Lose Weight for Good: Outsmart Your Setpoint

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Weight loss – it should be simple, right?  Eat less and move more….and keep doing this until you reach your goal.  Yet if it really is that easy, why are most of us struggling to get it right? Almost two-thirds of Australian adults are now overweight and obese and of those who lose weight, only about 20% manage to keep it off.

The good news is that it doesn’t need to be that grim.  You can lose weight, and keep it off for good, if you understand how your body works when it comes to controlling your weight.

The fact is that our bodies have evolved to survive a famine, not to exist in our current environment where food is plentiful and we really have to make an effort to move enough.  So if you cut back on what you eat, and you keep cutting back, it isn’t long before your famine reaction will kick in.  You see, when you go on a restrictive diet, your body doesn’t know this isn’t a real famine and will do what it needs to help you survive – reducing your metabolism and conserving energy. If you were really in a famine that would be great, but when you aren’t, and you really do want to lose weight, this protective mechanism is no longer a help, but a hindrance.

If you’ve lost weight, plateaued and then rapidly regained it (plus a few extra kilograms) many times, you have experienced your body’s famine reaction first-hand. So how do you overcome this and get off the dieting merry-go-round?  The key is to understand your body’s famine reaction and how it operates so you can work with it and not against it.

Understanding your set point

You may have heard the term ‘set point’. According to Associate Professor Amanda Salis from the University of Sydney’s Boden Institute of Obesity, Nutrition, Exercise & Eating Disorders, and author of The Don’t Go Hungry Diet and Don’t Go Hungry for Life , this is the weight at which your body tends to sit naturally when you’re not dieting and the weight you revert back to when you stop trying to lose. Your set point is largely determined by genetics.

Think about the thermostat on your air conditioner.  If you set it for a certain temperature, the air conditioner will work to maintain this temperature by working harder if it gets too hot, or turning off for a while when the room temperature drops too low.  It’s been hypothesized that the body has its own thermostat, called an adipostat, which keeps your body fat level within a narrow range, despite variations in food intake and activity.  When you restrict your food intake and your body fat drops below its normal range, your metabolism drops, hunger increases and you may find yourself preoccupied with food.  This is your famine reaction at play, working to protect you from wasting away.  On the other hand if you eat more than usual your body also tries to compensate for this by increasing your metabolic rate and body temperature to burn up the extra calories, and turning down your hunger.  Professor Salis refers to this as your ‘fat brake’ and explains that it is one reason that many people find that regardless of what they eat, they don’t tend to go above a certain weight.  But if this is really the case, then why are so many of us overweight?  And how do some people manage to successfully lose weight and keep it off?

The good and bad news is that your set point isn’t actually set in stone, with some researchers instead, referring to it as a ‘settling point’.  Good, because by losing weight the right way (the slow and steady approach rather than through restrictive dieting) and then maintaining your weight for a period once you hit a plateau, you can establish a new set point at this lower weight.  So rather than seeing plateaus as failure you should consider them periods of metabolic readjustment, giving your body a chance to adjust to your new set point before you embark on your next weight loss effort.  Repeating this pattern – sensible weight loss followed by a period of weight maintenance, you can slowly work your way down to your goal weight without allowing your body’s famine reaction to take control and thwart your efforts.

The downside of your set point not being set in stone is that your fat break only works efficiently if you look after it by eating sensibly and according to your appetite most of the time.  If you constantly abuse it by eating more than you need to be physically satisfied, then over time it will wear out, just like the breaks in your car, and will no longer be as effective in keeping you at a healthy weight.  Our current environment where food is so readily available, activity is limited, and many of us eat for reasons other than hunger (e.g. stress, boredom, to be sociable etc) means that many people have exhausted their fat break, so it is no longer works effectively to prevent weight gain.

Working with your famine reaction

Everyone is different when it comes to the strength of their famine reaction. Some people can lose a large amount of weight before this kicks in, while others, particularly if close to their goal weight, may only come down a kilogram or two before the signs of famine kick in.  However, forgetting the numbers on the scales, there are some signs to look out for.  These include:

  • Ravenous hunger
  • Cravings for foods that satisfy
  • Fatigue/lethargy
  • Feeling cold
  • Reduced libido
  • Weight plateau

Once you recognise these signs, the key is to stop restricting and start eating more.  The most common reaction to hitting a plateau is to be more restrictive with your eating, but this is the opposite of what you need to do as this will only strengthen your famine reaction.  The way to turn off your famine reaction is to eat more, not less, so your body recognises that there’s plenty of food to go round and is no longer sensing a famine.  This doesn’t mean overeating, but eating until you feel satisfied, and the nagging hunger subsides.   If you eat sensibly and according to your appetite your weight should remain stable rather than the usual rebound experienced when coming off a restrictive diet.

This all sounds fine, you may say, but what if you’ve plateaued after only losing a few kilograms and are still well above your goal weight?  Turning off your famine reaction isn’t the end of your weight loss journey.  The good news is that you can lose more, and keep it off, if you tackle your weight loss in stages.  Once your famine reaction has subsided and you’re no longer feeling hungry and tired, you can make your next attempt at losing weight, by slowly reducing what you eat and/or increasing activity levels.  Again, you can do this until your famine reaction kicks in and follow this with a period of ‘feeding the famine’ while maintaining your new lower weight and allowing the body to re-establish its new set-point.  Yes it may take longer, but when it comes to successful weight loss for life, slow and steady really does win the race.

Want to know more about the famine reaction and set-points?  Check out these books:

The Don’t Go Hungry Diet – Dr Amanda Sainsbury-Salis – available through Booktopia

Don’t Go Hungry for Life – Dr Amanda Sainsbury-Salis – available through Booktopia

Break Through Your Set Point – Dr George Blackburn – available through Amazon

This is an abbreviated version of an article originally written by Dr Kate Marsh for Diabetic Living Magazine.



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