coaching health and wellness

The Biggest Loser Dilemma: Exploring Set Point Weight Theory And Its Implications for Health Coaches

Feb 21, 2024

Have you ever wondered what happened to the contestants on the show “The Biggest Loser” after they returned to their normal lives?

A follow-up study conducted on 14 of the show’s participants revealed that after six years, 80% of the participants had regained a significant amount of the weight they lost while on the show. While most were still below their original starting weight, they were unable to maintain the weight loss they had achieved while on the show.

This led me down the rabbit hole of, “How did this happen, and why?” During my research (I’m a huge nerd and love learning!), I found information about the Set Point Weight Theory. This theory originated in the 1950s, and was further expanded upon by William Bennett and Joel Gurin in the 1980’s. Over the past forty years, it has continued to grow in scope. 

The Set Point Theory asserts that once the body has reached a “settling point,” it will work to maintain homeostasis however it can. According to the National Library of Medicine,The theory posits that the human body has a predetermined weight or fat mass set-point range. Various compensatory physiological mechanisms maintain that set point and resist deviation from it. Feedback systems are vital in driving the body weight back toward the set point.”

As a health coach, I found the concept of the Set Point Weight Theory both intriguing and also disturbing. Obesity rates have tripled over the last thirty years, and epidemiological research projects that seventy-eight percent of American adults could be overweight or obese by 2030.

As the rates of chronic diseases associated with being overweight and obesity continue to rise globally, I started wondering if this meant that our clients would be doomed to remain unhealthy for the rest of their lives? How long would their bodies keep reverting to an unhealthy state? 

The Set Point Weight Theory states that the body has internal regulators that strive to keep our weight within a certain range, which is known as our “set point.” These regulators can be influenced by various factors such as our genetic makeup, other biological factors, and our environment. Therefore, the Set Point is not fixed.

Several factors can affect an individual’s Set Point, including lifestyle factors such as diet, movement, sleep, as well as childbirth, menopause, aging, environment, chronic stress, and disease.

In fact, a criticism of Set Point Theory is that the overabundance of the standard Western (American) diet, which is “low in fruits and vegetables, and high in fat and sodium,” and generally consists of “large portions, high calories, and excess sugar,” plus a sedentary lifestyle, makes it difficult to determine whether being overweight or obese is indeed genetic or if the environment plays a greater factor in determining an individual’s weight.

However, the good news is research has shown that a person’s Set Point can be altered to promote health through various means including diet, eating patterns, physical activity, medication, and working with a healthcare team, including health coaches.

So, what does all this mean for health coaches?

From what is known from various studies, once a person’s body reaches a certain Set Point, it may induce cravings, slow down metabolism, or induce fatigue in order to conserve energy and prevent fat loss.

As a health coach, it is more imperative than ever to help clients understand that their difficulty with weight loss isn’t a “fault” of the client or due to a lack of willpower or motivation. Their weight loss struggles may actually stem from biological factors working to maintain homeostasis and preserve their Set Points.

As health and wellness coaches, it is our responsibility to adhere to the National Board for Health and Wellness Coaching’s (NBHWC) ethical guidelines. We must show “unconditional positive regard for our clients,” considering them as whole, resourceful, and wise individuals. Coaches certified by the NBWHC are also trained to consider our clients’ assessments of their own state of health and well-being, meet them where they are at, and work with them at their own pace. Since every person is unique, a one-size-fits-all approach to weight loss is not effective. 

As coaches, we support our clients and also help them realize their health goals and wellness changes take time and effort, and there is no “quick fix.” In fact, rushing changes – not giving the body enough time to adjust to weight loss – has been shown to trigger the central nervous system and the hormones responsible for regulating weight to inducing craving, slowing the metabolism, and inducing fatigue in order to maintain fat stores to prevent “starvation mode.” Therefore the quick-fix method more likely leads to relapse and further weight gain.

Our body is designed to optimize our survival. Therefore, by making gradual, sustainable lifestyle changes, such as improving their eating habits and increasing physical activity levels, clients can help their bodies establish a new Set Point. 

And, according to MD Anderson Cancer Center, there are two factors that will help clients reach their health and wellness goals: time and support. A third factor is consistency.

Consistency means following healthy eating patterns, including daily and weekly consumption of appropriate servings of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, proteins, and healthy fats, and regularly engaging in physical activity. This approach leads to slow and steady weight loss over time. It also helps the body establish a new Set Point at a healthier weight and body composition, with less adipose tissue. The most important key to this is slowly and steadily, giving the body and the brain time to adjust and understand there is no danger of starvation occurring. With the support of a team including doctors, nurses, dieticians, health coaches, trainers, etc., clients can address issues that may arise during this transition period and make the switch to a healthier lifestyle easier and more sustainable.

As a health coach, understanding Set Point Weight Theory is beneficial to help you support your clients who are struggling to lose weight. While being on a show like The Biggest Loser can catapult the weight loss journey, sustaining weight loss requires more than a few months of hard work; it is a lifestyle change.

By knowing this theory, coaches can help their clients gain a holistic insight into weight loss and empower the client not only to lose weight, but to make sustainable lifestyle changes that are more likely to lead to long-term success and enhance overall well-being. 

To learn more about The Set Point Weight Theory and how Health Coaches can utilize this understanding to help clients, check out these findings on Obesity and Set Point Theory.


About the Author

Denice Murray is a National Board Certified Health and Wellness Coach and a National Academy of Sports Medicine Certified Nutrition Coach. She helps busy moms who are overworked, overwhelmed, and overweight take their health back one step at a time.


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