Why Diets Do Not Work & How Set Point Weight Works!

We see it in the diet industry – “Lose 10 pounds in 10 days!”, “Get trim, toned and sexy in 4 weeks!”, Lose that belly fat once and for all by doing a 1-week juice-cleanse!”.

And we think: “Oh! If I could lose 10 pounds I would finally be happy! If I would weigh X pounds I would look so good!”

But the problem is that…our body does not work that way. We are biological creatures, our mechanisms work just as they are supposed to, it is not as simple as deciding to just interfere this complex system and hope it will work just fine afterwards.

It is not as simple as deciding to just interfere this complex system and hope it will work just fine afterwards.

If all these diets are so effective, then why we see a 99,5% failure rate on the exact same diets?

Why diets do not work and never will!

Arthur Frank, medical director of the George Washington University Weight Management Program, reports that out of every 200 people who start a diet, only ten of them will successfully meet their weight-loss goals. And the odds get significantly worse when you look at the long-term outcomes. Out of those ten people, only one of them will keep the weight off over time. That’s a failure rate of 99.5%!(1)

A team of experts at UCLA (The University of California, Los Angeles) analysed every study that followed dieters over a two- to five-year period. Every single published, long-term dieting study was included. The results were published in the APA (American Psychological Association) journal, American Psychologist. When interviewed about the findings, UCLA researcher, Tracy Mann, said that the results of their data were conclusive: “Diets do not lead to sustained weight loss, or health benefits, for the majority of people.” 

She added that most people would be “better off not going on a diet at all. Their weight would be pretty much the same, and their bodies would not suffer the wear and tear from losing weight and gaining it all back.” Initially, she explained, many people lose five to ten percent of their body weight. But the majority of people regained any weight that they had lost. So, the exhaustive review of every published long-term dieting study found that diets are ineffective for weight loss.

The UCLA team concluded that “one of the best predictors of weight gain over the four years was having lost weight on a diet at some point during the years before the study started.” Not only do diets fail at producing (or maintaining) weight loss, but they actually make you gain weight!(2)

These are just a few studies that show how we can’t just “decide” to lose weight by going on a diet and assume the weight loss will last. There are several reasons why diets DO NOT WORK! It is because sustainable weight loss does not equal – eat less and burn more (as we discussed in THIS article.) Our body will fight back if we choose to diet our weight down. It will fight back by decreasing our metabolism, increasing fat cell production (as a protective mechanism), taking energy from our muscle mass (muscle burns more calories and our body does not want that since it thinks it’s starving), makes us binge-prone and obsessed with food to literally force us to eat!

One other mechanism that fights back the weight loss through dieting is our body’s set point weight.

Set point weight

Set point weight is our bodies natural healthy weight no matter if you eat some days more or some days less – you still end up at the same weight range. It is called a weight range because it’s important to know that it can be normal for our weight to fluctuate a little bit. It does not stay at the exact same number all day every day so take a deep breath…it’s normal. Set point weight is different for every individual.

A healthy body maintains it’s healthy set point weight by eating according to hunger and fullness cues without any compensatory behaviours (counting calories, exercising, dieting etc). Very few people are naturally BMI 18, most average between BMI 20-25. Your body will do everything to keep you at your set point weight, no matter if you are naturally BMI 20 and try to gain to BMI 22, or BMI 25 and try to diet down to BMI 20.

„This natural weight is where your body functions best and is the weight your body is meant to be according to your genetic makeup. Just as you have a predetermined height or shoe size, you also have a predetermined biological weight or set point that your body tries to defend“(3)

Stephan Guyenet from Whole Health Resource explains: „One pound of human fat contains about 3,500 calories. That represents roughly 40 slices of toast. So if you were to eat one extra slice of toast every day, you would gain just under a pound of fat per month. Conversely, if you were to eat one fewer slice per day, you’d lose a pound a month. Right? Not quite.

How is it that most peoples’ body fat mass stays relatively stable over long periods of time when an imbalance of as little as 5% of calories should lead to rapid changes in weight? Is it because we do complicated calculations in our heads every day, factoring in basal metabolic rate and exercise, to make sure our energy intake precisely matches expenditure? Of course not. We’re gifted with a sophisticated system of hormones and brain regions that do the “calculations” for us unconsciously.

How is it that most peoples’ body fat mass stays relatively stable over long periods of time when an imbalance of as little as 5% of calories should lead to rapid changes in weight? – Answer: Set Point Weight.

When it’s working properly, this system precisely matches energy intake to expenditure, ensuring a stable and healthy fat mass. It does this by controlling food seeking behaviours, feelings of fullness and even energy expenditure by heat production and physical movements. If you eat a little bit more than usual at a meal, a properly functioning system will say “let’s eat a little bit less next time, and perhaps also burn some of it off.” This is one reason why animals in their natural habitat are nearly always at an appropriate weight, barring starvation. The only time wild animals are overweight enough to significantly compromise physical performance is when it serves an important purpose, such as preparing for hibernation.“(4)

Our set point is determined by a series of hormonal signals released from our gut, pancreas, and fat cells, which travel to the hypothalamus in the brain. The brain then regulates how much we eat, how many calories we burn, and how much body fat we store long term through various hormones and neurotransmitters, such as serotonin, leptin, and ghrelin. Our “set point weight” refers to the level of stored fat our body automatically works to maintain regardless of a number of calories we take in or burn off. Our set point explains why it’s so hard to keep fat off through traditional diet and exercise techniques.

Now you can understand why the eat-less-burn-more suggestion for weight loss does not work so straight forward. Our body has multiple mechanisms to protect our set point weight. AND when you literally starve your weight down you will have to face some serious health consequences.

That’s the beauty of set point weight. Our genes, brain, and hormones work together to maintain balance. A healthy body automatically knows how much food it needs, and it regulates it with hunger cues. It automatically maintains our body’s fat levels – not too high, not too low, but just perfect for every individual. When we don’t mess with this system, our body has no problem maintaining a healthy set point weight.

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(1)(2) Spinardi, Josie. (2013). How to Have Your Cake and Your Skinny Jeans Too: Stop Binge Eating, Overeating and Dieting For Good, Get the Naturally Thin Body You Crave From the Inside Out, Kindle version.

(3) Randy E. McCabe, Traci L. McFarlane, Marion P. Olmsted. (2003). Overcoming Bulimia Workbook: Your Comprehensive Step-by-Step Guide to Recovery, Google Books, LINK.

(4) Guyenet, Stephan. (2009). The Body Fat Set Point, Whole Health Source, Nutrition and Health Science, LINK.

Cover image from HERE.

8 thoughts on “Why Diets Do Not Work & How Set Point Weight Works!”

  1. I have just found your youtube videos and your website and i just want to thank you so much for giving this information. I lost 150 pounds by eating 1200 calories for over a year and after i hit my goal weight i started the cycle of bingeing and restricting over and over. I have gained almost 40 pounds back and i seriously thought my mind and body were broken. I did not understand what was happening to me. Now through your videos and articles i finally understand what is happening and that my body is trying to heal and restore itself, and i will not fight against it anymore. You have given me answers and so much peace. Thank you thank you thank you.

    1. Im so happy the information I share has helped you! 🙂 your body definitely is not broken but actually is trying to heal!

  2. I struggled with binge eating disorder throughout my childhood until roughly 1 1/2 years ago, because it was then I started to develop anorexia. I am at the end of my recovery program and have completely weight restored. Some part of me is still struggling with the whole idea of calories in vs. calories out kind of thing though. I am having a hard time believing that I can simply eat when I am hungry and if I eat 500 more calories than my body needs, well then I will be gaining weight. Although this article hasn’t changed my fears about being obese once again, it has begun to open my eyes, showing me that perhaps something as pure and intuitive as a “set point” truly does exist. Thank you for writing this article and giving me hope. This has given me a pro to weigh out the many other upsetting articles I have previously read.

    1. its very normal to not feel full when coming from restriction, it means you are just hungry for more and it takes time to get back normal fullness cues.

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