Permanent Weight Loss: Changing The Set Point
November 24, 2020

our relationship with food and permanent weight loss

Weight gained during the holidays, through stress, or over freshman year of college may seem like a temporary change. But can we actually lose the weight we gain and manage permanent weight loss?

In 2000 a team of doctors, nurses and researchers tracked the weight of 195 people over the holidays and again after a year. They published their findings in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine.

The actual average weight gained between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day was just one pound. But that relatively good news was countered by some really bad news: while we don’t gain much weight, whatever we do gain, we seem to keep. People seem unable to shed holiday pounds in the subsequent months. It just contributes to life-long weight gain.

Heavier people gained more weight. And, not too surprisingly, those who reported exercising gained less weight, and the most active actually lost weight. See the chart below.

The most active people actually lost weight.

Permanent weight gain: The Set Point Theory

According to the Set-Point Theory of bodyweight “weight is maintained at a stable range, known as the “set-point,” despite the variability in energy intake and expenditure.”(1) It also states that the body is more efficient gaining and maintaining weight than losing it.

holiday weight gain is permanent

Whether we are underfed, overfed, or eating however we want, our bodies prefer holding on to the weight we gain.

Our bodies quickly adapt whenever we gain weight to establish a new set point.

Permanent weight loss is possible. But it’s really hard to lower the body’s set point.

You can initially lose the weight by hitting the gym and dieting. Every weight-loss plan works. At least at first. But then reality sets in.

In reality, 97 percent of dieters regain everything they lost and then some within three years. Obesity research fails to reflect this truth because it rarely follows people for more than 18 months. – Harriet Brown writing for

And for the 3% who keep the weight off, doing so becomes a stressful, all-encompassing obsession. It’s a full-time job.

Long term weight loss is possible, but it’s really, really hard. According to the National Weight Control Registry, a database tracking people who have lost weight and maintained the loss for over 5 years, success stories share these traits: (2)

    • 78% eat breakfast every day.
    • 75% weigh themselves at least once a week.
    • 62% watch less than 10 hours of TV per week.
    • 90% exercise, on average, about 1 hour per day.

These folks never go back to care-free eating and living. They remain ever-vigilant, tracking their diets and always knowing their exact weight.

Permanent weight loss is rare but possible for the obese.

According to a recent article in the Washington Post, that the vast majority of obese people will not return to “normal weight” within a given year. Specifically, the odds that an obese woman will return to normal weight is 1 in 124; for men, it’s 1 in 210.

Weight gain is multifactorial. Permanent weight loss requires changing one’s lifestyle, surroundings, friends, culture, and outlook.

Food addiction, age, binge eating, hormonal imbalances, culture, food access, poverty, medication, meat consumption, and engineered foods are all implicated in weight gain.

Some weight gain, like after menopause and childbirth, is inevitable. We’ve written about this here.

Food addiction is possibly as widespread as smoking addiction, and probably even more powerful. In a culture saturated with cheap foods engineered to hack our brains’ preference for fat, salt, and sugar, food addicts face an extraordinary challenge. They have to fight powerful biological, cultural, and commercial forces. It’s no wonder people with food addictions say their battle is lifelong.

Only a plant-based diet lets people safely lose weight and sustain that weight loss.

The only evidence for long-term weight loss through diet is found among those following a plant-based diet. See the video below, from

Inconvenient truth: vegans are the only dietary group in America who are, on average, at a healthy weight.

Every other group, including vegetarians who eat dairy, are overweight.

The Adventist Health Study has followed thousands of vegans, vegetarians, and meat eaters since 1974 and found that the vegans not only stayed lean, but also had 78% lower prevalence of diabetes and 75% lower prevalence of hypertension compared to meat eaters.

Plant eaters enjoy an 11% faster resting metabolism. It may be easier for vegans to lower their set point than meat eaters.

To achieve permanent weight loss, start early, and eat mostly plants.

The smartest approach to weight management is to start early and remain vigilant throughout life. Fat babies become fat children who become fat adults who get sick more often and suffer more. Parents must keep their kids lean and healthy from the start. Babies need breastmilk and plant-based foods, and not much else.

As adults, we should eat mostly plants, exercise daily for at least 20 minutes, manage our stress, get enough sleep, and cultivate loving relationships. All these work together to keep up healthy and happy in the long run. They also help keep our weight down, so that we never have to worry about trying to get back to normal weight.

Losing weight is possible, but it may actually be impossible for everyone to achieve “normal weight.”

There are tremendous benefits associated with losing 5 to 10% of our bodyweight if we are obese or overweight. But it’s not realistic for everyone to expect to achieve their medically prescribed ideal weight.

What about Bariatric surgery? It works for some.

Photo credit: Azat Akhyarov from Flickr

Photo credit: Azat Akhyarov from Flickr

Given all the complex physical and emotional issues behind weight gain, bariatric surgery might be required for some. There are three kinds: gastric banding, gastric bypass, and sleeve gastronomy. These all involve rerouting digestion to bypass parts of the stomach, making it physically impossible to eat more than a few bites at a time. Bariatric surgery (sleeve and bypass) can be successful in achieving significant and long term weight loss because unlike dieting, it can reset the body’s “Set Point.”

People who undergo this operation face some risks. According to the Mayo Clinic, some complications are serious:

Bariatric surgery isn't a safe option for weight loss

That said, the procedures are getting safer every year, and many doctors believe the benefits outweigh the procedure’s dangers.

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