5 Simple Steps to “Reprogram” Your Weight
By Steve Edwards
Your body resists change, even when it’s good for you. This irritating little survival trait has led to a passel of colloquial words that we use when referring to how to deal with it. These include survival mode, starvation mode, periodizational training, plateau-ing, and set point. Today we’ll tackle the latter, which is a term we use to explain why our bodies impede our results whenever we get close to our target weight.
“Set point” is not a real term in a medical sense and, thus, its meaning is often misused or misunderstood. A common “definition” found on the Internet states “Set point is the weight range in which your body is programmed to weigh and will fight to maintain that weight.” While more or less accurate, its use of the word “programmed” is misleading because it insinuates that you have no control over the programmer, which is, in fact, yourself.
This is further exacerbated with the sentence “everyone has a set point and just like you have no control over how tall you will be, or what color your eyes and hair will be, you also have no control over what your set point will be. Your body is biologically and genetically determined to weigh within a certain weight range.” While this sentence has some true elements, it’s also fatalistic and sounds as though you’re doomed to live a life that’s predetermined. You have a lot more control over what you weigh than your height and what color your eyes are. If this wasn’t true, Million Dollar Body members wouldn’t be so successful at losing weight.
What the creators of the term “set point” have done is to combine the meaning of the word homeostasis with the fact that there are different body types. Homeostasis is your body’s desire to stay regulated under varying conditions. Since it’s a point your body likes to maintain, it is, in a way, a set point. Except that it’s changeable. Body type is not changeable. However, how your body looks, no matter what type, is easily altered. If that weren’t true, bodybuilding would be a sport with only one body type, and it’s not.
So let’s get down to the business of how to change your set point. Since “set point” isn’t even a real term, but more of a myth, it shouldn’t be too difficult. We change myths all the time.
Step 1: Change whatever you are currently doing. If you don’t believe that your set point can change, try Morgan Spurlock’s experiment, the film Super Size Me, and super-size all of your meals at McDonald’s for the next month. Most of you can visualize this pretty well. If you overeat like crazy, you will gain weight. By just understanding this one thing we’ve myth-busted the legend of the set point. You can gain weight and, therefore, you don’t really have a set point as defined.
But you probably don’t want to gain weight; you probably want to lose. So let’s look at how this works. Your body likes wherever it is right now. Even if that state is sick or overweight or out of shape, your body tries to hang on to this state because the reactionary state of your body is that change is bad. It’s a survival mechanism that kicks in because, no matter how unhealthy, we’re currently still alive and all change has some risk associated with it. But we are reasonable beings and have the ability to offset our reactionary state (that we might want to refer to as our “amoeba state”). So when we understand that something is good for us, we can force our reactionary body into doing something it doesn’t want to. The easiest step of all is to simply change what you are currently doing.
When ultra-runner Dean Karnazes made the decision to become a runner, he was in a bar. He stopped drinking, went out into the night, and ran 30 miles. At that time, his set point was that of a guy who sat in bars and not someone who would run 50 marathons in 50 days. He had to change it, which he did in sort of an extreme manner. But my point is that he did change it. And it didn’t happen on that first run, which I’d imagine was quite miserable. You’ve got to force change on your life; otherwise your body will revert to its state of homeostasis.
Step 2: Clean up your life. Step one is easy; this one takes more work. Nothing you can do will help you as much as changing your lifestyle to a healthier one. Eat less junk, get plenty of exercise, stay hydrated, eat more whole foods. It doesn’t sound all that hard, but we wouldn’t be having this discussion if it were easy.
This is a roundabout step because it won’t necessarily change your weight and, hence, your set point, but it will change you inside. It’s the most important step because your body will get healthier and run better. Eating good food changes the way your body metabolizes, especially when you add some exercise. And your metabolic process is what this entire set point issue is about. When you change your body’s foundation for the better, it will more easily accept future changes.
Step 3: Zigzag your diet. To lose weight, you generally need to eat less. But while randomly eating less can be effective, the best strategy that you can use is to zigzag your calories.
Don’t confuse zigzag dieting with yo-yo dieting; they are completely different. Zigzagging means to eat more on different days in order to keep your body’s metabolism working at its set point while you are under- or overfeeding it. It works both ways—you can zigzag down and zigzag up.
Your goal is that your overall calorie expenditure is either down or up. Most of you probably want to lose weight, so let’s use down. Say you weigh 200 pounds and want to weigh 150. Your body wants to eat around 3,000 calories a day in order to maintain its weight (or its current set point). But you want to lose weight as quickly as is safe and you’re psyched to starve yourself to do it, so you’re willing to eat 1,200 calories a day. If you do, however, your body thinks that you are starving and, over time, begins to lower its metabolism. There is some lag time in your body’s ability to react, so you may lose a lot of weight in a week or two eating 1,200 calories a day but then it will slow down. Furthermore, your slower metabolism will negatively affect your ability to work out hard, especially the fitter you become.
Instead, eat between 2,500 and 3,000 calories two or three days per week and 1,200 on the others. This way your body doesn’t have the time to react, resulting in negative calorie days that force your body to more efficiently use its stored body fat as fuel for energy. While your caloric consumption for a week is a few thousand calories higher than if you were eating less, your higher metabolic rate allows you to work out harder, exert more energy, and burn more calories. Over time, the calorie burning will increase beyond what you could hope to achieve by just eating less.
As you lose weight, your upper-end caloric consumption can drop. But be careful because your body composition is changing. With more muscle and less fat, your caloric needs increase, even as you are losing weight. There is no exact scale to use for this, but a muscular 150-pound person can burn more calories than a fat 200-pound person. So never drop your high-calorie days too much.
Step 4: Eat more! Assuming you’ve followed the above steps you will reach a point where you need to eat more in order to continually lose weight. The reason is that a 1,200-calorie-a-day diet isn’t enough to feed a highly active person of any weight. If you’re small, 1,200 calories may be fine during times of inactivity, but an hour of intense exercise burns at least 500 calories and an active body can’t live long (at least in a fit state) on 700 calories a day—it’s starvation mode central. For this reason, adding calories is probably the number one piece of advice we use on the Message Boards to get our members off of weight plateaus toward the end of their programs.
This concept throws a wrench into the original idea of the whole set point theory because if your body’s “set point” is, supposedly 160 pounds, is it 160 pounds at 15% body fat or at 30%? The difference in how these two bodies will look couldn’t be starker. It’s like the difference between Gabrielle Reece and Roseanne Barr. How you look is far more related to your body composition than your actual weight.
Step 5: Periodize your diet. In other words, eat for what you do. Food is fuel and you don’t put gas in your car when it’s sitting in the driveway. It’s much the same with your diet. You need far less food when you are sitting all day then when you aren’t.
Periodizational dieting is, basically, just planning your diet around your activities with your goals in mind. Much the way you do with your workouts. For example, Beachbody exercise programs are all programs, meaning that you do certain exercises and workouts over a given amount of time, usually 4 to 12 weeks. Then you’re “done,” at which point you re-evaluate your goals and do something different. This is exactly how your diet should work.
For example, each of the above four steps could be a “period” of dieting. Each time you change what you were doing before, you go through a period of adjustment as your body resets its set point to reflect your new lifestyle. Once it’s reset, you again change what you are doing until you get your body to the point where you want it. At this point, your set point becomes your friend because, due to homeostasis, your body always wants to maintain the point it’s currently at.