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Is There Evidence for a Set Point That Regulates Human Body Weight?

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Weight loss is hard. Even harder is keeping the weight off. There is a theory, known as the Set Point Theory, that some believe explain why our bodies fight weight loss and so easily regain weight after we have worked hard to lose it. While traditional thinking about how our bodies regulate weight have long said calories in versus calories out equals the balance of weight gain or loss, this very simplistic view does not account for many factors that contribute to how our body works. These factors include intricate systems and feedback mechanisms that allow for our body and brain to communicate.

This is often posed in an analogy of your body as a house and your brain as a thermostat, except your button that changes the temperature setting is faulty. Unfortunately, we are often less in control of what this brain body conversation entails than we would like.


Where Does the Set Point Come From?

Humans are, by nature, creatures of comfort. Our bodies do not like change. Research has shown evidence for a weight set point in both directions, with lean bodies tending to stay lean, average weight staying the same, and overweight and obese likewise. This has shown to be consistent when forced alterations are made to increase or decrease weight from the set comfort zone. In obese individuals, as they strive to decrease their weight, we actually see their metabolisms slow down drastically. Our body uses hormones, namely leptin and insulin, to regulate when it wants more, and when it wants less.

That being said, there are many factors that contribute to where your set point falls. Genetically, we are predisposed to many things. Obesity is one of them. It is thought that our body type and propensity for carrying weight is largely impacted by the genes passed to us from our parents. Early nutrition also plays a role. This goes back even to include your time in the womb and soon after birth. The set point isn’t necessarily fixed for life, and environmental factors also play a key role. More access to tasty, high calorie food can shift your set point upward. Stress also plays a role in how we eat and how our body responds to food. Some eating less while some tend to eat more. Our society is laden with stress, yummy high calorie processed food, chronic sleep deprivation, and we are largely sedentary for much of the day. This perfect storm tends to shift the average set point higher, hence the obesity epidemic we see today.

Can the Set Point Be Changed?

We have found the set point can be altered, but not without major changes in how our body communicates with the brain. With traditional diet and exercise methods, your body is essentially yelling to your brain that chaos is occurs. Everything is trying to change, and you are working incredibly hard to make those changes happen. The cravings flood in, the ache for rest or to take a break chimes, and it becomes harder and harder to see the results you are looking for. Our bodies take a lot of time and incredible persistence to listen to our will and reset every time we attempt to shift our calorie balance.

Research both in animal studies and humans with brain injuries has shown alterations made to certain areas of the brain can have a drastic effect on how the body holds weight. This sparks greater thinking in how we can change the conversation between the body and brain when it comes to our weight.

With bariatric surgery, we are doing just that. While we often talk about the buzz words “restriction” and “malabsorption” with bariatric procedures, we have learned there is actually a lot more going on that makes these procedures work so well. For reasons we are still studying as a bariatric community, the feedback your brain is receiving from your body is changed. Your body is finally singing a different tune.

Bariatric patients experience major metabolic change with less hunger, a decrease in diabetes, and ultimately a lowered set point. In fact, most patients see a significant improvement in diabetes quickly after surgery, well before major weight loss has occurred. Research has shown that patients who choose weight loss surgery most often find incredible weight loss success and are able to maintain their new weight long term, adapting to a healthier normal without the same pull back to their former skewed set point.

While bariatric surgery isn’t magic and hard work and major life change is applied in tandem with these surgeries, the results are monumental for those who have long struggled to shed excess weight. If you’re interested in learning more about the weight loss surgery options offered at MASJax, we invite you to view our online seminar. Our seminar is the first step towards deciding if bariatric surgery is the right path for you to find better health.

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