When it comes to the “freshman 15,” that supposed avalanche of weight gain that fattens up college students their first year away from home, that men typically gain twice what women do — 8.4 pounds to her 4, according to a recent study.
What next, though? Or more specifically, what does weight gain like this do to our natural weight? If we never work it off, does that mean we’ve naturally adapted to a bigger number?
The answer seems obvious. Duh, you cart the extra weight around with you, and if you never lose it, that becomes your new set weight. If you do manage to shed those pounds but keep gaining them back over time, it must be because that’s your new normal. After all, we all gain weight as we get older, right?
But that’s not really how it works at all.
The set point theory of weight argues that everyone has a resting weight, or set weight, that their body functions best at. Trying to lose weight or gain weight against that point will be a struggle, because their body will defend its set point by changing its metabolism to do so. And the bad news is, it’s determined by genetics more than anything else, just like how babies are born at all different weights regardless of how much the mother eats or weighs.
“Your genetic code contains the blueprint for your body type and, more or less, the weight range that you can healthily maintain,” Traci Mann, a dieting researcher and psychologist, told HuffPost last year. “Your body tends to stay in that range — which I will refer to as your set weight range — most of your adult life. If your weight strays outside it, multiple systems of your body make changes that push you back toward it.”
To her point, say you manage to lower your caloric intake? Your metabolism will slow down and increase your hunger. Up your calories? Your metabolism will speed up to prevent you from piling on the pounds. This allegedly explains why it’s so hard to maintain any weight loss long-term, because your body will inevitably seek to reacquaint itself with its earlier set weight and derail your best efforts. It also means that to keep on additional weight, you really have to commit to eating more and moving less.
In terms of aging, it’s true that your 20s are when you typically start gaining weight. And on average, we gain a pound or two a year from our 20s until around 50, after which the weight gain starts to taper off. The reasons we plump up are myriad, but it’s mostly because our lives and jobs over these decades involve a lot more sitting and eating and a lot less standing and running. So while our metabolism does change as we age, those changes are minimal and don’t hold a candle to our inactivity.
We seem to be evolving into a larger people, too. Namely, studies show that 2006’s average person consuming the same amount of calories, fat and protein, and exercising the same amount as their 1980s counterpoint would still weigh 2.3 BMI points more. There are three theories as to why: 1) exposure to more chemicals (e.g., pesticides and flame retardants) that cause weight gain; 2) an uptick in prescription-drug usage (e.g., antidepressants) that cause weight gain; and 3) a greater consumption of meat treated with more antibiotics and hormones, which change our microbiome, and you guessed it, cause weight gain.
With all of this in mind, then, how are you supposed to figure out/know what your resting weight actually is (especially with the world seemingly conspiring to make you huskier)? Allow Donna Ciliska, a registered nurse, to explain:
“One frustration with the concept of set point is that there is no direct way to measure it. You cannot say that your set point is [143 pounds]. You can only estimate that you are at set point if you have been eating ‘normally’ and participating in moderate exercise for about a year. It is estimated that it takes that long, free of dieting, to allow your metabolism and weight to return to what is normal for you. Of course, this applies to adults. The concept cannot be applied before growth has stopped. One other observation to make is to look at your family of origin. What size were your parents, their siblings or their parents? Predisposition to be a certain size ‘runs in the family’ and ignores the current fashion!”
This doesn’t mean you can’t alter your set weight; you can, though probably not drastically. Other experts say the key to doing so — the reason some people can lose weight and maintain it, or gain weight and maintain it — is making the changes slow enough so as not to really mess with your metabolism. This means losing say, 100 or 200 pounds, over three years, not three months. Per fitness expert and author Adam Bornstein:
“Everyone’s set point is a little different, so there’s not one hard rule for how long you have to wait. The more weight you have to lose (say, more than 50 pounds), the quicker it can happen initially without hitting your set point. But if you want to lose closer to 15 or 20 pounds, you might hit a wall after the first 10. This is why so many magazine cover lines read, ‘How to Lose the Last 10 Pounds.’ They should really say, ‘How to Be Patient After You Lose the First 10 Pounds.’ But that doesn’t sound as sexy.
“Once you hit your set point, your body likely needs about four to eight weeks to adjust to your new weight. Then you’ll establish a new set point, and your body will respond like that’s your new normal. Again, it doesn’t sound that exciting, but it’s better than you think.”
Obviously, none of this offers an exciting new path to quicker weight loss (or weight gain if that’s what you’re looking for). But it should be reassuring that the freshman 15, even at double the gain, doesn’t have to be the beginning of a lifelong new weight either.