If you’ve hit a weight loss plateau, or your weight loss has stalled due to hitting a set point, then this next section will be of particular interest to you. Not only did I have to deal with the fact that I had lowered my BMI, due to loss of mass, but I was also battling a set point, and The Set Point Monster.
Note: I’m holding off on talking about starvation mode until Chapter 5. I’m separating the two because they I think each deserve special attention.
In simple terms, a set point is nothing more than a weight in which the body is comfortable being. Once we move out of that range, the body does everything it can to maintain that weight through a complex process of brain, nervous system, and fat cell interaction. It does all of this on an unconscious level. When we are trying to lose weight, this unconscious biological process can sabotage our weight loss efforts causing a weight loss plateau, or stall. I’ve come to calling this unconscious process “The Set Point Monster.” This monster can be a killer to any diet. It slows down the metabolism, zaps our energy and motivation, and can drive us crazy with hunger and cravings.
Before I explain set points in more detail, let me explain a little bit about the way hunger is supposed to work. Hunger is the body’s way of getting us to:
- Consume more calories and nutrients
- Replenish our energy supply
- Regulate weight
If I were at my ideal weight, and had a healthy metabolism, on the days I burned off more calories I should be hungrier than on the days I did nothing. This seems obvious, and it explains why, on some days, after you have worked out, or had a particularly grueling day, you often feel ravenous. You have used up more of your body’s energy supply, and the body is desperately trying to replace those supplies.
One way of looking at it is through an analogy of a car. If you had a 10 gallon tank, and you used 3 gallons, you wouldn’t put in more than those three gallons, you’d put in the exact amount you needed that day. If you use more, you would put in more. In an ideal world, our bodies would work the same way, if we burned off 1,000 calories, we would eat 1,000. If we needed more, we’d eat more. Unfortunately, bodies aren’t designed that way, and that’s why we have fat reserves. The problem is, since most of us never learned to listen to our body, we have made our fat reserves larger, and now our bodies’ metabolisms are malfunctioning. In essence, we have gone from a 10-gallon tank, and if you are like me, added a 20-gallon reserve.
My hunger mechanism was out of whack, and I believed it was due to either being at a set point, or, in starvation mode—or perhaps, both.
So, what I did first was took a look at set points, and how it contributed to my stall.
According to Dr. George Blackburn, author of the book, Break Through your Set Point, set points can be caused by environmental and genetic factors, and are usually identified by long periods of neither gaining nor losing.
Note: You can identify your set point by looking through your past as you were gaining or losing weight. Even the new Atkins book tells you to pick a weight goal that you can identify from your past that you easily maintained. According to Blackburn, for those who didn’t get caught in the trap of yo-yo dieting, their set point was set by the age of 18. So this would be a good place to start looking for your original set point, and your goal weight.
According to the set-point theory, there is a control system built into every person dictating how much fat he or she should carry; a kind of thermostat for body fat. Some individuals have a high setting and others a low one. According to this theory, body fat percentage and body weight is a matter of internal controls that are set differently in different people, and thought to be controlled by the genes.
In an overweight person, this set point will slowly raise higher and higher until it becomes very difficult to lose weight. Many of us already know about set points. When we were gaining weight, each of us probably hit several of these set points, where we maintained our weight for long periods before our weight crept up.
When the body is trying to maintain its set point, it will either turn up the metabolism, or slow it down to compensate for the energy you have burned. If too much energy’s burned, it will lower the metabolism. If too little is burned, it will increase the metabolism, and increase or decrease hunger accordingly. In addition, the body might increase or decrease your energy levels, and you may find your motivation to diet begin to wane if you are trying to lose weight.
This all happens on an unconscious level, and is what I referred to earlier as The Set Point Monster. It does all of this in an effort to keep weight constant, and I presume, the unconscious mind is in control of this because it has information that is more accurate about the body’s fat stores than the conscious mind can obtain. This unconscious attempt by the Set Point Monster to sabotage weight loss is why so many people get discouraged and quit dieting, thinking it is their lack of will power, when in reality, it is the Set Point Monster trying to maintain homeostasis, or, the body’s set point.
Set point theory definitely explains what happened to my hunger mechanism, and why I didn’t know I wasn’t eating the same calories I thought I was. The Set Point Monster was fooling my conscious mind in a desperate to maintain the status quo and keep me fat.
And fooled me it did, remember when I said that I was eating the same things at the beginning of my program, as I was when I stalled. This is not entirely true. In fact, I wasn’t sure. I just assumed I was.
Yes, I was still eating 1,800 calories, but the Set Point Monster fooled me into doing some things I’m not proud of.
- I Began eating heavy whipping cream in large quantities
- Increased soda consumption
- Increased sweeteners ( I went from 3 a day to 6 or more)
- Ate more cheese
- Began eating pork rinds by the truck load
- And I had stopped tracking religiously
Yes, this food was still Atkins friendly, and my ratios were still the same as before, but this was definitely not the same food.
The only way the Set Point Monster could do this was change my cravings for foods that it knew would keep me from losing weight. In addition, it fooled me into thinking it was ok not to keep track of my food every day. By not doing so, there could have been days that I ate 2,000 calories or more without really being aware of it. Thus, adding back any pounds that I may have lost on the days I was a little stricter with my tracking.
Before I go on, I wanted to share with you some insights into what I discovered about my set point range. In my experience, a set point range usually falls into a 5-8 lb range. I’ve had five set points climbing the weight loss ladder to obesity, and hit all five coming back down that ladder. For example, one such set point happened when I hit 193 lbs, this being the low end of a 5 lb range, and 198 being the high end. Whenever I reached the high end of that range, my motivation to lose weight would increase. I became more diligent in my tracking, my energy would increase, and my appetite became suppressed. It wouldn’t be long before my weight would go back down. As I reached the low end of my set point of 193 lbs, my metabolism would slow down, I’d become sluggish, lethargic, depressed, and I would constantly think about food. It was at this point that I would stop tracking my food, and start packing on the pounds. Only in the middle range did I take no action. I would spend much of my time in this range worrying about my weight, just like most people do.
I now understood what happened to my hunger mechanism and the tricks the Set Point Monster played with me. But I had another question. If I’m no longer burning those extra calories, where did they go? Rolling black outs explained everything.
I want you to imagine a city in California whose power supply is limited. What do they do when the supply is limited? They have rolling black outs to conserve energy, and keep the extra energy they do have stored for future use. They may know a heat wave is coming, and want to be prepared in the event of an emergency. The body works the same way, our stored fat is our reserve energy and the body wants to hold onto that stored energy in case of an emergency.
It does this by slowing breathing, digestion, blood circulation, and other body functions. When a city has a rolling black out, power isn’t shut down to vital functions of the city like hospitals, police departments, or the many businesses the city needs to stay functioning. No, only some areas go without power. Since my metabolism had slowed down and I wasn’t tapping into my energy reserves, some areas of my body had to go without power. When this happened, I experienced lethargy, sore muscles, headaches, depression, foggy thinking, ravenous hunger, and a host of other symptoms. It wasn’t pretty.
These rolling black outs explains why many people on diets feel tired all the time, and eventually crave foods that will bring their energy level up. Dieting is hard work and exhausting on the body.
After my discovery of the Set Point Monster, I wanted to know if there was anything I could do about getting past a set point. I discovered, resetting a set point is probably the most difficult thing a person can do, it requires plenty of time, and more importantly patience.
According to Dr. Blackburn, “If you want to lose weight — and lose it for good — follow the 10% rule. Try to lower your body weight by that percentage and then stop losing for a while. Fight instead to keep off just that amount. So if you weigh 180 pounds, aim to lose 18 pounds in the next three to six months. If you weigh 220, your goal might be to drop 22 pounds. Stay at that level for at least six months to give your body a chance to adjust to its new, lower set point. If you lose weight in this fashion, and do it in a healthy manner, you are less likely to be stuck at any one set point until you reach your final set point, which is your goal weight.”
The one thing you would need to do following this theory is reduce your calories in a healthy manner, and once you reached your 10% goal you’d raise your calorie intake level back up until you stopped losing weight, and stay there for 6 months. So, if you were reducing your calories by 500 a day, and lost 1 lb a week, when you reached your goal weight you would add those calories back in to maintain your weight. However, according to set point theory our body will fight to maintain that weight, so if you were to add back even more calories than this your body might raise its metabolic rate to keep you at your set point. Thus, you could find yourself eating more than you did before. Once you maintain this weight for 6 months your metabolism would be revved up to a new level, and once you started dieting again you would need only reduce your calories by what you did before and you should lose weight. In theory, this would keep your metabolism set high, and keep your metabolism from adapting.
I think his research is sound, however, I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect a 500 lb person, or anyone for that matter, to spend years slowly taking off the weight to avoid hitting a set point. Who has the patience for that? From the research I’ve done, there are other techniques to help break a stall or plateau, and blast through a set point. I’ll touch on some of these techniques in my 25 tips for breaking a stall, and in the chapters on overcoming our biology.
Before I move on to starvation mode, I wanted to recap a few things about set points. My hunger mechanism got thrown out of whack because I had reached a set point. Each time I reached a set point I would find myself doing things beyond my control. I stopped tracking, was eating the wrong types of food, lost my motivation, and would often eat more than I thought. All of these things were nothing more than the my body’s way of controlling my weight. But the one thing that I learned about myself, and set points that I really hate the Set Point Monster. I still battle this Monster on occasion, but I win the battle more often than not, and in upcoming chapters I will show you how you can too.
In the next chapter, I will show you what I learned about the affects of starvation mode on the body, and teach you how you can keep from entering this state.
Continued in Chapter 5….