The Real Reason You Can’t Keep the Weight Off—And It’s Not Willpower

It’s true: Our bodies make it easier for us to gain weight than lose weight. The set-point theory tries to explain why and, although still unproven, there are important lessons we can learn from this idea.

Digital Bathroom Scale Displaying an Angry EmojiPhoto: Shutterstock / SAJE

Why is it that some people can eat an entire pizza and not gain an ounce when others gain two pounds just walking past a pizza parlor? Better genes? Faster metabolism? Or is our weight regulated to stay at predetermined level? It’s that last explanation, the set-point theory, that was developed in the 1980s as a way to help explain why it’s so difficult to lose weight and keep it off.

The Set-Point Theory Explained

The idea suggests that if we stray too far from our predetermined, optimal weight, our bodies have mechanisms in place to return us back to that weight. It still remains unclear what those mechanisms are and how they are triggered. Researches hypothesize that multiple systems—including hormones, neural pathways, neurotransmitters and more—adjust to regulate food intake and energy balance. Unfortunately for dieters following low-calorie recipes, the theory is also “asymmetric,” meaning the body defends against weight loss more effectively than weight gain.

The Limitations

While the idea has merit, it’s still unproven. Opponents say the theory is too simplistic. It doesn’t explain why some people are able to lose weight and keep it off. It also appears that our set point can change slowly over time, like gaining twenty pounds over twenty years, and also at different life stages, like going to college, getting married and after having children (and making all these kid-friendly meals). The set-point theory is not able to explain those changes or how external factors, like environment and access to food might also play a role in weight fluctuation.

5 Big Takeaways

Regardless if science has proven all the pieces of the set-point puzzle, there are major lessons to be learned from this concept that are supported by science.

1. If you lose weight slowly, you’re more likely to keep it off. Losing 20 pounds on a four-week crash diet is unlikely to be sustained. Instead, aim to lose one to two pounds per week.

2. You don’t have to wear a certain dress size to be healthy. If you’re doing all the right things—eating a balanced diet, moving more, getting enough sleep, limiting stress—and the scale doesn’t show it, those behaviors still count toward good health!

3. It’s harder to lose weight than to gain weight. If we could just remember this when faced with a pint of Ben & Jerry’s after a long day! Maintaining a healthy weight would be much easier if we don’t put on the pounds in the first place.

4. There’s no one right way to lose weight. So many factors contribute to weight from genetics to our environment. We have to accept that there’s still a lot that science doesn’t know about weight loss, instead, focus on a healthy lifestyle for the long haul.

5. Maintaining a healthy weight is a lifelong process. We do know that hormones and metabolism change over time, so we have to adjust our eating habits, too. Our teenage selves needed a lot more calories than  we do at middle age, and we can’t ignore that.

Some say the set-point theory is just an excuse for people that aren’t able to lose weight and keep it off. Nonsense! It’s one more tool for us to learn from on our journey of lifelong good health.

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Peggy Woodward, RDN
Peggy is a Senior Food Editor for Taste of Home. In addition to curating recipes, she writes articles, develops recipes and is our in-house nutrition expert. She studied dietetics at the University of Illinois and completed post-graduate studies at the Medical University of South Carolina to become a registered dietitian nutritionist. Peggy has more than 20 years of experience in the industry. She’s a mom, a foodie and enjoys being active in her rural Wisconsin community.