Sitting on Your Set Point

One in a series of posts on my struggles with maintaining a healthier weight, starting in early 2019 and working into the present day

This will be my last post on obesity and weight loss for a while, so I think it’s appropriate to focus it the troubling issue of set points. I’m writing in case anyone is striving for weight loss but suffering from disappointments. I know that feeling so well.

Dealing with Disappointment

 Let’s say you’re doing everything right in your eyes. Yesterday, you went to the gym, where you lifted some weights and did half an hour of aerobic activity. 

Then you came home and went to work. You ate a sensible breakfast (oatmeal), lunch (Minestrone soup) and dinner (chicken and salad), and avoided eating after dinner after an apple for dessert.

In other words, you did everything right.

You’re kind of eager to weigh yourself, wanting to find out how much you’ve lost. After all, if it’s as much as a pound, you can redo the calculations in your head to assure yourself you’ll be svelte by Christmas or whenever.

But how does the universe respond to your good deeds?

Well, it turns out you’ve actually gained a couple of pounds since yesterday!

“I don’t deserve this,” you think to yourself. This reminds you of the movie Unforgiven, the scene in which Little Bill (played by Gene Hackman) tells William Munny (Clint Eastwood), “I don’t deserve to die like this.” Munny, who is about to blow his head off with a shotgun, says, “Deserve’s got nothing to do with it.” 

Okay, comparing your slight weight gain to getting executed on a barroom floor is a tad dramatic, but you get the idea.

Then you talk yourself down with a hundred truths, tropes and tiny deceptions. 

It’s just a bathroom scale and isn’t all that accurate. Besides, you’re going to naturally swing a bit day to day. Besides, your body strives to maintain equilibrium. Besides that, muscle weighs more than fat. You just have to have patience. No one said it was going to be easy. You’ll get there. You just need to double down on your efforts. You can do it!

So Unfair, Says Your Inner Child

A lot of that’s true. Still, there’s that inner child within saying “It’s not fair!” The child that wants to take his ball and go home. The child that thinks they might as well have some ice cream because it just doesn’t matter one way or the other. 

The child isn’t the Dogman, but the child may aid and abet the Dogman. Maybe not intentionally. “Don’t you let that dog out the door?” you yell, a parent from a bedroom, your voice already scolding but muffled. But, the Dogman, sensing an opportunity, muscles its way past the kid when the door is open just a crack, and out he suddenly flies, free to chase squirrels, crap in the neighbor’s yard, bark at strangers, or even knock over a trashcan and scour it for anything resembling food.  

Does the kid care? Maybe a part of them does, but the other part says, “Life’s not fair. Let the dog go have some fun. Somebody ought to, and it’s definitely not me these days.”

Patience on the Set Point

One of the reasons it’s so easy to suffer a series of what can feel like “crushing defeats” is because your body seems to have what’s sometimes called a “set point.” This is the weight around which your body wants to hover. It’s not so hard to lose weight if you’re five pounds above that set point, but trying to lose it once you’ve hit the set point can be brutal if you come at it with the wrong attitude

My set point as I’m writing this is in the range of 224 to 229, by the bathroom scale (higher if you use the mechanical column scales found in doctor offices and gyms). If I’m at 233 or higher, it’s not so hard getting back to that set point. But getting below it can be pretty rough.

This proclivity of your body to “want” to maintain a set point makes a lot of sense for two-legged nomadic hunters and gatherers who went through periods of feast and famine. After all, you might get pretty hungry while you’re waiting for the fruit on certain trees to ripen or while tracking down that wily wooly mammoth you’ve been pursuing.

As you’re waiting, your body tries to conserve energy and fat as best it can. It’s a survival mechanism. Without it, we probably wouldn’t be here to begin with.

But in an age when there’s plenty of food around, that set point mechanism can be a bummer.

My advice is to be patient. Keep your meal servings sane. Keep getting the right amount of exercise. Remember that eating in a healthy way is its own reward. Weight loss is often just a bonus.

On the Margins and in Good Time

In my experience, weight loss happens around the margins. You won’t gain weight if you have one sausage for dinner, for example, but having two of them? You won’t gain weight if have a handful of nuts, but having two or three handfuls? 

This is the hardest thing for me. I mean, I’m not “pigging out.” I just want two burgers rather than one. How much worse can that be? “It’s just protein,” I tell myself. “After all, a lot of diet books out there are recommending staying away from carbs and eating meat.”

But it doesn’t work that way. Not in my experience, anyway. Having that extra burger or sausage repeated over days and weeks messes me up.

For lots of people, avoiding that extra burger doesn’t sound hard. But for me it’s been brutal in the past, especially if my other primary meals are a bowl of oatmeal with fruit and a nutritious salad for lunch. Don’t I deserve a couple of helping of real meat?

No, not necessarily. It depends on a lot of other factors. You need to be listening to your own body. “Deserves’s got nothing to do with it,” my inner Clint tells me.

A Work in Progress

So, I need to be better around the margins. Maybe just one helping, not two. Not three. How about a chicken strip? Okay, two helpings, but not three. Or four. The gains or, I should say, the losses are made around the margins and they take a long time to happen.

Again, be patient. Learn as you go. Eat and live well. Eventually you’ll probably get by your current set point. (Though keep in mind there may well be other set points in your future.) Don’t get distressed by not being able to hit some ideal goal. Don’t let some socially constructed ideal of a “right weight” define you or make you unhappy.

So what if you’re a work in progress?

I’ve got news. We all are.

Featured image by Diane Krauss (DianeAnna); Diane Krauss put it under GFDL and CC-BY-SA-2.5. The German tennis player Tommy Haas at the public training for the World Team Cup in Düsseldorf, Germany, 2005. Wikimedia Commons.