but the number of cells won’t decrease. When fat cells die, as all cells do, the body simply creates new ones in its effort to always keep the number constant. For this reason, an obese person who loses weight will still have more fat cells compared to a naturally lean person.

The same happens for people who go on weight loss programs or suffer from eating disorders. If someone goes through eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia or orthorexia and loses a significant amount of weight, their body fat cells number shrink in size, however, the number of fat cells will remain the same.

This shows that in our adult years it is not easily possible to change our set-point and the weight range our body prefers to stay in.

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Setpoint theory and eating disorders

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Why dieting and eating disorders can change our setpoint weight?  

When someone turns their back on dieting or goes through eating disorder recovery (anorexia recovery, bulimia recovery, orthorexia recovery), they naturally start to eat more food again. The consumption of more food makes our body to go automatically back to our initial (pre-dieting/pre-eating disorder) weight due to the fact our fat cells haven’t changed in number. 

However, in most cases, weight loss causes a change in our Leptin hormones which are responsible for our hunger and appetite regulation. (Click here for the article about Leptin resistance) When Leptin hormones are out of balance, also our hunger and appetite go out of balance which is the reason why most people experience extreme hunger after a period of food restriction and eating disorders. This results in most people in a phase of overeating, binge eating, and emotional eating. This behavior of compulsive overeating can eventually make our body fat cells increase in number as well as in size. This is the point where our setpoint can change and our body may settle in this “new and higher“ weight range. 

Leptin hormones are balancing out again over time once someone starts to eat more food. Once the Leptin hormones are back on a healthy level, hunger and appetite also normalize which leads to stabilization in weight and the amount of our body fat cells. 

This occurring clearly shows us that diets and weight loss programs don’t work long-term since most people gain more weight back than they had before they went on a diet or fitness program. The reason for it is their increased setpoint. Calorie restriction is therefore never a recommendable approach to lose weight or change our body’s size. In addition to that calorie restriction and diets make people lose their precious connection with their body and food which can also result in eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder or orthorexia, as well as various other physical and mental health issues such as hormonal problems, a decrease in bone mass, vitamin and mineral malabsorption, digestive issues and depression, anxiety, and hypochondria. 

Important Note 

In this article, I want to emphasize that the set-point theory is a study and should not be taken as a law or a rule that applies to everyone recovering from food restriction or eating disorders. In fact, our bodies are biochemically very very unique and individual. For this reason, some people experience changes in their set-point through dieting and developing eating disorders, whereas some people don’t notice any changes. 

I’ve been working now in the area of the psychology of eating behaviors for almost 15 years and I am educating myself in eating disorders for more than a decade, and in the past years, I have seen a large number of people experiencing changes in their set-point in form of remaining on a heavier weight after food restriction and dieting. At the same time, I have also seen a large number of people who didn’t experience any changes in their set-point at all which means they went back to their pre-dieting/pre-eating disorder weight again. 

The human body, biochemistry, and our metabolism are very complex and even to this day are not entirely understood. Therefore, the set-point theory has also been criticized a lot by experts since it only shows an oversimplification of a much more complex subject.

Since so many people get easily caught up in the set-point theory and losing themselves in worrying about their weight and if it will change, my recommendation for you would be to stop focusing on the setpoint theory completely. Instead, start focusing on your life and loving the body you’re in at the moment. The setpoint theory should not be a decisive factor for you to recover from dieting and/or your eating disorders.

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You may also be interested in:

Video about the set point theory 

Video about the set point theory of hunger

Article about leptin resistance

Article about weight gain in the abdominal area

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