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There’s no denying the fact that people’s body weight tends to remain settled in certain ranges over long periods of time.

There’s also no denying that “dieting” simply doesn’t work for most people. Sure, they can lose weight, but many regain it all once they stop the diet.

And to add a cherry of hopelessness on top, we’re also often told that exercise kind of sucks for weight loss too.

What are we to do, then? Accept whatever body weight nature and our environment has given us? Is there really no effective way to achieve and maintain an ideal body weight for the long term?

Well, there’s a counterpoint to the above research: evidence that about 20% of overweight people successfully reduce their body weight by at least 10%, and then maintain their new weight for at least 1 year.

What’s going on here?

What’s going on is a result of people’s body weight set points, which are very real and can either work for or against you in your quest to get and stay lean.

In this episode, you’re going to learn why your body weight has “settled” to its current level, why it’s a pain in the ass to reduce your “default” weight, and how to actually do it.

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Episode Transcript:

[00:00:23] Hello, this is Mike from Muscle For Life and Legion Athletics, welcoming you to a new episode of the Musical For Life podcast. See, I told you I’d be back. And this time around, I want to talk about the topic of body weight set point. Now, what is that? Well, let’s get into it.

There’s no denying the fact that people’s body weight tends to remain settled in certain ranges over long periods of time, as we’re talking about when we refer to our body weight set point. There’s also no denying that dieting, at least in the traditional mainstream sense, it simply does not work for most people.

A number of studies have shown this. What happens is people can do various things to lose weight, but then in many cases they regain it all once they stop dieting and sometimes even wind up fatter. To add a cherry of hopelessness, a rotten cherry. On top of that, we’re also often told.

And there are a few studies that have come out in the last couple years that have made headlines, at least, for claiming that exercise just doesn’t work, it just basically sucks for weight loss. So what are we supposed to do then? Are we supposed to just accept whatever body weight, nature, and our environment has given us?

Is there really no effective way to achieve and maintain an ideal body weight for the long term? Well, there’s good news because there is a counterpoint to all that, including the research. There’s evidence that about 20 percent or so of overweight people do successfully reduce their body weight by at least 10 percent and then maintain it for at least one year.

Now, why is that? What’s going on? Well, a lot of it has to do with bodyweight set points, which are very real and can either work for or against you in your quest to get and stay lean. Now, in this podcast, you’re going to learn why. You’re going to learn why your body weight has settled to its current level. You’re going to learn why it’s kind of a pain in the ass to reduce your default bodyweight and how to actually do it.

 

[00:04:49] All right, so let’s start with the body weight set point theory. What is this theory? Well, the theory is that the body uses hormones, hunger, behavior changes, and other physiological mechanisms to defend a certain range of body weight and body fat in particular. So a simple way to think of this is as a thermostat or a cruise control system for body weight and for body fat levels. Whatever numbers are set are what your body strives to maintain.

 

[00:05:26] Now, there’s plenty of animal research to support this theory. For example, if you starve a rat, its metabolism starts to slow down, its appetite increases. It starts to naturally move less to conserve energy. Then if you give it free access to food, it quickly will eat its way back to its starting weight and then tend to settle there.

Now, on the flip side, if you force-feed a rat to fatten it up, the opposite occurs. Metabolic rate and activity levels increase and appetite decreases and it quickly returns to its starting weight.

 

[00:06:04] Now research shows that us humans have at least similar mechanisms in place to maintain preferred weight ranges and preferred body compositions. Again, particularly body fatness. But unfortunately, we are not wired the same way as rats. We are not big rats. Our bodies run on an asymmetrical system of body weight regulation that defends against weight loss more than weight gain.

 

[00:06:36] If only that were not true. Only with the other way around. Right? If only our body would easily give up weight loss and defend more against weight gain. But unfortunately, that’s not the case. And this is the reason why, for most people at least, it is much harder to lose weight and to keep it off than it is to gain it and keep it on.

And this is also why people tend to get fatter over time and not leaner. Now, you might be thinking, well, what about all those people out there that who can, you know, just eat anything and never gain weight? Well, first, research does show that some people do naturally respond to overfeeding more like rats.

You know, they experience more of an unconscious increase in their non-exercise activity levels and they tend to burn off more excess calories without even realizing it. People, by the way, that exhibit high levels of non-exercise activity, thermogenesis, or NEAT, as it’s known, realize that they can burn upward of two thousand more calories than a low NEAT type.

Now that’s a bit of an extreme example, of course. And if I remember correctly in the research that I was reading, it’s more common to see variations in the hundreds of calories, but that’s pretty significant. If you have somebody that naturally, just by being more naturally active without even realizing it, is burning an extra 300, 400 calories a day than the average person, I mean, that’s significant. That’s cardio, right? 

 

[00:08:06] Now, another thing that we do realize here is that the eat anything and stay lean types of people rarely eat as much as you or even they think when you really get down to it, when you really measure the calories and you have them keep a food diary, which I’ve done many times with many people over the years, many of these people I’ve found, they eat one or two large-ish meals per day with very little snacking in between.

And they’re rarely, if ever, hungry. Their appetites also tend to be lower and they just don’t realize it. For them, in particular, I’m thinking about some guys I’ve worked with over the years who ranged from a 140 to 160 pounds and always struggled to put on weight, again when it came down to really tracking their calories, tracking their food, food diaries, what we learned in almost all cases is that their appetite really only got them to maybe 2,000 to 2,500 calories a day and that felt like a lot of food to them.

And in some cases, they had to eat upward of like 4,000 calories a day just to gain weight consistently, which felt absolutely disgusting to them. And I’ve been there myself. I haven’t done a proper lean bulk in a while because I haven’t really wanted to, but the last time I did, it ended at about 4,000 calories per day.

And I like food, and that just too much for me. I was actually kind of disgusted by the end of that bulk. Had to eat two dinners and that second dinner was a big bowl of pasta. And, you know, it sounds great, 4,000 calories a day. Yeah, it sounds great until you actually go and do it.

And for the first week, it’s fun. And then in the second week, you’re like, “okay, this is not so enjoyable anymore.” And then in the second month, it’s actually a chore. You are forcing yourself to eat all the food. 

 

[00:09:43] Anyways, getting back on track here. When you combine a high level of non-exercise activity, thermogenesis, and a strong appetite shut off switch. Yeah, you have someone who doesn’t gain weight easily and doesn’t hold onto it easily. And that applies to both body fat and muscle, by the way, right? So that’s the hard gainer type of person.

 

[00:10:04] So the bottom line here is that it is very well-established scientifically that our bodies do have a complex system for regulating body weight. While a more accurate term would actually be a settling point because “set point” implies something that’s fixed and unchanging, and fortunately that isn’t the case. The basic premise of the bodyweight set point theory is sound.

 

[00:10:30] Now how does this system work and how can we change its programming for the better? Well, to understand that, let’s talk about what determines your body weight set or settling point. There are several factors here, and the primary ones are genetics, physical activity levels, diet, and hormone profile – sex, appetite, and stress hormones in particular. So let’s talk briefly about each of those.

 

[00:10:57] So genetics, genetics and body weight set or settling point. Now, when it comes to obesity, genetics are, of course, the go-to scapegoat for many. And it’s becoming more and more of a thing these days. People desperately want to believe it’s not their fault and they’re just programmed and that’s it.

Fortunately, research shows that is not the case. Yes, it’s true. There are genetic variants that can predispose us to higher or lower body weight set points – very true. But studies show that these effects are pretty small and can most definitely be overridden by lifestyle choices.

And furthermore, epigenetic research has shown that certain obesity genes can actually just be turned off through exercise alone. So by exercising, you can modify that genetic hardwiring, so to speak. It’s not so hardwired. So the truth here is while your genetics can make you more inclined to be maybe fatter than the average person or fatter than you’d like to be. You can absolutely change that with the right behaviors.

 

[00:13:34] Let’s go to the next point, physical activity levels. When it’s all said and done, the maintenance of a given body weight over time requires a balance of energy. If you’re not sure what I’m talking about or why that is, head over to muscleforlife.com and search for energy balance and check out the article I wrote on this.

Because what I am saying here, of course, is that energy intake (calories eaten), has to be more or less equal to the output (the calories expended over time), if you’re going to maintain a body weight, right? And I know it’s a bit more complicated than that, but that’s the long story short.

So regardless of your body weight set point, if you over or under eat every day, you will gain and lose weight accordingly. It’s no surprise, then, that research shows that physical activity levels play a large role in determining body weight set points.

People who are very physically active burn a lot more energy than those of us who are more sedentary. And studies show that those more active people generally have lower body weight set points. Obvious, but needs to be said.

 

[00:14:41] Next point, diets. How does diet play into this? Well, since we are talking about how energy balance affects body weight and body weight settling points, let’s look at the energy in a part of the equation, right? Let’s look at diet.

 

[00:14:53] So based on what I’ve just said, you have probably correctly assumed that energy intake per se doesn’t determine or much influence body weight set point. In other words, eating a lot of food doesn’t necessarily increase your body weight set point or even keep it high, and eating little doesn’t necessarily decrease it or keep it low.

 

[00:15:16] For example, as a subset of the general population, endurance athletes eat a lot more food than the average person, but also sport lower, and in many cases, much lower than average levels of body fat. So here you have a lot of food, but a low body weight set point.

And then on the flip side, one of the problems with being obese is it doesn’t cost all that much energy to be very overweight and it actually can be maintained on a relatively little amount of food. So millions of people out there, they fall into this category.

They are absolutely baffled as to how they can be so overweight, considering how little they feel they eat every day. Furthermore, you can exercise every single day until your limbs fall off. And of course, fail to lose a single pound of fat because your body is programmed to increase energy intake in response to the increase in expenditure.

And research shows that this instinct is stronger in some people than others. Which means that some people find it easier to remain in a calorie deficit than others. And when you’re not tracking or planning food intake, when you’re following a more intuitive style of eating, maybe through restrictive dieting, that can be all the difference.

If you have somebody who experiences a very strong increase in appetite due to an increase in energy expenditure, even if they’re not allowed to eat the higher calorie tastier stuff that they like, they’ll find a way to increase their calorie intake and a race deficit, whereas somebody who has a weaker response may have no problem maintaining a deficit simply through food restriction. They’re not allowed to eat the foods they like to eat, the higher calorie tastier stuff, so if they have to eat the lower-calorie, not so tasty stuff, they’re just less inclined to eat as much of it.

 

[00:17:13] So as you’ve probably concluded this point, it’s this ongoing relationship between your energy intake and your output that influences your body weight set point. If you chronically feed your body more energy than it expends, even if it’s only by 100 calories per day and this has been shown in research.

And to put that in perspective, that’s one banana a day more than you burn, you will gain weight. Slowly but surely you will. And then as you gain weight, your body will employ strategies to try to zero that energy surplus. And it will try to prevent further weight gain.

But as I mentioned earlier, unfortunately, these inborn anti-obesity mechanisms are no match for our modern lifestyle in our modern environments that we live in that make overconsumption of calorie-dense foods and under movement so easy.

 

[00:18:06] And if you wonder why our bodies are programmed this way, I think it makes sense if you just view it in the context of evolution. So the ability and the opportunity to literally eat ourselves to death is a very new development. Whereas the threat of death by starvation was confronted almost daily for millions of years.

So it’s going to take time for our body to catch up and realize that food is no longer scarce. So that’s why as you get fatter and fatter, your body weight set point also rises. In other words, research shows that the longer you remain in a certain bodyweight range, the more your body settles into that range and becomes its default weight and it will defend weekly against increases into even higher ranges and strongly against reductions into lower ranges.

Now, the implications of this are far-reaching because studies show that the significant increase in American daily calorie intake alone, which has occurred over the last several decades, is enough to explain the dramatic rise in obesity rates.

 

[00:19:20] All right, so let’s get to the good news now. How do we influence our body weight settling point for the better? Let’s talk diet. So if you are listening to another podcast, this is where I would preach about the transformative powers of clean eating or paleo or keto or low carb or whatever, some other type of restrictive diet, fad diet, right?

Well, good thing you’re here and you’re not there because I have better news for you: the best diet for maintaining a low body fat setpoint is simply one that is best for maintaining a state of neutral energy balance.

 

[00:19:57] In other words, diets that promote overeating are bad for both your body weight and your body weight set point and diets that promote a balance between your energy in and your energy out are good for them. So how does that play out practically? Well, one thing you should know is that research shows that it is easier to overeat on a high-fat diet.

And also obesity rates are greater among high-fat dieters than low-fat dieters. And that’s not surprising when you consider how calorie-dense fats are and in many people, they’re not very filling either. Protein and carbohydrates are much more filling.

So unless you’re going to strictly regulate your calories, you know, plan or track, you can assume that a high-fat diet is going to be a recipe for a higher body weight set point. I mean, remember what I just said a few minutes ago, about 100 extra calories per day is all it takes to slowly and steadily gain weight. And in terms of fats, that’s a tablespoon of olive oil. Just a tablespoon of olive oil above energy expenditure per day and you will gain weight over time.

 

[00:21:05] Additionally, there’s evidence that a low fat, high carbohydrate diet is an effective way to actually normalize and stabilize body weight set points. And this is at least partially due to the fact that carbohydrates are more satiating than dietary fats, which I mentioned and that’s been demonstrated in a number of studies.

Carbs tend to discourage overeating more than fats. And the body is particularly good at burning off excess carbohydrates instead of storing it as fat. In fact, carbohydrate is not directly converted into fat through a process known as de novo lipogenesis – that doesn’t really occur until carb intake, at least under normal healthy conditions, it doesn’t occur until carb intake has to be sky-high.

And in one study, I think it took 800 grams of carbs a day for several days for DNL to contribute meaningfully to total body fatness. Carbs contribute most to fat gain by blunting fat oxidation. So when you eat carbs, your body goes, “hey, we have this energy readily available. We don’t need to burn body fat. Of course, we’ll just burn this.

And we also don’t need to burn any of the dietary fat that was eaten, we’ll just store that.” And I should mention that the research I just cited is right in line with what I see in my work. Every week I hear from people who are floundering on a high-fat, low carb diet who are unable to break through weight-loss plateaus, who are struggling with hunger cravings and so forth.

And every week I also hear from people that I’ve saved from the low carb doldrums who are now leaner and feeling better than ever before following a high protein, moderately high carb, and moderately low-fat diet.

 

[00:22:51] All right, so now let’s discuss hormones. That was another factor that we need to discuss. How do hormones impact body weight set point? Well, like your genetics, your natural hormone levels do affect, but they don’t determine your body weight set point.

 

[00:23:06] For example, research shows that higher levels of testosterone are associated with leanness, and leptin levels and leptin sensitivity play major roles in defending against weight loss. If you learn more about that, including what leptin is, it’s a hormone produced by body fat that impacts hunger and natural energy expenditure, and so forth, head over to Muscle For Life and search for “leptin” and you will find an article he wrote on it.

Research also shows that high levels of the stress hormone cortisol are associated with fat accumulation and particularly in the abdominal region. So while some people do naturally have better hormone profiles than others, at least as far as body composition goes, right?

So if you have higher levels of testosterone, if you have good leptin sensitivity and generally lower levels of cortisol, then you are definitely more predisposed toward leanness.

 

[00:24:02] The good news is we can all have a healthy hormone profile by focusing on healthy living. And it’s pretty simple. The key points are getting the majority of your calories from nutritious foods, eating enough protein, exercising regularly, and emphasizing resistance training in that exercise, getting enough sleep, minimizing alcohol consumption.

Ideally eliminating it altogether and generally just doing a good job managing stress if you can do those things, your hormone profile will be good enough to do more or less whatever you want with your body composition.

 

[00:24:36] All right, so now let’s talk about changing your body weight set point. I mentioned some dietary strategies earlier, but there are some more things that I want to share with you.

 

[00:24:46] So first, let’s start with raising it. We know how easy it is to raise it, right? So it’s just chronic overfeeding. That’s all it takes to raise the bodyweight set point. But that’s not why you’re here, of course, you want to know how to lower it. And that is trickier. It’s trickier, but not impossible, it is doable.

You should know, though, that there are no quick fixes. There are no shortcuts or biohackers that are going to get it done. It takes patience. It takes discipline. It takes consistency, But it’s not complicated and it’s not particularly hard. And the payoff, I think, is well worth it, because you can maintain low levels of body fat with relative ease.

You can develop a “resistance” I guess you could say to fat gain despite bouts of overfeeding, which is helpful for the holidays where you can, you know, kind of cut lose a little bit without causing too much damage.

 

[00:25:40] And here’s how it’s done in a nutshell. So you have to (1) reduce your body fat to the desired level, whatever that is for you. And the whole point of lowering your body weight set point, of course, is maintaining a certain level of body fat. That’s really what we care about, right? We don’t care so much about weight.

We care about what we see in the mirror and that’s body composition. So the first step, of course, is getting to a low level that you’re happy with that can be maintained. Now, for most men, I would say it’s by 8 to 10 percent body fat. Anything lower than that is going to be unsustainable for most everybody.

And for women, it’s going to be 18 to 20 percent body fat. And that’s also where in my experience at least, most men and women are happiest. That is where you look athletic, you have abs, you have muscle definition all over your body, and you can eat a fair amount of food and you don’t have to develop an eating disorder. So that’s point number one, reducing your body fat to the desired level.

 

[00:26:39] Point number two is: adding muscle to your frame because nothing will help you maintain a low body weight set point like adding a substantial amount of muscle to your body. And you don’t have to get fat to do this either. If you’re not sure how to do that, head over to muscleforlife.com and search for “bulking” and read the article I wrote on that, which is really all about lean bulking.

And the reason for this is muscle is a metabolically active tissue, meaning that the more muscle you have, the greater your basal metabolic rate is, the greater the amount of energy your body burns at rest is. And the greater your BMR is, the more food you get to eat every day without gaining fat.

Additionally, research shows that the more muscle you have, the less fat you gain in response to overeating. And that’s big because what that means is the more muscular you are, the less you are punished for eating too much.

You have more wiggle room and that works wonders for long term dietary compliance and long term bodyweight maintenance. Because what that means is you get to fairly regularly indulge in some high-calorie feasts with little to no consequences. So the key takeaway here is the more muscle you have, the easier it is for you to get and stay lean.

 

[00:27:58] All right, that is point number two. Point number three is: use your exercise and your diet routines to maintain health and body composition. So as I discussed earlier in this episode, the longer you remain at a given body weight, the easier it becomes to just stay there. That becomes your body’s default. And the healthier your body is, the better its hormones are going to support that to support your efforts to stay lean.

 

[00:28:27] Now, the key here is that, of course, you first have to consciously manage your energy balance because your instincts are going to lead you to overeating, unless you are a person who naturally just stays lean and in that case, you probably haven’t made it this far in the episode.

So what this really boils down to, of course, is just proper meal planning and also cheat meal management. If you want to learn about those things, head over to Muscle For Life, search for “meal planning” and check out that article, it’s like “the definitive guide to meal planning” or something like that and then “cheat meal“.

And the title of that is something like “cheat meal mistakes”, “do you make these five cheat meal mistakes?” but it’s really a breakdown in how to cheat intelligently. So if you can keep this system in place over time, eventually everything just kind of settles into place.

Your eating habits, your appetite, your energy expenditure, and you are able to create that new default body weight set point that your body will help defend and maintain.

What did you think of this episode? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!

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