Our body likes to keep things in balance and there is little doubt that regulation of bodyweight occurs, albeit with varying degrees of precision! Being overweight or obese is often considered to result from the failure of homeostatic mechanisms that regulate body weight during exposure to an environment that favours overeating and or discourages physical activity.
It is also important to emphasise that a fluctuating body weight is the general rule, even in adults who apparently maintain a stable body weight over months, years and decades, there is in reality no absolute constancy of bodyweight. Instead, body weight tends to fluctuate or oscillate around a mean constant value, with small to large deviations from a ‘set’ or ‘preferred’ value. This is triggered by events that are seasonal and or cultural (weekends, holidays etc), psychological (stress, depression, anxiety or emotions) and pathological (ranging from minor health perturbations to more serious disease states).
Set point theory
The set point theory; fat cells have a form of homeostatic control over body weight, is perhaps the most plausible explanation for long-term body stores. Set point theory states that each of us has a genetically pre-programmed set weight point that our bodies would prefer to maintain under normal circumstances. A hormone called leptin which is our natural appetite suppressant is produced in the adipocyte and is responsible for appetite and bodyweight control. As fat cells become full they increase production of leptin which leads to a reduction in appetite. However most people don’t respond to appetite that well but instead are susceptible to marketing, ubiquitous snacks and the social and environmental pressures that make us all eat more than we should. Chronic overeating will lead to a situation of leptin resistance at which point, hunger is always present. This is part of the vicious cycle of weight gain that is not fully understood.
The existence of this set point explains why most diets don’t work – they are too short term in their approach to changing weight and simply lead to a temporary shrinking of the fat cell which leads to adiposity rebound. While the obese individual can fight off the impulse to eat for a time (lower levels of leptin), eventually the signal becomes too strong to ignore. The result is rebound overeating with individuals often exceeding their previous weight.
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