If you want to get lean, you better know about Fat Set Point.

Over the last 7 years I have successfully coached hundreds of women and men on weight loss and how to change body composition and seen hundreds of food journals.  I hear the following comments with regularity. “ I don’t agree with your diet,  the food journal is hard, nothing works for me, I don’t want to get big, if I lift heavy I get huge, why am I not losing weight faster, why can’t I have cheat days, you are trying to do (x) to me.” 

With this in mind I thought it would be good to discuss how we coach our clients on food.

First let’s talk about association, observation, correlation, and causation.  The rooster crows and the sun comes up.  Does that mean the rooster causes the sunrise?  Of course not.  However many people look at changes in their bodies and use the same reasoning.  They use observations and associations and leap to causation.  This is a flaw of our brains.  We try to seek the most readily available answer based on the information.  We all want clean easy answers to complex questions.  However, fitness and weight loss may seem simple, but they are extremely complex and requires some critical thinking to figure out how our bodies respond to different environments. 

Without completely isolating someone in a lab and measuring every gram of food on both a micronutrient and macronutrient basis it is very difficult to determine how your body responds to food.  In our program at Sirens and Titans Fitness we use an online food journal to give us a better understanding of how food impacts an individual’s health, energy, and body comp.   With enough data and monitoring of body comp and energy level one can have a better understanding of the impact of food on a body.  Most people realize that body composition is impacted more from food than exercise, but everyone spends all their time quantifying the exercise and very little time quantifying food intake.   Without any measurement at all it is almost impossible to identify what foods cause you to gain or lose weight. 

Let’s discuss Fat set point and how this ties into weight loss and gain and why weight loss can be so difficult for so many people. I always counsel clients that we have to first find what changes in your eating trigger weight loss or body composition changes and then determine how to make it sustainable.  It is usually easier to know what does not work than what does work. 

What is the Fat Set point theory

Let me start by explaining this internal thermostat that regulates how much body fat is stored.   Much of weight loss, and believe it or not, weight gain is impacted by this concept. This thermostat for body size is in your brain. 

Our bodies are very clever at trying to maintain an equilibrium based on external environments.  The easiest to see example of this is body temperature.  When we get too warm we start to sweat to cool our bodies, and when we get cold we begin to shiver to try to increase the body temperature.  Why do some of us do better in heat and some in cold?  Our genetics have an impact on our ability to adjust to changes in our environment.  It does not say that we cannot get better at adjusting, however some of us just feel more comfortable than others in different environments. 

“Fat set point theory” is similar. In the simplest form we all have a particular range of weight that our bodies will hover around.  This range may change over time.  Most of the science points to a range of plus or minus 10% of body weight.  Movement within the range is considered normal, but once we start getting beyond the range the body will start to make changes.  The body will start to shiver or sweat in a weight loss manner.  This is the body’s way of taking you back to homeostasis.  This applies to weight gain as well as loss.  There are a lot of factors that can disrupt this homeostasis.  In today’s crazy world the list is long and can make weight loss very difficult for some.  Disease, diabetes, thyroid issues, adrenal burnout, depression, medication and yoyo dieting, stress etc. can all impact body composition.  Some people gain weight when stressed and some lose weight.  

So this brings me back to why understanding this theory is important.  Most people have great difficulty losing weight and keeping it off.  How are people successful at overcoming this fat set point?

When coaching someone on weight loss, I first have them fill out a food journal and we can see what type of food is currently maintaining their homeostasis.  It is similar to developing a strategy for athletic performance in a sport.  We establish the starting point and then identify strengths and weaknesses.   From a great deal of science of sport, our experience training other athletes, understanding the needs of the particular sport, we identify strengths and weakness of the athlete and then create an overarching strategy that is tactically dynamic so that, dependent on individual responses, it will give the athlete the greatest amount of improvement in the time we have to train with them.  All of these strategies must be dynamic.  We may try squats with one athlete and find that deadlifts are more appropriate with another athlete based on biomechanical individualities. 

Our coaching methodology with eating is not dissimilar.  We understand that everyone is different so we do not recommend a specific diet to anyone.  What we do is establish their start point and initially just try to eliminate as much of the processed food and refined sugars and flours.  Most of this food is nutrient vacant and typically promotes weight gain dependent on activity level and age.  Once we begin to make these changes we try to establish where the tipping point for weight loss occurs.  In some cases these initial changes will result in body comp changes.   Our goal is sustainability so we initially do not focus so much on calories.  We also try to incorporate foods that the client is already comfortable eating.  This helps in making the changes sustainable.   We look at calories to make sure the client is eating enough based on BMR and activity level.   We cannot determine this tipping point and what changes caused this without a food journal.  Weight loss is very elusive for most because they think they know what may cause changes in their weight based on changes in how much they eat.  These changes may have an impact but not be the cause of the weight loss.  In other words if you eat 3000 calories a day and you cut your calories to 1500 calories and all else is equal you have not only cut your calories, but all of your micro and macro nutrients as well.  So the loss of weight may have been a result of the calories but also were impacted by the macronutrients and how a body responds to the food.  The sticking point with calorie restriction is that in a short amount of time your internal thermostat will slow metabolism based on the lower amount of calories.   Through a process of making changes and seeing how an individual responds to these changes we are usually able to see where this weight loss tipping point exists, based more on causation not on just observations or associations. 

The issues with clients typically arise with filling out the food journal.  They think they can just “pay attention to what I eat” and that will tell them everything they need to know.  The clients who are successful at weight loss are the ones who make the commitment to diligently record their food for 6-8 weeks.  After recording food for this time clients have usually figured out how they lose or gain weight based on the amount of food and types of food. 

Once this first step is established we then have to come up with tactics to make it sustainable.  This is typically where people run into problems with most weight loss programs.  They have the initial success and then cannot sustain the diet.   We try to create a way of eating that coupled with exercise, is sustainable and fits into one’s lifestyle and also deals with your internal fat set point more effectively.   It typically means that it is a slower process for some, but we believe it is a much more sustainable approach.  The client really learns how their body metabolizes food and how this translates into health, energy level, and body composition. 

Now back to the Fat Set point.  The irony of weight loss is it gets harder as you lose more weight.  Part of this is every pound of weight lost is a greater percentage of your body weight and your internal thermostat begins to work against you.     We try to get our client’s to focus on body composition.  This aids on two fronts.  One is that you will look better which everyone wants.  Your clothes will fit better, you are healthier with more lean body mass, you are physically stronger and more powerful, and because your body’s thermostat is trying to keep your weight in a certain range it is easier to accommodate your genetics. 

When we lose weight your body will accommodate this loss to a point and then it will start making changes to get you back to your fat set point range or previous homeostasis.  It does this by slowing metabolism, changing your desire for certain foods and in some instances changing the overall set point.  There are also hormonal changes in leptin (the hormone that makes you hungry) and ghrelin (the hormone that makes you feel full). This is why some people get even heavier after a diet. 

So Fat Set Point Theory can be an issue, but one that can be addressed best by not starving yourself, determining foods that cause you to gain weight, adding exercise to maintain a higher metabolism, adding lean body mass, and focusing on body composition instead of weight, and staying consistent.  These tactics can create an environment for sustainable weight loss.   Patience, patience, patience is key when overcoming your bodies desire to maintain homeostasis.  I always remind clients that if they have been this weight for some time, it will take some consistency in your changes for their body to recognize that the changes in eating and exercise will be the new homeostasis. 

In summary: A good strategy for weight loss and improvement in body composition is to journal your food and determine a weight loss tipping point.  Once this is accomplished develop eating habits that can fit into your lifestyle and allow you to maintain this tipping point.  Both of these require tracking food for about 8 weeks.  Some people are able to figure this out quicker than others.  If you do not account for the food your odds for success drop dramatically. 

Combat your Fat Set Point by not restricting calories and semi starvation, focusing on adding lean body mass through exercise, focus on body composition and not weight.  All of these will help you maintain the highest possible metabolic rate which will help you to overcome your current fat set point.

When you are really ready to start training let us know. 

Truth in Fitness


Jacques DeVore, CSCS