Ep.3 – Why It’s So Hard to Keep Weight Off (aka Your Set-Point Weight)


Jonathan: Welcome to Living the Smarter Science of Slim, where we provide a scientifically proven lifestyle for long-term health and fast lost by eating more and exercising less, but smarter.

Carrie: Eat smarter, exercise smarter, live better – I am so ready for that.

Jonathan:  Welcome to Living the Smarter Science of Slim. Jonathan Bailor here with Carrie Brown in studio in Seattle. Carrie, how you doing today?

Carrie: It is a great day.

Jonathan: It’s a great day and we’re going to pick up just where we left off last week. Last week Carrie, if I recall, we were talking about the fat metabolism system.

Carrie: Yes, you were fiddling with my fat metabolism.

Jonathan: Fiddling away, and for listeners who are just joining us here in episode three, the fat metabolism system is – think about it like your respiratory system or your circulatory system. But it’s all about your body composition. It’s a collection of hormones and neurological signals that helps your body either keep you thin or keep you heavy, and we’re going to work on unclogging our fat metabolism systems so that our body automatically keeps us slim like, you know, those naturally thin people we all know.

Carrie: Okay.

Jonathan:  Alright, so-

Carrie: So you’re going to help me get back to being the naturally thin person I used to be.

Jonathan: Well you know the body’s natural state is one of health and not being overweight. I mean, think about it. You know as we were coming along our evolutionary path – if we were designed to be overweight and sick, you know we would have gotten eaten by lions and our species would have died off a long time ago. So, our body wants us to be healthy and fit. We just need to give it the right fuel to do that – put it in the right situation to do that, and then it will take care of the rest for us.

Carrie: Alright, because I, for sure, definitely want to get back to that place.

Jonathan: Get back to the happy place.

Carrie: Get back to the happy place.

Jonathan: So, fat metabolism system – and what the fat metabolism does, fundamentally, is it tries to keep us around our set point weight – a term we introduced last week. We’ve all experienced this set point weight. It’s why you can get the flu and you lose twenty pounds and then you get better and you don’t change your eating or exercise habits, and somehow exactly twenty pounds come back – like your body wants you to weigh a certain weight.

Carrie: I’m sitting here wondering if I should share my old set point weight, that’s kind of scary, but –

Jonathan: I think you’re ready, Carrie.

Carrie: I will, okay. So my set point weight was – well around 166, 168. And it didn’t seem to matter what I ate or what I didn’t eat or how much I exercised or didn’t exercise – it didn’t budge. It just didn’t matter what I did. That’s where it stayed.

Jonathan: It’s actually sort of a funny example. Even individuals who struggle with obesity and overweight – if you think about it, there’s, you know, there are people that weigh 450 pounds, but there’s no one that weighs 4500 pounds. And I know that might sound like kind of a silly example Carrie, but you know if it really just is about calories in, calories out – why isn’t it that over-eating doesn’t cause us to weigh 1000 pounds, 2000 pounds? Well again, it’s because our body is always fundamentally trying to bring us back to homeostasis, or a point of equilibrium.

The problem is that point of equilibrium, or what researchers call the set point weight, has risen in overweight individuals. And we need to bring that back down. We need to fix our biology. And the fun thing, Carrie, is once we understand our set point weight – think about it like a thermostat for our body. Fitness and health becomes very exciting – because imagine if just like today, it seems like we’re fighting against our body to lower the set point weight. No matter what we do, it’s like our body is fighting and fighting and fighting to keep us heavier. What if our body fought to automatically keep us slimmer? What if we had a lower set point weight?

Carrie: Well interesting thing is that – I have, as you know Jonathan, in living the Smarter Science of Slim for a little while, and I’m very happy to announce that my set point weight is now around 154, instead of 168. So I know from experience that it’s absolutely possible to do that. And now I just stay at 154 no matter what I do. No matter – you know, I got down and just stayed there.

Jonathan: And the question -of course, I’m sure you’re wondering -is how do you lower your set point even further? And what we will find – I want to cover a little bit of background on the set point, provide some really interesting studies to verify it. Because again, we’re brainwashed with calories in, calories out. We’ve got to reboot our minds. We need some data to back that up, but we will talk about how we’ll lower it. In brief, the higher the quality of the food we eat, and the higher the quality of the exercise we get, the more of a hormonal shift we make in our body and the lower our set point weight falls. So, as people start to live the Smarter Science of Slim, they usually ease their way into it. They start to see some changes. They like it. They further increase the quality of their eating and their exercise, set point falls further, and they like the results.

Carrie: Well I can’t believe that I just announced my weight to the whole world. But anyway, there it is.

Jonathan: There it is. Why and – of course we’ll talk about this much more later, but you know, here at Living the Smarter Science of Slim we’re not – we’re not really focused on weight, right. According to my body mass index, I am obese, and I actually have about 9% body fat so I’m not obese. However, according to my body mass index and according to my weight versus my height, I am obese. I’m not obese. Weight is not the be all end all. Health, fitness, how we look, how we feel about ourselves is the be all end all.

And on that note, let’s get to some science about the set point. Actually here, we’re here in Seattle, Washington, one of the premier investigators around the set point is Dr. Weigel, or Weigel – I’m sorry if I’m pronouncing your name incorrectly – over at the University of Washington, puts it really well. He says, “Obesity is not a disorder of body weight regulation. Most obese patients regulate their weight appropriately about an elevated set point weight.” So, in other words, a heavier person’s set point weight keeps them at that higher weight – much like a naturally thin person’s lower set point weight keeps them at that lower weight. We all have a set point. The issue is how low or how high it is.

Carrie: Can you explain how my set point is now 14 pounds less than it was?

Jonathan:  I absolutely can, and I will get to that Carrie, but I want to keep you in suspense for just a second because I further want to drive home the importance of focusing on – again, it’s not about eating less and exercising more. It’s about changing our set point weight, and this is really important because -Dr. Fran over at Oxford University knows that –“We really shouldn’t be surprised that dieting is difficult, because it is a fight against mechanisms which have evolved over many millions of years precisely to minimize its effects.” Now, let’s think about that for a second. You know, our body doesn’t want us to store a bunch of fat quickly, or to lose a bunch of weight quickly. Our body, just like it tries to keep our blood pressure at a regular rate, and it tries to keep our heart rate at a regular rate, and our breathing constant, our body wants us to stay at about the same weight. So when we try to override that, it’s almost like a violent act, like we’re trying to override what our body wants, and Carrie, you and I both know we generally don’t win battles against our body.

Carrie: So is that why living the Smarter Science of Slim has been just staggeringly easy compared to going on any number of traditional diets?

Jonathan:  Carrie, you’re exactly right. With the Smarter Science of Slim we fundamentally want to work with our body. We want to optimize our hormones and we want to, really, just convince our body to automatically regulate us around a slimmer set point. Now contrast that o eating less and exercising more. We’re saying, “Body, I’m going to rip calories out of you.” Eating less is just starvation. Exercising more –that’s just basically the same as starvation, just doing it a different way. We’re trying to force our body down.

Think about it, Carrie, as actually trying to force yourself to stay awake. It’s not going to work. Your body needs a certain amount of sleep. And we can force ourselves to stay awake. We can take a bunch of stimulants but there’s always side effects. And in the long run, the body wins out. So a much more promising, and a much more healthy, and a much more long-term approach is to find out the way our body works and to optimize that. And that’s what we can do. It’s all about our hormones. It’s all about our set point. And if you don’t mind, Carrie, I’ve got a few studies here to really illustrate just how powerful the set point is.

Carrie:  But if I understand if correctly, you’re saying that we are working – living the Smarter Science of Slim is working with our body to naturally get there, instead of forcing us to get there. Is that what you’re saying?

Jonathan:   It is. Think of eating less and exercising more as being affective at enabling us to temporarily shed weight. However, the body will then counteract that. Everything about our biology will work to counteract eating less and exercising more. Because again, our body doesn’t want to starve. In fact, there’s been studies – we’ll talk about these in detail in a second – even if you want to gain a lot of weight, that’s not particularly easy. Most people gain weight gradually over time due to hormonal changes. If you want to gain 20 pounds in two weeks, your body won’t let you do that. It will automatically regulate you back down.

So here, with Smarter Science of Slim, it’s about fiddling with the hormonal knobs in our body to change and to work with and heal and optimize our body, rather than to try to force it in one direction or another.

Carrie:   It’s interesting – you say how gradual weight gain is. I’ve always felt that my ideal weight – when I felt the best was when I was 119 pounds. And it took years for me to creep up to 166 pounds. I didn’t even notice it, really.

Jonathan:  Exactly.

Carrie:  It’s interesting you say we don’t gain weight, a lot of weight rapidly. But I don’t expect to get down to 119 pounds over night. And the other interesting thing is – it’s like you mentioned earlier, it is not about the weight. Even though I’ve only lost 14 pounds, if you’ve looked at the way my clothes fit me now, or looked at the way I look – rather than looking at numbers on a scale – you’d think I would of lost a lot more weight. You’d there would have been a big drop in number. There hasn’t been. But the way I look and the comments I’m getting- the way my clothes are fitting –there’s the difference.

Jonathan:  Carrie, I have to share kind of an embarrassing story here to eco that point. Recently, my lovely wife and I went on a little vacation. I have weight 200 pounds – my set point weight – for I don’t know, the last 7 years. However, over the past 3 years, I’ve taken my smarter eating and smarter exercise strategy to the next level – really increasing the quality in both of those as much as I can. And I have noticed a difference in my waist. For example, I’m about 6 feet tall, 200 pounds – for most of my life, I had a 34 inch waist and recently I’ve gone down to a 31 and a half inch waist.

I didn’t think about that while I was packing my suit case. So I took my old bathing suit, got to Mexico, was quite excited, saw the beautiful sun and surf there, put the bathing suit on and proceeded to sprint my way into the ocean, and the first wave came and – wardrobe malfunction.

Carrie:  And then all the ladies on the beach were excited.

Jonathan:   Except for one, and that would be my wife. And so – absolutely, I weigh the exact same but I have seen a dramatic shift as well in my body composition, which is shocking, because I am eating more and exercising less. One other point you mentioned, Carrie, that I do want to talk about – and that’s weight gain being gradual. Some listeners may have experienced weight gain not be gradual. And there are times in our life where we can see pretty significant and pretty quick weight gain.

But you’ll notice, those are always times that have to do with massive and quick hormonal change. Think about pregnancy. Think about menopause. When we see dramatic changes in our hormonal balance, we do see dramatic changes in our weight. Now, what’s – again, so exciting about eating and exercising smarter – is we can make dramatic hormonal changes which help us drop that fat rather than gain that fat. It’s not about eating dramatically less or exercising dramatically more. It’s about dramatic hormonal change.

Carrie:  There are times where you notice dramatic weight loss – like you talked about pregnancy and other things that can cause dramatic weight gain. There’s also times where the reverse is true and I’m thinking particularly – people get divorced. This massive stress –

Jonathan:    Stress, exactly.

Carrie:  And often people lose 2 stone – what’s that in America? 28 pounds.

Jonathan:   I don’t know.

Carrie:  28 pounds in like – overnight, because of stress. And that’s another thing that always made me question the whole calories in, calories out. Nothing changed in their eating or their exercise, but they’ve lost a massive amount of weight. There must be something else going on that caused their body to do that. So it can’t just be what we eat versus how much we exercise.

Jonathan:  Carrie, you actually made me think of a third example of where we see significant weight gain or even loss. And that has to do with medication. So two of the most common examples – actually three – when people quit smoking, eating and exercise doesn’t change. Clinical studies show time and time again their weight changes. That may have a bit to do with insulin sensitivity, studies show.

Second example is antidepressants or similar drugs such as those. Many, many people will not change anything about how much they’re eating, how much they’re exercising, go on some sort of an antidepressant medication – gain 10 or 12 pounds in a month or two. Third is insulin. Any, any type two diabetic who has began insulin therapy will tell you, without any changes to how much they eat, or how much they exercise, they gain weight.

We’ll actually cover some studies about this later, in later podcasts, but again, folks, all about hormones and the way we control hormones is all through the quality of our food, the quality of our exercise. The reason that’s important is it unclogs or metabolism system, unclogs our set point weight and enables our bodies to behave the way they’re supposed to, or more like the bodies of naturally thin people, keeping us healthy and thin long-term.

Carrie:  This is one of the things I’ve read when I read your chapter in the book Calories In, Calories Out – this is when it started to make sense to me, that it was actually possible your strategy was the one that actually worked. You know, hormones and stress and all these other things that cause weight change, without your food intake or exercise – now it suddenly starts to feel like – “Maybe he’s right. Maybe there’s something to this.”

Jonathan:  Well I’m actually glad to hear you say that. We definitely do need – it needs to click. We need an alternative. We can’t just be expected to say, “Oh, well, clearly this –let’s eat less and exercise more, smarter.” We have to have a reason to believe there’s a difference. And to that end, let’s start covering some of the science supporting that said point. Because it may sound like this is an interesting theory. But the good news is, it’s actually not a theory. It’s been proven time and time again. So, if you don’t mind, Carrie – and you can reel me in if I get too scientific here.

Carrie:  Hey, if you get too geeky, I’m reeling.

Jonathan:  You’re reeling. So, a couple studies. The first, I think, are fascinating. They were done at the University of Cincinnati. They involved animals. Now, Carrie, researchers would do reverse liposuction. They would actually surgically add fat to rats’ bodies and observe the rats as – get this – they would automatically burn off all of the fat that was surgically added.

Carrie:   The rats would?

Jonathan:   The rats would burn off exactly the amount of fat – in addiction to that, they did a similar study where they took rats and they did liposuction on these rats and they sucked the fat out of their bodies. And the rats automatically ate more until they replaced – and I’m quoting the research here – “exactly the mass of fat that was taken.” So animals with fat surgically added, automatically burned more fat until their body fat returned to its set point and animals with body fat surgically removed, did the converse, to maintain their set point.

Carrie:  So liposuction is not the answer for us either.

Jonathan:  No. Liposuction – well, again think about it in terms of – we’re not doing anything to solve the problem. The problem is not that there’s an abundance of fat on the body. That’s a symptom of a problem. The problem is what’s going on in the body that’s causing it to store all that excess fat. And that’s what we need to solve. We need to solve that biological clog.

Carrie:   So if you have liposuction, you still need to change the way you live your life, if you are not going to regain all of that fat.

Jonathan:   Absolutely, Carrie. Once you get that fat taken off your body – again, think about it as the clogged sink analogy we talked about last week. Sure, you can dip a coffee mug into a clogged sink and scoop some water and throw it out to the side. But you didn’t do anything about that clog. The water level is just going to rise back up unless you get that clog out.

Carrie: Got it.

Jonathan:  So, let’s talk about some other studies. Again, this is at opposite sides of the spectrum. Let’s talk about people who are trying to gain weight. In many, many – they call them intentional over-eating or over-feeding studies – every single one of these studies show three things, Carrie.  One – every gains less weight than predicted with calories in, calories out. If they ate – there’s 3500 calories in a pound of fat – so if they ate 5000 extra calories, no one gained exactly ten pounds. Biology doesn’t work like math. It works like biology.

Second thing every single study shows is that they stop gaining weight completely at a certain point. This goes back to our earlier comment. There’s no person that weighs 4,500 pounds. The body will automatically regulate you at some point. It just happens too late for some of us.

The third thing every single study showed is that as soon as the study ended, people returned to their regular weight automatically when they stopped being force-fed.

Carrie:  That’s amazing. It’s always surprising. When we spend time together and you tell me all this stuff, it’s just surprising. Nobody’s ever put this together before. Nobody’s ever put 2 and 2 together before, and got 4, before now.  

Jonathan:   Well, we’re adding it up here, Carrie. We’re going to break it down. I have one more study. This is actually – I like to call this the ultimate set point study. I get so excited about it here. In this type of study – they’re twin studies. So researchers got sets of twins. The reason this is so interesting, Carrie, is our set point is determined by primarily two things – our genetic and our hormones. Identical twins have exactly the same genetic make-up.

So we can isolate that component and talk strictly about hormones. What researchers did in this study, is they would take different sets of twins. So let’s say we have the Smith twins and we have the Thomas twins. They would over-feed all four of those people the exact same amount. And they wanted to see how weight gain would work. Would all of them gain the same weight? Would they all gain different amounts of weight? How would that work?

Well what all of these studies show is the twins – like the Smith twins would both gain the same amount of weight. And the Thomas twins would both gain the same amount of weight. But the different sets of twins – where the Smith twins may have gained two pounds each. The Thomas twins might have gained eight pounds each. Everyone was eating the same quantity of calories and getting the same amount of exercise. But because they had different set points, they gained different amount of weights. And because the twins had the same set points, they gained the exact same amount of weight.

Carrie:   That is fascinating.

Jonathan:  So, summing this all up, Dr.Freedman at Rockefeller University tells us, “The simplistic notion that weight can be controlled by deciding to eat less and exercise more, is at odds with substantial scientific evidence illuminating a precise and powerful biologic system that maintains body weight within a relatively narrow range.”

One more quote here by another doctor – this is Dr.Habble at the University of California: “Body weight is tightly regulated over relatively long periods of time – even after large alterations of body fat, resulting from restriction of energy intake, or dieting. Body weight and fat stores tend to return to the pre-intervention levels.”

So our body doesn’t want us to starve. To lose weight we need to lower that relatively narrow range researchers refer to, where our powerful biological system operates. And to do that, we need to talk about what cause that set point to rise in the first place.

Carrie:  If that, what you just shared, doesn’t give a huge amount of hope to everyone listening to this – they can control. They can get back to where they want to be. They can control weight. If that doesn’t give them hope that that’s possible, then I don’t know what else would.

Jonathan:   I hope it gives them hope. I want to be very clear here. It’s not magic. We do have to do something. It’s not eat more of what you’re currently eating or do less of your current exercise routine. We have to eat more high quality foods and we have to do less, but high quality exercise. We all know nothing in this world is free.

The good news is that now – and I’ll tell you this, Carrie – back from my personal trainer days – we’re not struggling because we’re not trying hard enough. That’s not the issue. We’re trying plenty hard. The problem is we’ve just been given bad information. So if you’re willing just a bit of time, a bit of effort – now you have some science that will work.

Carrie:  I’m so excited about this.

Jonathan:  Before we wrap up this week, Carrie. I don’t want to leave everyone hanging. I want to cover a bit about how our set point rises. And in the next podcast, we’ll talk about how we can start to lower it – which we’ve already alluded to from a high level – but how does our set point rise?

Well you’re going to keep hearing this word over and over again. It’s all about hormones. The two most commonly talked about – again, there’s lots, but let’s simplify it – are insulin and leptin. Have you heard about these hormones, Carrie?

Carrie: I haven’t really heard about leptin. But everyone’s heard about insulin.

Jonathan:  Insulin, from a high level, determines whether we’re storing or burning body fat.  We’ll cover it in detail in later podcasts, but from a high level, that’s what it does. Leptin regulates how much food we eat, how much energy we burn, and the amount of body fats specified by our set point. It’s really kind of a master hormone, in terms of our set point.

Let’s assume we’re unclogged. Going back to that sink analogy – we’re unclogged. Our body’s working appropriately. So when our weight starts to rise above our set point, a feedback loop begins. So hormonal signals start to tell our metabolism to go up, our appetite to go down and our body fat gets burned. So at any point in time, Carrie, we’re either storing or burning body fat. If we store a bit of body fat, our body says, “Don’t be hungry – speed up metabolism.” And body fat gets burned via hormonal signals. And we stay at our set point without really trying.

When things go off the rails, it gets a little ugly. Things go off the rail when our hormones aren’t being sent or received properly. We eat. We gain some body fat. Insulin is ignored. Leptin is ignored. We have insulin and leptin resistance. Our metabolism doesn’t really change. Our appetite doesn’t really change. So we don’t get full. We don’t burn any body fat. And in fact, we gain even more body fat because we eat even more and then these hormones keep getting secreted more and more and more. We end up with this mass of hormones in our body, which clogs up this cycle and prevents us from automatically keeping us in balance and cause that set point to creep up.

Carrie:  But the whole thing is driven by hormones – that’s what you’re saying. So if we can learn how to regulate our hormones in a healthy way, everything else will just start to work how it should.

Jonathan:   Exactly. I couldn’t put it any better myself. A raised set point or an elevated set point is simply abnormal numbers or hormones making our metabolism think abnormal levels of body fat are normal. The good news, Carrie, is we don’t have to get PHD’s in Biochemistry. We just start – we need to start thinking of food as a control system for hormones and exercise as a control system for hormones – not about calories. I don’t care how many calories you burn on the treadmill. That doesn’t matter. What matters is what your exercise does to your hormone levels so we can restore the set point weight, so we can restore this virtuous cycle, and so our body can behave as it wants to – and that’s to keep us healthy and fit long term.

Carrie:  That’s incredible. And as I’ve said just a little while ago, the more time I spend with you, listening to this stuff, the more hope I have that 119 pounds is going to happen and that it’s not going to be difficult. But even if it is doesn’t – even if I don’t get to that number, I’m going to look like I have.

Jonathan:   That’s absolutely right, Carrie. The key thing is that – well, 119 pounds may not be doable or may not even be necessary. Technically, if you just stopped eating and you exercised obsessively, eventually you would get to 119 pounds – but 119 pounds what?

Carrie: Right.   

Jonathan:  You know, 119 pounds tired and with all your muscle burnt off and crabby – no one wants that. It would be much better to be at 130 or 135 or 140 – to look like you’re 119 pounds, to feel great, and to enjoy food, and to not be living in the gym all day, every day.

Carrie:  I remember, actually, one of your friends commenting that they didn’t believe your wife weight 150 of whatever she weighs – 140 – because she was tiny but she weight 140. How was that possible? I think you just explained that, right there.

Jonathan:  Absolutely. And we all hear – we’ve heard muscle weighs more than fat. Muscle doesn’t weight – I mean, a pound of muscle weighs the same as a pound of fat. But muscle is about five times smaller than fat. So, if you shed 10 pounds of fat off your body, and simultaneously developed 10 pounds of lean tissue, you will look amazingly smaller, amazingly tighter – as you would say, you won’t have any wobbly bits. And however, your weight will not change at all.

So, to close up, I want to do a quote from a researcher here from the University of Wisconsin, Dr.Keesey, who says, “If our goal is substantial and sustainable weight loss, a more promising approach would be one based upon a strategy of directly altering the set point. The physiologic adjustments that ordinarily act to resist weight change, but instead facilitate the achievement and subsequent maintenance of a lower weight.”

Carrie, that maintenance of a lower weight is so important. We’ve talked about this before. Studies show that long-term eating less and exercising more fails 95.4% of the time. We have to enable our body and enable our lifestyle to perpetuate any health and fitness success we have because I’m not here for the short term. I don’t want to yo-yo. It’s terrible for our health. It’s terrible for our mental well-being.

Carrie:  And that really is why I was perfectly happy to share my weight. I’ve learned that it’s not the number that’s important. It’s the body composition that’s important. So sharing my weight publicly – it just doesn’t matter.

Jonathan:   I love that. I love that we’re healing our minds. We’re healing our bodies. We’re letting go of all this baggage that’s been put upon us about weighing a certain weight or eating a certain number of calories or doing a certain number of exercises. Fundamentally, instead of fighting against our raised set point by working harder, we can eat and exercise smarter. We can unclog. We can lower our set point and we can enable our fat metabolisms to burn body fat automatically, just like naturally thin people do. And closing comments, Carrie?

Carrie: You give the world hope.    

Jonathan: Give the world hope. We’ll end. I just tip my hat to all the researchers that enabled us to be powerful. I’m just the messenger. So thank you so much for joining us this week on Living the Smarter Science of Slim. Jonathan Bailor, Carrie Brown – see you next week.

“The set-point theory of body weight regulation is based on a large body of empiric evidence.”– D.S. Weigle, University of Washington

Your metabolism automatically regulates your weight around a “set-point.” That set-point is why it seems like no matter how much you starve yourself or exercise, you generally end up weighing the same–long-term. It is why you can get the flu, drop 15lbs., but then gain exactly 15lbs. back without eating any more than normal or exercising any less than normal. It is also why obese people do not explode.

Set-Point Weight: The weight that our metabolism automatically works to keep us at regardless of the amount of food we eat and exercise we get.

I know the “explode” bit may sound silly, but think about it for a moment. Why don’t obese people continue to pack on pounds indefinitely? If the amount of food they ate and exercise they got raised them to 450lbs., why doesn’t it raise them to 4,500 pounds? Well, they somehow automatically stop gaining weight. How does that work under the the mythical Calories In – Calories Out metabolism works like math world?

It doesn’t.

In this episode we’ll cover how weight gain works in the real world and what we can do about it.