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Anyone else have issues with the concept of a fat setpoint?

by (15003)
Updated November 21, 2014 at 3:26 AM
Created February 12, 2012 at 11:30 PM

I am a real fan of Stephan Guyenet and Chris Kresser, but try as I might, I am struggling with the idea that a low-reward diet "reduces the fat set point."

Now, I have no problems with the idea that a low-reward diet results in weight loss. And it's possible that my concern is mostly a quibble or semantics (which I've raised over at Stephan's blog).

But I just finished watching Mat Lalonde's day-long Science of Nutrition seminar from the Optimum Performance Training folks and at the very end in the Q&A there's a very interesting exchange that was a bit of an "a ha" for me (10:15):

Participant: When they are done [eating clean] a couple of months of that ...

Lalonde: They will naturally start to eat less. As the whole leptin sensitivity improves, that's one of the biggest things. They will feel, their brain will start detecting the fat mass, and they're gonna start burning that fat for fuel and they're going to be a lot less hungry.

There are extreme examples of people who are really overweight where you start to fix the leptin sensitivity by giving them really tasteless food but that provides everything that they need without messing them up and their caloric intake goes down to like 200 calories a day because they've got so much fat mass to burn, the body's just like "alright, I see it now, I know what's going on, we're going to start getting rid of this stuff, let's go."

So there's some pretty extreme examples of that. Now as they get leaner and leaner, they have to eat more and more. But initially, the caloric intake can be really low.

Participant: That's because they don't need to eat that much anymore, because they have so much storage in the body?

Lalonde: Exactly. Because the body starts to detect the fat stores that are there and starts to clean house. So they'll naturally start eating less.

Maybe it's me, but the idea that the body starts to receive the signals about the fat mass resonates with more more than the idea that there's a "set point." And the "a ha" I had while listening to Lalonde today was the idea that diets that reduce inflammation are what allow the leptin signalling to start registering loud and clear.

I've not done Dr. Kruse's leptin reset, but by following my version of the PHD, I have experienced his "Your hunger is gone and so are your cravings" and been able to drop a whole boatload of weight.

So what about it PHers? Am I the only one who has issues with the fat setpoint? I know it's essentially a metaphor, but there's something about it that just doesn't resonate with me.

And what about inflammation? Anyone else suspect that that's the real issue? It would explain why all sorts of diets work ... they remove inflammatory foods and allow the hypothalamus to do what it's supposed to do.

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3651 · February 28, 2012 at 12:29 PM

Guyenet makes no sense at all with the reward theory stuff. I read his blog on it, and quit reading his blog.

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3391 · February 13, 2012 at 10:52 PM

Re: "the body works hard to defend the set point"...while it's impossible to completely avoid intentional language, I believe it's actively misleading in that case. The "body" is a colony of 50-75 trillion individual cells, each attempting to meet its own energy needs while performing whatever function its DNA has programmed it to perform. ### If we want to understand a "set point", we need to identify which groups of cells are involved in maintaining the homeostasis in question -- and then start analyzing what they're doing, and why.

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15003 · February 13, 2012 at 10:29 PM

I'm going to have to remember this concept: "default wild human set point" ... I'm on board with that one ;).

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15003 · February 13, 2012 at 10:27 PM

And thanks so much for the code words ... I am totally on board with that definition of set point ;).

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15003 · February 13, 2012 at 10:27 PM

And thanks so much for the code words ... I am totally on board for that definition of set point ;).

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15003 · February 13, 2012 at 10:26 PM

JS, thanks for the very interesting response! I think part of my problem with the "set point" idea is that it's often accompanied by the concept that the "body works hard to defend the set point." While this is clearly the case in 'normal' weight homeostasis (and the research backs this up), I just am balking at this idea when it comes to obesity. And no, I don't attribute the typical weight regain after loss as an artifact of "set point" per se ... that regain has as much to do (IMO) with how the weight was lost (e.g., fat mass vs LBM etc).

Medium avatar
39841 · February 13, 2012 at 7:14 PM

Seems to me that it would just be coincidental that the weight has remained roughly the same since an increase in LBM would result in an increase in RMR and thus TDEE. The body will allow you to develop an amount of LBM that it deems to be useful and the energetic demands of it will influence bodyfat levels, especially if those muscles are put to frequent use.

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3443 · February 13, 2012 at 10:04 AM

Do you think there is any evidence that there is a weight set-point rather than fat set-point? For me i've ranged +/- 5% over the last dozen years while BF% has probably varied more. I have dropped as much as 25% weight or increased as much as 10% but usually as a result of very extreme caloric restriction and exercise level or just the opposite in the case of gain. But mostly I lose fat ad a result of muscle gain keeping me in a pretty narrow range.

Medium avatar
39841 · February 13, 2012 at 1:22 AM

Yeah, industrial garbage "food" definitely alters the default setting. Looking over some of his posts, Guyenet seems to argue (based on overfeeding studies) that the hypothalamus defends against fat gain. I'd be surprised if there was sufficient selective pressure during our evolution for that. The issue just wouldn't come up where there was too much energy available compared to that needed to acquire it.

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15003 · February 13, 2012 at 1:18 AM

Yeah, ref my comment re being a quibble and/or semantics. I think my issue with the concept of a "set point" is the implication that "this is the weight the brain wants you to be at" rather than the idea that "your diet is causing your brain to behave badly." You say tomahto, I say tomayto?

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37187 · February 13, 2012 at 12:49 AM

@The Quilt, as I re-read my answer above I realized I meant "reinforced my acceptance of your LR protocol AND could also be compatible with the concept of set-point." (I'll edit that.) I'm definitely one of your believers, Dr K, and I refer people to your LR protocol fairly frequently.

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11986 · February 13, 2012 at 12:37 AM

Dunno about set points and leptin resets, but I definitely suspect inflammation is a very big player. Lucas Tafur had a dense but fascinating post about this a week or so ago: http://www.lucastafur.com/2012/02/adipose-tissue-immunity-basics-1.html

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25467 · February 13, 2012 at 12:27 AM

What people do not realize in this community and what I specifically separates me from Dr. Rosedale is that he thinks leptin levels matter and I dont. The reason is that LR is a receptor phenomena in many people. I have hundreds of patients with leptin levels below ten who are profoundly LR. When he wrote his book we knew little about SNP's. Now we know why following the patients clinical symptoms matter more than their labs. Amgen found this out in the synthetic leptin trials. Thierry Hertoghe has been saying this for 20 yrs. I listened to him 7 yrs ago because it follows my observations

Ed71ab1c75c6a9bd217a599db0a3e117
25467 · February 13, 2012 at 12:23 AM

Leptin Resistance and inflammation are inseparable.

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5 Answers

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3391 · February 13, 2012 at 10:15 AM

A "set point" is just a homeostasis we don't understand yet.

For instance, there's no such thing as a "fat thermostat" in our bodies that we could turn up or down if we could just find the dial. There are trillions of cells in a human body - each with its own energy needs, receptors, signaling molecules, and internal/external concentration gradients, all of which collectively determine what goes in and what comes out. Put a bunch of them together, abstract and simplify their collective inputs and outputs, and we have what we call an "organ". Put a bunch of "organs" together in the right way and we have an "individual".

Result: What some call a "set point" is a stable equilibrium condition between these trillions of cells and their inputs and outputs. The question then becomes "How can we alter this equilibrium condition?"

In the case of body fat "set points", both biochemistry and experience tell us that there are multiple functional and signaling failures, both in and between the cells of the brain and the cells of various body tissues, which can alter the equilibrium condition towards "fat cells store more calories as fat" and/or "make more fat cells".

Conclusion: There are many points of entry to the complex system of interacting feedback loops known as "human metabolism". Calling an equilibrium condition a "set point" is just code words for "We don't understand what's going on or how to change it."

JS

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15003 · February 13, 2012 at 10:27 PM

And thanks so much for the code words ... I am totally on board with that definition of set point ;).

7dc950fc76a046048e683d2a27dced37
15003 · February 13, 2012 at 10:27 PM

And thanks so much for the code words ... I am totally on board for that definition of set point ;).

00c8eb3f6e6a1884216044ca29cf868a
3391 · February 13, 2012 at 10:52 PM

Re: "the body works hard to defend the set point"...while it's impossible to completely avoid intentional language, I believe it's actively misleading in that case. The "body" is a colony of 50-75 trillion individual cells, each attempting to meet its own energy needs while performing whatever function its DNA has programmed it to perform. ### If we want to understand a "set point", we need to identify which groups of cells are involved in maintaining the homeostasis in question -- and then start analyzing what they're doing, and why.

7dc950fc76a046048e683d2a27dced37
15003 · February 13, 2012 at 10:26 PM

JS, thanks for the very interesting response! I think part of my problem with the "set point" idea is that it's often accompanied by the concept that the "body works hard to defend the set point." While this is clearly the case in 'normal' weight homeostasis (and the research backs this up), I just am balking at this idea when it comes to obesity. And no, I don't attribute the typical weight regain after loss as an artifact of "set point" per se ... that regain has as much to do (IMO) with how the weight was lost (e.g., fat mass vs LBM etc).

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39841 · February 13, 2012 at 12:43 AM

Maybe it's me, but the idea that the body starts to receive the signals about the fat mass resonates with more more than the idea that there's a "set point."

That's two ways of saying the same thing, though. The set point that Guyenet is speaking of is decided upon by the hypothalamus, which is what is receiving the leptin transmissions from the adipocytes. In the case of poor leptin signalling, the hypothalamus mistakes a fat state for a too-lean state and imposes austerity measures to fend off perceived starvation. What exactly causes this to occur is of course a matter of debate, but simply making meals from scratch using Food seems to remove whatever it is that causes the problem over time.

If we're talking about our default wild human set point, then it's about 10% for males and 20% for females. We can have perfect leptin signalling but be at a fat mass above that since the body is far more concerned with defending it from dropping below that point than letting it inch upward. If I got really into chocolate, my fat mass would increase and settle somewhere above where it is currently. In contrast, if I got really into cycling it would drop below where it is now and settle somewhere.

34b560c8b9ce660d7839fb7e29d7be89
3443 · February 13, 2012 at 10:04 AM

Do you think there is any evidence that there is a weight set-point rather than fat set-point? For me i've ranged +/- 5% over the last dozen years while BF% has probably varied more. I have dropped as much as 25% weight or increased as much as 10% but usually as a result of very extreme caloric restriction and exercise level or just the opposite in the case of gain. But mostly I lose fat ad a result of muscle gain keeping me in a pretty narrow range.

Medium avatar
39841 · February 13, 2012 at 1:22 AM

Yeah, industrial garbage "food" definitely alters the default setting. Looking over some of his posts, Guyenet seems to argue (based on overfeeding studies) that the hypothalamus defends against fat gain. I'd be surprised if there was sufficient selective pressure during our evolution for that. The issue just wouldn't come up where there was too much energy available compared to that needed to acquire it.

7dc950fc76a046048e683d2a27dced37
15003 · February 13, 2012 at 10:29 PM

I'm going to have to remember this concept: "default wild human set point" ... I'm on board with that one ;).

7dc950fc76a046048e683d2a27dced37
15003 · February 13, 2012 at 1:18 AM

Yeah, ref my comment re being a quibble and/or semantics. I think my issue with the concept of a "set point" is the implication that "this is the weight the brain wants you to be at" rather than the idea that "your diet is causing your brain to behave badly." You say tomahto, I say tomayto?

Medium avatar
39841 · February 13, 2012 at 7:14 PM

Seems to me that it would just be coincidental that the weight has remained roughly the same since an increase in LBM would result in an increase in RMR and thus TDEE. The body will allow you to develop an amount of LBM that it deems to be useful and the energetic demands of it will influence bodyfat levels, especially if those muscles are put to frequent use.

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37187 · February 12, 2012 at 11:44 PM

I'm currently uncertain on this topic but I'm definitely thinking about it. I answered another question about set-point the other day with the following:

I no longer believe very deeply in the concept of a set-point.

Here are my reasons:

  • In my 50 years of binge eating and yo-yo dieting, I never stopped losing or gaining weight at the same "point" of body fat.
  • There never was a "point" at which I could just eat and would stay the same weight--any weight.
  • With ancestral eating, I have no urge to eat more even though I've already lost about 40 pounds of excess weight and I'm still losing slowly.
  • The longest I was previously in "losing" mode was 4-6 months before exploding into a non-stop binge that took me back to and well past my previous body fat high.

I do believe--and feel I'm now proving for myself at least--that what/when/how you eat does make a huge difference in whether you will quickly regain lost body fat or comfortably maintain your new, lower weight.

My full story is not yet told since I have another 25-30 lbs I'd like to drop. But it must be said that at least 25-30 of my lost lbs have now been gone for at least 6 months and again, I have no urge to change how I'm eating to restore that weight.

My new belief is that it's about your gut flora and metabolism--if deranged, nothing sustainable can happen; if it's healthy, improvement may very well be sustainable.

Then, I saw an article at Getting Stronger about resetting cell receptors which on first read reinforces my acceptance of Dr Kruse's LR protocol. Despite my earlier statements, I think the receptor reset could also be compatible with the concept of set-point albeit one that can be changed.

And inflammation could definitely be part of the interaction between processes.

Ed71ab1c75c6a9bd217a599db0a3e117
25467 · February 13, 2012 at 12:27 AM

What people do not realize in this community and what I specifically separates me from Dr. Rosedale is that he thinks leptin levels matter and I dont. The reason is that LR is a receptor phenomena in many people. I have hundreds of patients with leptin levels below ten who are profoundly LR. When he wrote his book we knew little about SNP's. Now we know why following the patients clinical symptoms matter more than their labs. Amgen found this out in the synthetic leptin trials. Thierry Hertoghe has been saying this for 20 yrs. I listened to him 7 yrs ago because it follows my observations

96bf58d8c6bd492dc5b8ae46203fe247
37187 · February 13, 2012 at 12:49 AM

@The Quilt, as I re-read my answer above I realized I meant "reinforced my acceptance of your LR protocol AND could also be compatible with the concept of set-point." (I'll edit that.) I'm definitely one of your believers, Dr K, and I refer people to your LR protocol fairly frequently.

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88 · February 13, 2012 at 4:23 AM

I find multiple lines of argument in favor of a fat set point. These include (1) underfeeding studies on normal-weight subjects, who regain their weight once they are able to eat ad libitum (2) overfeeding studies on normal weight subjects, who voluntarily reduce calorie intake after the study until they return to their original weight (3) the 'Liposuction and Fat Regain' study described by Guyeynet (4) the rat studies by Kennedy and other researchers as described in Roberts 'What Makes Food Fattening' paper (5) the success some people have when using the Shangri-La Diet, even when consuming inflammatory foods such as canola oil and sugar water for the flavorless calories and (6) the body uses set points for other systems, such as heat regulation.

There are, I think, three theories as to what modifies the fat set point. The first is the flavor-calorie association as argued by Seth Roberts. The second argument is that the brain gets confused when the regulatory logic hears too many conflicting and noisy signals and thus cannot detect when the body carries excess weight. (Extending the metaphor of the set point as thermostat, visualize some prankster who keeps placing a large block of ice in front of the thermostat.) The third is that the brain detects insufficient nutrients and thus orders excess consumption in the hopes of acquiring those nutrients; to overfeed, it must move the set point to a higher value.

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1196 · February 13, 2012 at 12:30 AM

I've never really been sold on the idea of a set point for body weight. My own losses and gains have sometimes been driven by depression (hugely overeating), and sometimes by the flip side of that which was self flagellation via under-nourishment, and then the rebound effect of those things.

I've always felt that it's more to do with homeostasis - my body being somewhere on the pendulum but always on the way to somewhere fairly extreme, to restore the balance of whatever I had most recently subjected it to. My personal theory is that natural weight loss is the result of firstly stopping the pendulum from swinging (and inflammation is key there, as well as achieving a healthy general hormone profile), and then applying some kind of calorie restriction and muscle building regimen very gently so as not to start the swinging again.

That's very intuitive, and not at all scientific!

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