Set point and holiday weight gain

Set point and holiday weight gain

At the time of writing this article the first week of advent has almost finished. In this week most people will have started decorating their homes for the holiday season that is upon us.
Though for most this period may not be as festive as it normally is, since it is not allowed to organize large gatherings because of COVID-19, we can still try to make the most of it and indulge in the small pleasures of life. 
 
Quite a lot of people that are trying to become fit and trim worry about the holiday season and what damage it will do to their progress: how can they avoid weight gain during those days? 
We can reassure the worryworts: you will be fine to indulge on those special days. With emphasis on 'special' days as nothing spectacular will happen when you eat normal on the other days. The bigger problem is when you spread out those days over an extended period of say two to three weeks. 
 
But even with a longer period of dietary negligence, most people notice it is surprisingly easy to get rid of the extra holiday weight, due to a wonderful (and scary) phenomenon called 'set point'. 
 
Wonderful because it can be oh so helpful when you have gained weight in a short amount of time and want to get rid of it. 
Scary too, because if you want to drop weight below your set point, it can be frustratingly hard to do so. So much so that about 90% of those who lose weight on a given diet, eventually gain weight again and return to their original weight.
 
At least this is what the set point theory states. But is it correct? 
 
The set point theory states that the body maintains its weight and body composition through internal regulatory controls. According to this popular theory, we all have different settings that impact our usual body weight. The theory holds that some people have a higher setting, meaning they naturally hover at a higher weight, whereas others have a low set point, which keeps them at a lower average weight for their height.

The set point theory definition

If you've ever been faced with the challenge of maintaining a lower weight after weight loss, you may be familiar with the forces behind an internal set point. The set point definition simply states that our bodies fight to maintain a given weight range, even if it's higher than recommended by health professionals. 
Despite our best efforts, it can seem impossible to keep the extra weight off.
 
Proponents of the set point theory believe that our bodies have an internal "thermostat" that regulates our usual body weight. If your thermostat is set high, you may be destined to carry a higher body fat percentage, even if you try to lose it. If your thermostat is set low, you may have an easier time losing weight or avoiding weight gain.

Evidence

Proponents of the set point theory cite the following supporting facts as evidence of the theory:
 
Weight loss lowers metabolic rate
Some studies have shown that your metabolic rate decreases after you lose weight to a rate that is even lower than that of a similar-sized person who has never been overweight, which would mean that a formerly overweight person has to eat less or do more daily exercise to maintain the same body size.
 
Ghrelin increases after weight loss
The hunger hormone, ghrelin, increases after you lose weight. Ghrelin has many functions in the body. One of them is providing hunger cues. People who have lost weight usually have higher levels of ghrelin, so their hormones are signaling them to eat more often.
A disbalanced appetite can also be caused by leptin resistance.
 
Exercise needs to increase after weight loss
The American College of Sports Medicine recommends that people get 150 minutes of exercise per week to maintain good health. People who are trying to lose weight or maintain weight loss are advised to get 250 minutes or more.
 
Stories from people who have lost weight 
The most prevalent argument for the Set Point Theory comes from the fact that many people struggle to maintain their weight loss. The frustration felt by those who have worked hard to lose weight only to regain it certainly appears to provide compelling evidence for the set point theory. Statistics support this experience, showing that only 20% of overweight individuals are successful in maintaining long-term weight loss.
 

Is set point a myth?

While there appears to be some validity to the set point theory, it is not the sole determinant of our destiny. 
Your heredity and your environment (starting back at the moment of your conception) determine your set point. Over the long term, excess food and insufficient exercise will override your body's natural tendency to stay at its set point and lead to a higher, less healthy set point."
 
The primary risk with the set point theory is that it may discourage some from making healthy exercise or dietary changes either when it seems that weight loss is out of reach or when it appears that these healthy habits are unnecessary to maintain a healthy weight.
 
In reality, it's a combination of factors including our social environment, food habits, genetics, hormones, and set point that all play a role in regulating body weight.

How exercise can help

To successfully lose weight and keep it off long term, the role of physical activity should never be underestimated. Physical activity combats many of the metabolic slowdowns associated with a weight loss achieved through dietary changes alone. 
Studies have shown that exercise keeps your metabolic rate from dipping after weight loss and suppresses your ghrelin levels. Indeed, exercise may hold the key to reset your set point.
 

Don't feel discouraged

Instead of letting the set point theory discourage you from making healthy changes, try to lose weight by means of a not too restrictive diet to effectively lose weight and keep it off. 
Include physical activity in your journey to maintain a healthy weight. To ensure you actually do this, it is best to plan this activity either right after you get up, e.g. jog in your neighbourhood with your (neighbour's) dog as company, practice yoga in your bedroom or use an indoor trainer. For others, the ideal time of day is to exercise directly after their daily work is done as a way to destress.
Although nutrition plays a large role in weight loss, exercise might make it easier to feel like you're fighting a winning battle—and it comes with a bunch of other great health benefits.
 
Even if your body weight doesn't exactly reflect the recommended weight for your height, losing a small percentage of weight can still improve your risk of several chronic issues related to weight. 
Following a healthy lifestyle offers several health benefits beyond the number on the scale. Be kind to yourself and keep the focus on progress, not perfection. 
 
Above all, don't make the mistake to actually diet on the holidays themselves, just relax on that day, but restrain yourself on the days leading up to the event and take back the diet reins afterwards.
 
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