Tell me if you’ve been here before: You go on a calorie-cutting, super strict diet and finally lose those stubborn pounds. However, a few months later you step on the scale only to find you’ve gained all the weight and more back. You knew a few more sweet treats and cocktails had come back into your diet, but you didn’t think it had gone that far. In frustration, you decide that diets just don’t work for you. Here’s the thing: you’re not wrong. Let’s explore the science behind what’s happening when weight yo-yos and offer an alternative to dieting. 

It all starts with a theory known as the Set Point Theory. Before you stop reading at the word “theory,” let me explain. The Set Point Theory is the theory that “body systems are regulated in such a way as to maintain a genetically defined homeostasis.” In layman’s terms: the body works to keep its weight within a specific, genetically-determined range. The body mainly does this through hunger cues and altering metabolism. Like a thermostat, hunger cues kick in and metabolism slows when food is withheld. When food is plentiful, hunger cues subside and metabolism speeds up. Make sense? 

Let’s put this in real-life terms. Our friend (let’s call him John) wants to lose weight. John decides to do this by cutting calories. Immediately, John is starving. His cravings for sugar are more intense than before, and he spends all day thinking about his next meal. What’s happening here? John’s body is defending itself from losing weight beyond its “set point.” His internal “thermostat” is triggering hunger cues to help him put back on the weight his body thinks it needs for survival! However, John’s calorie restriction initially works. Then, the holidays roll around and he slips back into his old, high calorie intake. John is surprised that he not only gains the weight back, but he adds 10 more pounds to it! This cycle continues for John: gain, lose, gain more. 

What has happened to that “thermostat” that regulates John’s weight? Great question! Here’s the kicker about the Set Point Theory: the body’s set point (that genetically-determined weight range) can only increase over time. This increase accelerated with John’s calorie restriction. His “thermostat” hit the panic button to defend his weight. This is kind of like when you get back from vacation and put the air on 64 to cool things off more quickly since you left it on 82.  

Okay, how should I lose weight then?

Clearly we don’t want to use John’s method for weight loss. However, this gets tricky because we know we need to cut back on calories to lose weight, right? What we’re looking for is a non-diet approach to weight loss.

In this non-diet approach, experts recommend gradually downshifting calories. That’s why we ask clients about their hunger each week. If clients are starving all week long they’re not eating enough, and their weight loss progress will stall. So instead of cutting calories dramatically, aim to go just below your maintenance calorie goal. Sustain this, listen to your body, increase your movement, and prioritize rest. If you plateau, re-examine your calories. You may need to increase, decrease again, or mix it up. That’s when a check-in with your RD or HE helps! Reach out today for you FREE Assessment!