In the last couple days I have read a number of articles from the Health section of the New York Times that were written by author Gina Kolata of "Rethinking Thin" fame.
The first article dealt with the possibility of the human body having a weight set-point that is tightly regulated.
According to the article 'For the Overweight, Bad Advice by the Spoonful',
"Scientists now believe that each individual has a genetically determined weight range spanning perhaps 30 pounds".
Immediately after I read this I thought of all the examples of people who have gained (or lost) more than 30 pounds.
At the age of 24 I weighted 216 pounds. At the bodybuilding contest I did when I was 28 I weighed 168 pounds, and I currently weigh between 175-180 pounds. That is a range of 48 pounds.
And while it took an extreme amount of eating to get to 216 (I did this on purpose), I also spent most of my late twenties between the weight of 185 and 195 pounds. For the last two years I have weighed between 175-180 pounds, but use fasting to maintain this weight.
So what is my set point?
John Barban, the editor of Eat Stop Eat has another similar story. When I first met John he weighed over 240 pounds. This was the weight he was at for duration of his graduate work.
When he returned from the first year of his PhD, he weighed 187 pounds.
For the three to four years after that he weighed between 220 and 230 pounds. Since he started following Eat Stop Eat almost two years he has weighed around 205 pounds. So this is a range of over 50 pounds.
What is his set point?
The truth is, I beleive there is some validity to the set point theory, but I think it is very ignorant to suggest that this is purely biological (NOTE: this was not Gina Kolata's suggestion, but one that is prevalent).
Biologically, I can see how your lean mass could be relatively fixed. Your height is the best determinant of your lean mass. A 6 foot 8 human being is almost always going to have more lean mass that a person who is 5 foot 3, regardless of any weight training or even drug use.
As another example, an adult man who is 175 pounds at 10% body fat would be very unlikely to ever reach 215 pounds at 10% body fat. However, if that same adult man is who is 175 pounds at 10% could change his lifestyle dramatically enough he could become 215 pounds at 27% body fat.
So just by increasing fat mass, you could easily move outside of a 30 pounds set point.
Now here is where it gets interesting. In another article by Gina, she reported that scientists have shown that:
Every year, whether you are fat or thin, whether you lose weight or gain, 10 percent of your fat cells die. And every year, those cells that die are replaced with new fat cells. The result is that the total number of fat cells in the body remains the same, year after year throughout adulthood. Losing or gaining weight affects only the amount of fat stored in the cells, not the number of cells.
So based on this information I believe that drastic changes in lifestyle can cause drastic changes in weight and body composition. I can see how a set point of 30 pounds would and could apply to lean body mass, and I can also see how changing fat mass can completely blow this 30 pound limit out of the water!
The problem is that for most people, drastic changes in lifestyle are not possible and/or desired.
Your family, where you work, the foods you like, the friends you have, the activities you do, even the shows you watch on TV, all can effect how you eat, what you eat, when you eat and how active you are.
The bottom line is that even though at some point in our lives the amount of fat cells we have may become fixed, and our ability to drastically alter the way our body looks is limited by factors including genetics, height and lifestyle, we can all still get leaner and we can all still add muscle.