The Dieter's Dilemma: Set Point Theory


It’s no secret that dieting is a hot topic in our world. No matter where you look, there is no shortage of advice on how to “shed your winter weight.” But what people often don’t realise is that there is also a substantial body of evidence which suggests that dieting is almost always an unsuccessful endeavour.


An interesting concept in the dieting world is that of Set Point Theory. The theory suggests that our body has a particular range of weight that it is comfortable in, usually about 10% of a body’s weight. Most people lose and gain within this set point on a pretty regular basis. It’s also highly common for weight to fluctuate in times of stress and illness. Set point theory stipulates that movement within this range is normal. However, movement outside of this range is not. In fact, the body seeks to stay within that range.  

When we are in a calorie deficit, the body will let it happen for a time, but then it starts adjusting the metabolism to use calories more efficiently, which means we hold onto weight, and our diets are no longer effective.

Research suggests that between 50% and 80% of what we weigh is governed by genetic influence and our set point, and the remainder governed by environmental influence. When we undereat, whether due to dieting, illness, stress, or famine, our brain sends a message, called an ‘effector signal’, which adjusts our appetite and metabolism to correct any changes in body weight from set-point. That is to say, if we are not eating enough, our body sends us hunger signals which are stronger than normal, and we may feel unusually tired and cold as our body does its best to conserve energy and use the limited calories we have.  This is why weight loss tends to plateau, as our bodies don’t know the difference between a diet and actual famine. Like anything else, shifting our perspectives is a journey, and a gradual process over the course of time. But the simple truth is that the better we love our bodies, the better they will love us back. They are doing the best they can to keep us healthy, safe, and living well. A healing relationship with exercise, food and body image is so much more rewarding than a goal weight ever could be.

So let this be your reminder, your body is your home. Love it and care for it, and if you find that you can’t, reach out.


The processes that maintain hunger, digestion, and metabolism are incredibly complex and therefore this article should not be a substitute for medical or dietetic advice. If you have questions, or would like to know more about the research that informed this article, contact us at hello@ahei.nz.