Think of that person you know that's always effortlessly lean.
Yeah uhhh... what the hell?
Why is it that you have to diet for months to see even a blurry outline of abs. Meanwhile, they're lean year round without even paying attention to their nutrition.
If it's comforting, you're not the only person experiencing this.
For years, there has been debate over The Body Fat Set Point Theory - the idea that you have a “genetic blueprint” that fights to keep you from deviating too far from your "body fat set point".
Let's dive into this theory, and how to change where your body fat settles.
The Body Fat Set Point Theory
Let's work through a common scenario:
It's January 1st.
This is the year. You're going to have abs this summer.
You currently weigh 155lbs. You know you'll look and feel great at 140lbs.
For the next 4 months, you only eat chicken, tilapia, broccoli, and spinach.
You hit the gym 5 times per week, and run 2 miles every day.
It's April now - you're 143lbs, and looking good.
But, your hunger has been through the roof lately. Motivation to train has dropped a lot too. You've even noticed that the daily step count on your Apple Watch is down.
It's almost like your body is fighting back against you.
Your food cravings start to get the best of you. You find yourself caving in to the tasty treats around your house more frequently, and it seems to be a lot easier for your friends to convince you to join them for pizza than it was a few months ago.
Training so much seems unsustainable. Lately, making it to the gym 3 times is a good week for you.
It's August now. You decide to step on the scale for the first time in awhile.
165lbs. Damn, time to reign it in.
Over the next few months, you're a bit more mindful about your diet. It also helps that you're not ravenously hungry anymore.
Plus, you've been feeling more motivated to train. You even notice the step count on your Apple Watch has gone up.
It's January 1st again. You hop on the scale.
155lbs. Exactly where you started last year.
If you're anything like most of us, this story is very relatable. You've noticed - despite ebbs and flows - your body fat and weight tends to stabilize around a certain point.
And this is the premise behind Body Fat Set Point Theory - when you deviate too far from your set point, different mechanisms in your brain and body up-regulate or down-regulate (think: hunger, motivation to train, non-exercise activity) to return your body to where it's comfortable.
Think of it like your body's thermostat, set at 70 degrees.
When the temperature drops below 70, the heat kicks on. Above 70? Here comes the A.C.
The question - is the body fat set point real?
Body Fat Set Point Vs. Settling Point
The idea of set points and inevitably returning to your predetermined genetic set point is pretty damn depressing.
Fortunately, it seems that it's more like a "settling point" than a "set point".
Settling Point Theory follows that the range your body fat tends to settle in is not just due to your genetic blueprint, but also your environment, and activity and diet patterns.
So while some of where your body fat tends to settle is seemingly out of your control, a large portion of it can be controlled.
This theory is much more widely accepted, and in my opinion from years of anecdotal experience, much more accurate.
So, if you currently have a high settling point, how do we change that?
Let's dive into the factors that determine your settling point, and crack your settling point code.
Your metabolism is all your bodily processes that burn calories. It has four components:
1. Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR)
2. Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT)
3. Thermic Effect Of Food (TEF)
4. Thermic Effect Of Exercise (TEE)
→ BMR - generally higher the more you weigh - so not an issue for your settling point.
→ TEA - the smallest portion of metabolism - while it does help to exercise more, realize that you won't be able to out-exercise your settling point.
→ TEF - impacts your settling point. Yes, eating more does increase TEF (and metabolism) - but TEF varies depending on the macros you're eating:
- Protein: 20-35% of the calories you eat are burned during digestion
- Carbs: 5-15% of the calories you eat are burned during digestion
- Fats: 0-5% of the calories you eat are burned during digestion
So the macro composition of your meals does impact your settling point a decent amount.
→ NEAT - This is where we see the most difference in metabolism between the lean and the obese.
Yeah, this makes a massive difference in your metabolism. It's also a huge part of why we see such a difference in people's settling points.
A large part of how many calories your burn through NEAT is genetic - some people naturally fidget and pace more. But we can somewhat make up for this by setting daily movement goals (exactly what I do with all my online clients focused on fat loss).
Adaptive Vs. Rigid Metabolisms
Metabolism varies a lot in how it responds to over-eating or under-eating - especially NEAT.
From my experience as a nutrition coach, most client's metabolisms fall into one of two categories:
→ Adaptive Metabolisms - For these people, when you eat more, your body automatically increases NEAT to compensate. (Think: subconscious fidgeting, blinking, pacing, etc.)
Their body adapts to higher calorie intake by increasing calories burned through movement - so weight stays the same, even with calorie increases.
People like this can typically maintain at a relatively high calorie intake, but the reduction in NEAT when they decrease also means they have to drop calories lower than expected to lose fat.
→ Rigid Metabolisms - These people see very little or no increase in NEAT as a response to overeating. Thus fat gain is a bit easier.
But on the bright side, these people usually don't have to decrease calories as much to lose fat (because calories burned through NEAT doesn't decrease as much as it would for an adaptive metabolism).
To prove this idea - A 1999 study fed 16 people 1,000 calories over their maintenance intake per day.
Weight gain between individuals varied from .8lbs to 9.3lbs - a huge difference in 8 weeks.
- The change in NEAT between individuals also varied wildly, from -98 cals up to +692 cals per day.
Basically, the 16 people in the study had crazy different responses to eating the same calorie surplus. There's a huge variance in how people's energy expenditure (via NEAT) will respond to over-feeding or underfeeding.
We also know that losing or gaining fat impacts your settling point due to something called adaptive thermogenesis.
As you get leaner, your metabolism decreases:
Your body is smaller, so BMR decreases
- You're eating less food, so TEF decreases (given macro composition stays the same)
- TEA decreases, because it takes fewer calories to move your smaller body
- NEAT generally decreases, as you feel lethargic due to lack of calories
Plus, levels of a hormone called Leptin also decrease. This leads to an increase in hunger, and less energy expenditure.
As you eat more and gain more fat, the opposite happens - metabolism increases, hunger decreases.
Adaptive thermogenesis is is one of the primary reasons that breaking your current "set point" can be a challenge.
Obviously, the amount of calories you consume regulates your body fat. Your appetite (largely) regulates how much food you eat.
Some of your appetite is genetic. After we eat, the gene MC4R signals that we're full. When we stop eating and feel full, the gene switches off. However, many mutations of the gene have been found - some of the population tends to be hungrier... and some never very hungry, due to MC4R mutations.
Appetite varies by person, and does impact your settling point. But just like metabolism, a large part of it is under your control (we'll talk about this in Environmental Factors and Food Choices).
People that have a low settling point usually:
1. Burn a lot of calories through NEAT - Some of it might be a conscious effort, but some of it is also likely a disposition to fidget and pace.
2. Have a smaller appetite - Even when you seem to always see them eating "junk", leaner people tend to "auto-regulate" higher calorie meals (e.g. eating 5 donuts for breakfast, but not eating again until dinner).
Physiologically, your current settling point is largely a product of your appetite, your metabolism, adaptive thermogenesis, and how adaptive or rigid your metabolism is.
Relationship With Food
The reality is, some people just seem to take a lot more value and enjoyment from eating food than others.
Personally, I don't care much about food - it's means to and end (making sweet, sweet gains). But the act of eating good food in doesn't make me any happier.
My girlfriend, on the other hand takes a lot more value and enjoyment from eating delicious food, and takes much more time to prepare and savor it than I would.
Luckily, we've both agreed that wine is great.
This is likely a product of how we were raised - it's largely cultural and hereditary.
The Hunger Response To Stress
Another thing I've noticed a huge variance in with online clients, is the hunger response to stress.
Some clients are "stress eaters". Others seem to have no appetite when stressed.
I'm not sure what creates the difference here. Short-term, it makes sense that hunger would be blunted for everyone. The hormone epinephrine is released, and our body is pushed into "fight-or-flight mode" where consuming calories isn't important to survival.
Under longer periods of stress, more of the hormone cortisol is released. With cortisol, the hunger hormone ghrelin is released. So it makes sense that everyone should be hungry when stressed for longer periods of time - but anecdotally I've found it's a toss up whether a client will experience lots of hunger, or no hunger.
Relationship With Hunger
As a new online client, a big part of teaching you to successfully get lean is often educating you on how to be O.K. with being hungry sometimes. Many people haven't learned how to "sit with hunger", and habitually eat as soon as they experience it.
Yes, a lack of organization can increase your body fat settling point.
Think about what you resort to when you're scrambling out the door in the morning, or get home late from work exhausted and unprepared - quick, convenient, and usually high-calorie foods.
Your relationship with food and hunger, how well you handle stress, and how organized you are play a large role in your current body fat settling point.
This really ties into appetite, because what you eat makes a massive difference in how full you feel. Highly-processed foods are quite literally engineered to make you want to crave more. These foods in isolation aren't going to increase your settling point - but the fact that they make it so much easier to overeat likely will.
This study by UC Berkley actually found that cravings for highly processed foods were actually increased after just one night of poor sleep.
Under-sleeping is a stress, which increases the release of cortisol, and potentially increases hunger.
Plus, you just have less energy when you don't sleep enough - this means you can't train as hard (fewer calories burned and less metabolism boosting muscle built), and your NEAT is likely lower through the day.
Social And Career Pressure
The sense of pressure from friends, family, our occupation, etc. makes a big difference in what foods we feel eat, what we drink, and how lean we feel we "need" to be.
The easier a food is for us to see or access, the more likely we are to eat it. I like to call this your "food environment" when discussing it with online clients. I've found this to be one of the most important factors when it comes to helping online clients change their settling points.
Lots of external stuff we don't think impacts our settling point... actually makes a huge difference.
Before we get into how to change your settling point, some personal (and relatable for most) anecdote.
Until I moved away from home at 18, I was always a scrawny dude at 6'3", 170lbs (at my heaviest).
When I lived at home, I was always jealous of my friends whose mom's bought the "good" cereals, and had chips and Oreos around.
My house was barren of snack food outside of fruit, and it was a rarity that my family ate out. 95% of the food I ate was home-cooked and minimally processed.
I gained 75lbs in the four years that followed me moving out.
Now, some of that was muscle (~25-35lbs), but the rest was fat.
Did my genetic blueprint change? Nope.
1. NEAT decreased.
2. Social pressures changed - I was drinking a lot more of my calories on the weekends, and drunk eating. (I'm sorry mom.)
3. Food environment changed - I decided I wanted to make up for the lack of good cereal and Doritos in my childhood, by always having them available.
With these changes, I found that my new settling point was 245lbs.
Now fortunately, (even though it seemed confusing at the time) the factors that lead to this weight gain were under my control.
With more attention to my NEAT, and a drastic change to my food environment and habits, more social pressure to stay lean (created by my career), and a nutrition coach to hold me accountable, my new settling point over the last few years is 195-200lbs.
Hundreds of my clients have changed their body fat settling points. I've changed mine. You can do it too.
How To Change Your Body Fat Settling Point
Remember your friend from the beginning? You know, the one that's "effortlessly lean"?
The truth is, you might not be able to get your settling point as low as theirs. Everyone seems to have a certain body fat where they just don't feel good, libido is lower than it should be, hunger is super high, and energy is very low. This point could very well be a bit lower for your friend than you, due to the differences we talked about that are out of your control.
That said, most of this is under your control. I've never worked with a client who wasn't able to create a new settling point where they felt lean, strong, and supremely confident after putting in the necessary work.
I know that everyone reading this can do the same. Here's how:
We've talked a lot about how much NEAT impacts your settling point. Odds are, if your body fat is higher than you'd like, your NEAT is low.
While trying to consciously fidget more is a poor strategy, we can get you more intentional about moving more.
This is why I have all of my fat loss clients set daily movement goals, and you should do the same.
Train Consistently, With A Focus On Building Muscle
→ Consistent training ties in with the need for consistent NEAT - dips in calorie burn without a matching decrease in calorie intake lead to weight gain.
→ As far as building muscle - say you're 155, with 20lbs of fat mass & 135lbs of lean mass. If you gain 5lbs of lean muscle (now 160lbs, 20lbs fat mass,140lbs lean mass), your overall body fat percentage still decreases.
You look and feel lean, even though you haven't had to lose any more fat.
This is why when a client is near the "floor" of their body fat settling point (can't lose anymore fat without fighting extremely hard), we'll switch to a smart lean gains approach, with an emphasis on building lean muscle without adding excess fat. This works extremely well for both the men and women I've coached.
Increased lean mass also increases your BMR and TEA.
→ You must prioritize filling foods. Lean proteins and fibrous carbs especially have a lot of volume and are very satiating per calorie. Make these a big focus of your diet to keep hunger low and make fat loss easier.
The most satiating foods:
1. Lean proteins
2. Fiber-dense carbs
Try to avoid foods that are high in multiple macronutrients -
Example: you could eat...
- 6oz ribeye for 493 calories (36 pro/39 fat)
- 8oz sirloin (51 pro/9 fat) + 1 large avocado (10 carb/24 fat) for the same amount of calories, but more protein.
Generally avoiding foods high in multiple macros will make eating lots of food volume on your diet much easier.
→ Don't drink your calories - Liquids will digest much quicker, meaning you’re hungry again sooner.
If you’re using milk as a protein source: swap it for cottage cheese or Greek yogurt.
→ Use mostly whole food protein sources instead of protein powder: Protein powder does make hitting your protein goal much easier. It also digests quickly, and doesn’t do near as much to keep you full. 50g of whole-food protein (e.g. 8oz chicken) is much more filling than two scoops of protein powder.
→ Eat protein at every meal - You know that protein is the most satiating food, and it also has the highest TEF. So it makes sense to eat lots of protein, and spread it fairly evenly across your day to keep yourself full. The number one focus of all your meals should be including around ~25-40g protein.
→ Find lower calorie versions of oils, dressings, and condiments
- I'd largely recommend swapping olive oil for calorie-free cooking spray.
- Find a lower-calorie BBQ sauce or use steak sauce.
- Swap high-calorie salad dressing for a fat-free vinaigrette.
Often a few easy swaps here (that you won’t even notice) give online clients hundreds of extra calories to work with in a day.
Eliminate Cravings And Re-Work Your Food Environment
Changing your body fat settling point isn't about resisting certain foods and cravings… but to put yourself in situations where they’re non-existent.
Most strategies for cravings are…“Drink more water & be less stressed”.
Good ideas, but not exactly groundbreaking.
Here are the strategies my online nutrition clients use:
→ Many cravings are caused by habit.
Maybe as you drive by the bakery, suddenly you have the urge to eat a donut. Maybe as soon as your kids come home, you get the urge to drink.
Habits are formed in a loop.
Break any part of this loop, & you’ll break a habit.
With most clients, identifying & removing the cue is easiest (with the exception of kids). Things like taking different routes to avoid driving by the bakery, putting lower calorie foods at the front of your fridge & pantry, moving the break table at work from your line of sight.
→ If there’s a time you typically experience cravings, we’ll get proactive about handling it in nutrition coaching. By eating a high protein + fiber meal (very filling, but low calorie) ~30-60 mins, we’re proactively eliminating cravings. My favorite here is a big ass salad with a protein source like chicken breast or tuna.
→ We all have foods we just struggle to eat in moderation. Sometimes these are “healthy foods”. For many, it’s nut butters. For me, it’s cheddar rice crisps. If it’s in your house, you’ll eat it.
For a complete guide to reworking your environment, check out the Guide To Environment Design.⠀
→ Meal prep - Being prepped ahead nearly guarantees you'll never "not have the right food available" or "run out of time" to eat like this most of the time. All my online clients that get the best fat loss results meal prep ahead. I can't emphasize enough what a difference maker this is. I highly recommend you check out The Meal Prep Guide.
→ Plan training sessions ahead of time - If you're not intentional about when you'll train, all of your time will be filled with random things that seem important. You'll have another week where you "couldn't find time to make it to the gym". This stuff is important. Plan it ahead.
Eliminate Negative Social Pressure
There's a couple different scenarios here:
1. Someone with good intentions doesn't understand why you don't want to eat or drink. Here, if it's something you want and you can work it into your calories - go for it. If it's not something you want, or it'll throw off your nutrition significantly - just explain what you're trying to accomplish right now, and that you're just not hungry/thirsty. After a sincere conversation, they'll understand it's nothing personal or judgemental, and likely be very supportive.
2. Someone is intentionally trying to make you feel guilty for not eating something (even though you don't want to eat it in the first place), they're likely upset that you're doing something they feel like they should be doing (practicing self-control/fitness-y health stuff). This makes people insecure... don't let other people's insecurities hold you back from being a better version of yourself.
In this case, the most useful thing is understanding the person is just projecting on you. You'll start to realize how absurd it is to let someone else make you feel guilty about not eating food you didn't want to eat in the first place.
The biggest thing that seems to help clients (and myself) is examining why you're allowing other people to make you feel guilty about something silly like food.
Create Positive Social Pressure
The more you surround yourself with people that practice the habits you need to keep a lower body fat set point, the more likely you are to follow suit.
Get Accountability And Guidance
The easiest way to make this process as quick and painless as possible?
Invest in a coach to:
1. Expertly guide you through the process of changing your body, and sustaining that result
2. Hold you accountable to consistently performing the behaviors required to change your body fat settling point for good.
Bringing in a source of constant accountability and guidance is one of most important things you can change in your external environment. I've witnessed it with hundreds of clients, and with my own transformation.
If you're ready to change your body fat settling point for good, click here to apply for online coaching with me.
About The Author
Jeremiah Bair is a certified nutrition coach, strength coach, and owner of the Online Coaching Business Bairfit. His Instagram is noticeably missing any calf pictures.