Article At A Glance:
- The brain regulates all your biological systems including blood pressure, respiratory rate and body temperature
- It uses different mechanisms so all of these biological systems remain relatively constant
- The brain also regulates body weight within a narrow range (known as a set point)
- Every person has a different body weight set point they’re “stuck” at
- The brain uses hunger/satiety hormones, energy levels and the metabolism to keep someone at their individual set point
- The key to losing weight and keeping it off is to identify why the set point is higher than desired and address that
There is something in your body that is sabotaging your efforts to lose weight.
This something is constantly watching your weight and directly controls your hunger levels, your cravings, your energy levels and even your metabolism. All in an effort to make sure you stay right where you are.
This something is the number 1 reason people find it so difficult to lose weight and keep it off.
I am talking about the hypothalamus.
The hypothalamus is a small gland in your brain that is in charge of your hormonal (endocrine) system. It’s there to make sure your biological systems remain in homeostasis (a fancy word for keeping things constant).
For the body to work properly (and indeed stay alive), your blood pressure needs to be in a certain range, so does your heart rate, your body temperature and your respiratory rate.
Without all of these being kept in a very narrow range, you would cease to live.
Which is why the hypothalamus evolved. Its job is to keep you alive my making sure things don’t stray out of this narrow range.
Let’s take body temperature for instance. If your temperature drops below a certain point you get hyperthermia and you die. If your body temperature increases too much then your biological systems cease to work and also die.
So it’s incredibly important for the body to maintain your temperature.
If you get too hot, your body tries to lower your temperature by:
- Increasing blood flow to your skin where it is cooler
- Telling your sweat glands to release sweat
- Giving you an unpleasant feeling of being hot in an effort to convince you to seek a cooler place to be
If you get too cold, your body tries to increase your temperature by:
- Decreasing blood flow to your skin where it’s cooler
- Signals to your muscles, organs and brain to produce more heat (for example; shivering)
- Signals to your thyroid to release hormones to increase your metabolism
- Tries to get you to get into a warmer area by giving you the unpleasant feeling of being cold
The hypothalamus is constantly monitoring your body temperature and making small adjustments to these behavioural and biological signals to make sure you’re within normal range.
So what does this have to do with weight?
Your Brain Regulates Body Weight & Tries Its Hardest To Keep You Where You are…
Well, what no one is talking about is the fact that body weight is also regulated by the hypothalamus. And just like with our body temperature, the hypothalamus is trying to keep us at a specific weight.
Have you ever noticed that everyone you know, including yourself, has a weight they have no trouble maintaining? It seems we’re all “stuck” at a specific weight? Some are thin as a rake and others have 5, 10, 15, even 50 kgs ( 10, 20, 30 even 100lbs) of excess weight on their bodies.
And no matter what we all do, our bodies always bring us back to that weight if we fail on a diet.
What Is The Set Point? And Why Is It Keeping Me Fat?
This is called a body weight set point and it’s the weight that the hypothalamus fights to keep people at.
Just like how the brain maintains your body temperature, it has different ways to keep our body weight at that body weight set point.
If your body weight gets too high, then the brain:
- Signals to your metabolism to speed up to burn more calories
- Gives you more energy so you expend more calories
- Makes you feel full for longer and more satisfied with smaller meals
- Diminishes any cravings so you want to eat less high calorie foods
All of these efforts either get you to lower your calorie intake or to increase your energy expenditure. So your weight drops down to your individual set point.
On the other hand, if your weight gets too low, then the brain:
- Signals to your metabolism to slow down to conserve calories
- Gives you less energy so you expend less calories
- Makes you feel more hungry and less satisfied with larger meals
- Increases any cravings so you want to eat more high calorie foods
All of these efforts either get you to increase your calorie intake or to decrease your energy expenditure. So your weight increases back to your individual set point.
The hypothalamus works a lot like a thermostat in your house. If you try to manually turn the temperature down by opening a window, for instance, the thermostat reacts by increasing the heater. So you end up right back where you started. The body does the same with weight. But instead of using the heater it uses hunger, cravings, tiredness and a slow metabolism to make sure you stay right where you are.
These mechanisms were super important and worked amazingly well 10,000 years ago. If you gain too much weight then you’ll be too slow at getting away from a predator, if you lose too much weight then you won’t have enough fat reserves to survive if food becomes scarce (which happened a lot in our evolutionary past).
So your hypothalamus has an important job to do, and that’s to maintain your set point.
And this worked great for hundreds of thousands of years.
But all of a sudden things started to change in our environment, and obesity shifted from being a curious anomaly to the norm.
We can see that around 1960, people started to gain weight like crazy:
In 2020, we now have more than 40% of the population that are obese or overweight.
So what gives? The hypothalamus is supposed to maintain body weight so that it stays within a very narrow healthy range.
Why do so many people struggle with weight now?
Why do so many people find it so hard to lose weight and keep it off?
Why did the biggest loser contestants mostly gain the weight back after the show ended?
Well, the hypothalamus is still doing its job, it’s still regulating weight within a narrow range, but now it’s doing it at a higher weight than is desired in some people.
In other words, the body weight set point has increased for some people. So instead of keeping someone from gaining too much weight, now it’s stopping someone from losing weight.
The thermostat has been pushed higher, and so when people try to lower their weight, their metabolism slows, their hunger increases, their cravings skyrocket and their energy lowers.
The starkest example of this is the biggest loser contestants. In a study they discovered that their metabolisms had slowed by 700 calories a day.
The Biggest Loser Contestants Had Their Metabolisms Slow By 700 Calories A Day…
Meaning that if you took two identical people (same weight, muscle mass and height) then one person could gorge on 2000 calories a day, whereas the other would need to starve themselves and only eat 1300 calories to stay thin.
All the while dealing with incessant hunger, cravings and tiredness.
If you add all of this up then you get to why 95% of people end up gaining weight back when they lose it.
The set point is the reason why people can’t get their weight down.
So after hearing that the brain is the real reason why some people can’t slim down, a trainer will say, “Oh everyone has a different metabolism but at the end of the day it’s all about calories, so get in a deficit, suck it up and stop being a baby”.
But I’ve come to learn that if someone can’t stick to something every week for the rest of their life then they won’t be able to get sustainable results. And if someone has to endure constant hunger, cravings, tiredness and a slowed metabolism, then they won’t be able to stick to it.
So the way that I approach things with my clients is to figure out WHY the hypothalamus is regulating body weight at a higher level than desired and then address that.
Because once that happens the brain naturally lowers calories FOR them, they simply don’t want to eat as much, less food fills them up more, their energy levels skyrocket, their cravings diminish and their metabolism doesn’t slow down.
In A Landmark Study At Laval University They Tested Lowering The Set Point vs Counting Calories…
They actually did a study at Laval University to test this new weight loss method out. They told one group to count calories and another to eat so their body weight set point lowered.
The calorie counting group quote “had to continually fight off their hunger and would spend the night dreaming of food”.
The other group that lowered their set point “reduced their intake voluntarily and were always in good spirits”
They lost the same amount of weight, so same result. But a COMPLETELY different experienced.
And which group do you think actually maintained their results long term?
Exactly, the second group. Fix the root cause of an issue and things become a lot easier.
Ignore the root cause of an issue and it will fight you every step of the way. You’ll continue to yo-yo diet, to hit weight stalls and to suffer in hell as time after time you lose the weight only to watch it come back on again.
It’s a pretty simple choice if you ask me.
In the next article of this series I will go over what causes the set point to be higher than desired and how to fix those for sustainable weight loss.