Why I Want To Lower My Bodyweight Set-Point (And What Is a Set-point Anyway?)

April 10, 2012 in Categories: , by

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The last few months, I have been firmly focused on healing my gut and dealing with my one lingering health issue, lichen planus (read about the diet changes I’ve made to address this here, here and here).  I have begrudgingly allowed myself to gain some weight (7 lbs) because I know that a caloric surplus is very helpful for healing the gut.  I tolerated this weight gain because I was seeing steady (albeit slow) improvement in my lichen planus lesions and because I was seeing strength gains in my yoga classes (hello chaturanga!).

But then I booked a long weekend at the beach with my family for Mother’s Day (that’s in just one month!).  Suddenly, I was faced with not only the 10-20 pounds I’d still like to lose, but another 7 pounds on top of that!  I do try to keep this in perspective:  7 pounds is a drop in the can next to the 120 pounds I’ve lost, but it accentuates that feeling of “I’m still not there”.  This desire to finally lose those last pounds is magnified by a growing realization.  Frankly, one of the best things that I can do to promote a paleolithic lifestyle is to be the picture of perfect health.  For those who know where I came from (265 pounds and suffering a variety of health issues), where I am now is great anecdotal evidence of the benefits of a paleo diet (145+7 pounds and healthy).  But, if you don’t know my history, I just look like a woman in her mid-thirties who never lost the pregnancy pounds after having a couple of kids.  So, when I talk to people who don’t have much weight to lose (say something like 10-15 pounds like so many of us) and who don’t have health issues that compel them to make major lifestyle changes, I don’t have the “I want to look like her”-factor to support my case.  I need to look like Sarah Fragoso (www.everydaypaleo.com) or Melissa Hartwig (www.whole9life.com) or Diane Sanfilippo (www.balancedbites.com), all of whom are gorgeous and lean and “sell” paleo not only by virtue of their intelligence but also because who wouldn’t want to look like them!  I have the extra challenge of a fair bit of extra skin, but I believe that would be forgiven if I could get down to a body fat percentage in the teens (and here is where I admit that I actually have no idea what my body fat percentage is, but I just ordered a scale that measures it and plan to use that number rather than my actual weight to evaluate my progress from now on).

So all this means that my focus has shifted back to weight loss, and in particular getting my body past this weight-loss plateau (I have been gaining and losing the same 7-8 pounds for 6 months).  I firmly believe in following my hunger cues, but I am also analyzing what is happening in my body hormonally that might be making me hungrier than I should be.  How do I make myself less hungry?  How do I make my body burn more energy?  I can’t find much more time to exercise than I am currently dedicating, so what do I do?  How do I make my body WANT to be leaner?  To answer these questions, my starting point was a tweet made by Stacy Toth of The Paleo Parents while she was at PaleoFX in Austin last month.  She shared some words of wisdom from Mark Sisson (www.marksdailyapple.com), who suggested that a good way to lower your bodyweight set-point is to sprint.

What is a bodyweight set-point?  The idea behind bodyweight set-point theory is that diet plus lifestyle factors (and genetics too) add up to a hormonal and chemical balance in your body conducive to maintaining a specific weight and body composition.  Basically, your body has a weight it wants to be (regardless of what weight you want your body to be).  I will be delving into the specific effects of exercise on different hormone systems in a series of upcoming posts; but, you don’t need to know those details to get the gist of this theory.  How you eat, exercise, sleep and manage stress determines your body’s “happy weight”.  If food is scarce (as it might have been in the winter for our paleolithic ancestors or might be for you if you are ignoring your hunger cues and following a very calorie-restricted diet), your body will fight to maintain as much stored energy as it can, lowering your metabolism and increasing your set-point.  If food becomes plentiful after a fasting period, your body will store as much of it as it can to prepare for the next fast (which is why it is so easy to gain weight back after being on a calorie-restricted diet); your set-point remains high.  If food remains plentiful (let’s assume good paleo food) and stress is low, your body will stop prioritizing weight gain, hunger will decrease, and your weight will likely settle down to something somewhat lighter (your set-point lowers).  This is why following hunger cues on a paleo diet is so effective at losing most of the weight we need to lose.  Now, if food is plentiful but predators are chasing you, your body will prioritize muscle mass and being lean in order to be fast enough to escape being eaten (your set-point lowers even more!).  That’s where sprinting comes in.

There are many ways to incorporate sprints into your routine (besides actually running away from a hungry animal).  Thursday, I will give you the details of how I am approaching adding sprints to my life, how this has made me feel, and whether or not it’s working to kick my body into weight-loss mode.  So stay tuned!


Very interesting idea! It makes logical sense that sprinting could help reset your set-point. I am looking forward to seeing how this goes for you. I am so impressed with all you have accomplished already. That being said, I really think that we women can be way too hard on ourselves. Who says you have to look a certain way to be a good spokesperson for Paleo? I know that isn’t your only motivation and I certainly support you in your goals, but it makes me sad to think that anyone would think they are a less valuable poster child for real food because they don’t “look the part”.

Many of us will probably never look like Sarah Fragoso – not to take anything away from all she’s accomplished, but she was never obese to begin with – just out of shape and a little soft. Same with Diane Sanfilipo and probably Melissa Hartwig (although I know less about her history, so I could be wrong). Yes, they can relate to the struggle of losing weight and/or overcoming health issues, but it is not fair to compare ourselves to people who have not been where we’ve been to the same extent. It is entirely possible that there can be lasting damage from our past lifestyles. I’m including myself in this bunch since my highest weight was up at 268lbs (I’ve since lost over 50 lbs so far). I’m not saying it’s impossible or that we should therefore just give up. Not at all! But I do think that, at least for me, a realistic goal that takes into account my history is just fine. I don’t think I have any less merit to speak to the power of Paleo because my fat percentage isn’t in the teens.

All this is not to criticize your goals or to discourage you. I’m very much interested to see how this goes for you and I’ll be rooting for you 100%. I just want you to know that you are a success in my book, whether this works or not. I will continue to follow your blog and learn from your experience no matter your body fat percentage. Thanks for all you do to share great info and inspire the rest of us who are trying this out as well.

Thank you SO much Amelia. I keep telling my husband “this is the last thing I’ll try to lose a little more weight and if this doesn’t work, I’ll just be happy where I am”. I don’t really have a good sense for what is possible for my body, given my past and given the lifestyle challenges I have (my girls still get me up at least once most nights). But, I still think it’s worth a try. I try not to get too emotionally invested in those last 10 pounds and appreciate how far I’ve come, but it can be hard to keep a healthy perspective sometimes! So, thank you for reminding me to celebrate where I am!

I find many of the Paleo women out there to be frustrating to follow. They tried Paleo and instantly lost 20 pounds and it has been great. And they work out and that has been great too. But for many of us, myself included, it is a harder journey. I have gained 20 pounds while on Paleo, I know this is due to my health conditions that presented at this time but it hasn’t been a neat package that worked just so. I often must forgo my workouts because I am in so much pain. I find you to be much more inspiring having worked so hard, through illness. You are a strong woman and should be so proud of where you are right now. Your are beautiful right now.

I look forward to your emails everyday! Thank you so much for sharing your journey and research with us. I have learned so much from you and have tried many of your recipes. My family on the other hand is not as on board as I would like. I have a 10,8 and 5 year old. Of course, my husband is the hardest one 🙂

I am curious if you have read any of the Beyond Diet philosophy by Isabel De Los Rios. I have always had a weight problem and have read almost every diet and exercise book out there. I have gained and lost weight more times than I would like to think about. I found her ideas about being a protein or carb type helpful and the idea of eating the right kind and number of proteins and carbs helpful. I have noticed my belly is flatter than it has ever been even when I was exercising like a maniac! I haven’t been exercising because I have fibromyalgia and exercise causes flares. I have been combining the Paleo diets with the Beyond Diet and although the lbs aren’t flying off I am seeing a huge change in inches and the way my clothes fit.

I look forward to hearing how the sprinting goes for you. I am going to try Density training which I hope will add muscle to burn calories while not causing fibro flares. Good luck and once again thanks for all your great info!

Thanks Debbi! I am definitely a big fan of lifestyle, not “diet”. And a big fan of not overdoing exercise and increasing cortisol. 🙂 Have you tried yoga with your fibro? Hopefully, you’ll notice a huge improvement with paleo. 🙂

I love yoga, but I have not been doing that either 🙁 I have good intentions, but somehow everything else wins out over yoga. I really need to try harder, because I know that yoga would be very helpful.

I remember when I first started going to yoga how easy it was to find an excuse to miss a class. Now that I go three times a week, I find I feel so crummy if I have to miss a class for any reason that it’s just so easy to plan everything else around it. I’m currently strategizing to fit in a fourth class every week. It’s only effort until it’s routine. 🙂

Thanks for the thoughtful post about set point. I just discovered your blog, and have already learned so much!

I do not dispute that there may be many health/fitness benefits to sprinting, but I would like to at least question what has become somewhat of a meme in the Paleo world: that we as a species run to escape predators. Never mind lions; we cannot beat even a squirrel. Endurance and heat dissipation, on the other hand, are truly human strengths. I would refer you to the work of Bramble and Lieberman: http://www.fas.harvard.edu/~skeleton/pdfs/2004e.pdf

Thanks again for your huge contribution to the Paleo community!

At this point, this post is almost a year old, so I don’t know what’s happened in the intervening months, but I have to say it made me really sad to see that you feel it necessary to look a certain way to be a good advertisement for Paleo. For starters, you look great! But more than that, I know you know that being healthy is what really matters. You write about it all the time. And you are really healthy. Plus, your journey is incredibly inspirational to “regular” people, as is Stacy’s. It’s not realistic for most people to look like Melissa, or Diane, or Sarah (though I don’t know what she looks like) and for many of us, it’s not healthy, physically or mentally, to try to do so. It’s probably not mentally healthy for me to try to look like YOU do, although I do keep you in mind as an inspiration. Thanks for all that you do. I can’t wait for your book to come out!

Would something like sprints, i.e. running from predators, be contraindicated in someone with adrenal fatigue? I know I had to give up running because it perpetuated that “fight or flight” response that saps the adrenals. Sounds like this is in the same fashion…but I’ve been Paleo since August and AIP since January and my weight doesn’t budge as of late. (Stage 3 adrenal fatigue, hypothyroidism not autoimmune, and Crohn’s are my health woes.)

Yes, any high-intensity exercise is not recommended for adrenal fatigue. Your thyroid and adrenals may need to be addressed before weight loss is possible. – Christina, Sarah’s assistant

I’m not a scientist or nutritionist, and while I partly subscribe to the theory of paleo, I frequently get the feeling that there is entirely too much meat advocated. It doesn’t seem possible that our caveman ancestors could eat large portions of meat three times a day. If we look at more contemporary hunter-gatherer societies, they actually eat a lot of carbohydrates in the form of starchy roots, a few berries, mushrooms and other wild bits, and then feast on meat for days from time-to-time when they get a good kill, or plan a ceremony. Almost like the intermittent fasting – but for meat. I don’t think they ate a lot of vegetables either (which makes sense to me – why eat leaves that don’t taste good when there is yummy tubers and small fruits?) And no obesity that I am aware of, though they aren’t all model-thin. I may be way off, its mostly my intuition and what I remember from anthropology classes in college, but more than 4-8 grams of flesh a day (for an average woman) seems unnatural to me based on reasoning and ethnographic studies. It seems to me that a lot of the paleo community fills the loss of grains/starches and dairy with extra meat (and nuts, but that’s another topic also following this same reasoning). I can’t help but wonder if so much meat contributes to higher body fat composition, and possibly longer-term health detriments. Another thought I have relates to gut micro-flora. I know that fermented foods promoted on this site and other paleo sources but I think they need more emphasis! I recently read Brain Maker and was astounded by the new-found implications to having a healthy intestinal biome, including optimal weight. You may come to the conclusion after reading this book that bacteria and friends control every aspect of our existence! My model of health is Donna Gates. She advocates applying the 80/20 rule to your meals (20% protein or grain(starch)/80% veggies) and tons of fermented foods. I don’t know if she has a healing story, but she looks great and apparently has never had a weight problem.

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