Can just anyone weigh ~400lbs?

No, I really don’t think most people can weigh 400lbs. My reasoning?

The New York Times references a deliberate exercise in weight gain, where prisoners increased their weight by 20 to 25 percent.

But it took them four to six months, eating as much as they could every day. Some consumed 10,000 calories a day, an amount so incredible that it would be hard to believe, were it not for the fact that there were attendants present at each meal who dutifully recorded everything the men ate. […]

When the study ended, the prisoners had no trouble losing weight. Within months, they were back to normal and effortlessly stayed there.

Their bodies resisted weight gain, and they returned back to their original weight.  That’s setpoint in action.  (Setpoint is also what returns you to your regular weight after you’ve lost weight with flu.)

What if someone really wants to gain weight and really works at it?  Not just a few pounds for a study, but seriously intending to gain a LOT?  Bodybuilders, for example, work very hard to gain weight, specifically muscle. There’s a reason that many bodybuilders use drugs to increase their gain; it’s because their genes won’t do it alone.  Mitchell Rupe was famous for using his 400lb+ weight to avoid execution.  Many claimed the gain was intentional, although Rupe’s lawyer stated that his weight was related to a medical condition.  I note that other prisoners on death row haven’t gained weight en masse, despite the considerable carrot of escaping execution.

Ah, you wonder, what sets the setpoint?  It starts with genetics.

Another study in weight gain, with twins, also found that most subjects lost the added weight after the study.  In addition,

The twins in each pair gained almost exactly the same amount of weight and gained it in the same places. One pair would put most of it on in the abdomen, another in the buttocks and thighs. […]

[T]here were marked differences between the twin pairs in weight gain. The twins in the pair gaining the most each added more than 29 pounds, while the ones in the pair gaining the least each put on about nine and a half pounds. The average weight gain for the group as a whole was nearly 18 pounds […]

I also found it interesting the participants in this study were “overfed” by 84,000 calories on average.  Assuming the 3,500 calories per pound figure is correct, that “should” have been a 12lb gain, not a 9lb to 29lb gain.  The researchers found that not only did the amount of weight gained vary, but so did the muscle/fat ratio.  Those who gained only 9lbs gained the most muscle mass, those who gained 29lbs gained the least.

In addition, twins reared apart as are likely to weigh the same – and have similar body composition – as twins reared together.  Nature wins out over nurture in that respect.

But,  you may be wondering, what changes a setpoint?

  • Aging. People’s setpoints do tend to increase as they age.
  • Activity Levels. Linda Bacon notes in Health At Every Size that people who are very active average a setpoint of 10-15lbs less than those don’t exercise regularly.  (Not “lose 10lbs a year”.  10lbs less total. And she notes that research shows that obese people who increase their activity levels do not necessarily lose 10-15lbs.)
  • Processed Foods. Again from Health At Every Size, the average American weighs 10-12lbs more than in the 60s.  This is strongly correlated with the increase in processed foods, and has been seen in other populations as they add more processed foods to their diet.
  • Medical issues. Mobility limited due to a leg break or damage to vertebrae?  Limited mobility will affect your body.  Get sick and need drugs that cause weight gain?  You’ll gain, at least while you’re on it.  Some illnesses and medical conditions cause weight gain too.  But generally your body will find a new setpoint, some pounds over your old setpoint.
  • Dieting. Several studies have shown that repeated “dieting [is] actually a consistent predictor of future weight gain.” I am the sort of dieter for whom weight loss is not only temporary but I regain MORE than I lost, resulting in a net gain; and I did not diet once, but repeatedly, from age 10 through age 20, and occasionally thereafter.  Linda Bacon argues in Health at Every Size that our bodies stubbornly resist losing weight, but are more lenient about weight gain – especially after repeated diet attempts.  It’s like the body wants to protect against these recurrent famines it keeps experiencing by building up greater reserves.

(I think that if I had not yo-yo dieted I would probably weigh less. I also can’t undo it.  “Coulda, woulda, shoulda” – it don’t matter how much I say those words, it makes no difference. It doesn’t DO anything.  What I can do, now, is to take care of the body I’ve got NOW.)

So, if you’ve been reading this, wondering if you, too, could gain up to 400lbs (or that you could become morbidly obese or super obese or class 3 obese or class III obese or whatever you want to call it) … weight, like height, is spread across the population in a bell curve.  Just as most people are not taller than 6’6″, most just don’t weigh more than 300lbs.

Yes, if your parents and grandparents weigh above 300lbs, then your chances of weighing above 300lbs increase.  If you weigh above 300lbs, then yes, it could happen.  But if you’re under 250lbs, your parents are under 250lbs, your grandparents are under 250lbs,  and you’re scared that you’ll start gaining and never stop?

Relax.  You probably won’t.

12 thoughts on “Can just anyone weigh ~400lbs?

  1. This makes so much sense! Awhile ago, I recalled how I used to keep a food diary when I was in high school and on Weight Watchers. I fluctated between a size 12/14-16/18 and my diet consisted of a salad and a hamburger patty. By the time that I got to college, I was a size 26. That’s because when I went away to college, I could eat whatever I wanted without my weight-conscious mother looking over my shoulder.

    I regret now that I was so weight-conscious. I lost a great guy because of my insecurities but anyway, I went on a diet and lost almost 50 pounds (about 45 pounds). I dropped down to a size 20 but no matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t get below a 20. I remember eating rice and drinking water and exercising for 2 hours a day but still couldn’t.

    Now, I’m back at a size 24 and depending on if it’s the time of month or not, I’ll fluctuate between wearing a size 22/24 and a size 24/26. But I don’t diet, I just eat when I’m hungry and I’ve learned to like my body. This article was
    very informative! Keep up the great work!

  2. Very well said. Yes, it has been amply proven over & over that we all have our own natural size ranges, body types, etc. After all, there are plenty of very thin people who eat a lot more than most fat people &, no, they don’t keep gaining. I am heavier now than when I made the decision to stop dieting 30 years ago, but only to the degree which can be explained by childbearing, breastfeeding, differing levels & intensity of exercise (whether I am exercising for my usual hour to two hours daily or really pushing for four, as I have done for periods of three years or more several times in my life), aging, & menopause. My body too reacts to the attempts to change it…whether by dieting or by compulsive exercise (exercise bulimia, many call it)…by returning to a higher weight than when I started, & my attempts at compulsive exercise have, in the last period of 3 1/2 years, resulted in a total weight loss of 18 pounds, which has been followed by a regain of 35-40 pounds. However, I know perfectly well, given MY history & my family history (many fat people, yes, but no one that I know of who ever reached more than 270 pounds or so) that I could no more reach 400 pounds than I could, without having a terminal illness, reach 100.

    One of my dearest friends & role models, a member of the Fat Underground, weighs around 400 pounds & hit 300 by the time she was 16. She eats normally & moderately & always has. This is the way her body is supposed to be. I wish our culture could grasp & accept this, that we are supposed to be different sizes & shapes, that people of all sizes deserve dignity & respect, that body size is not an indicator of character, & that dieting is only good for damaging health, causing weight gain, & shortening life expectancy. Of course, that won’t happen, because there are too many people & too many billions of dollars invested in convincing people that being fat is deadly, it is a sin, & that it is all ‘lifestyle” & under our control, so that it is okay to beat us up & discriminate against us for lacking self-control & character. And of course the purveyors of fat hatred never hesitate to use that fear & that lie, the idea that if we relax, for even a minute, we can ALL look like those ‘headless fatties’ who obviously are at death’s door & have no lives.

    Thanks again for being here & speaking up & reminding us that those headless fatties are just a figment of the fat haters’ imagination & that we are ALL special, worthy human beings…at all sizes.

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  9. It should also be mentioned that if you are really short, as in under four foot ten, it is being a “normal bmi” is almost impossible, given the measurement’s refusal to look at the bodily structures of the very short. If you are very short and your hormones are estrogen based, it is even harder to maintain what a bigoted society and medical establishment would consider a “normal bmi” regardless of diet or exercise. Cue “fat midget” taunts I’ve heard ever since the age of seven. I am supposed to meet with a doctor tomorrow because I am trans and want to start on hormones. I am terrified my weight and my height will impede this. And even if it doesn’t, my heavy drinking (I drank to escape dysphoria, both gender and height wise, no my weight would not bother me had it been spread out in a way befitting of my chosen gender and not amplifying the fact that the only people my height are six year olds who wear kids sizes where I am over a foot too short to wear men’s clothing and a hundred pounds too fat to wear boy’s clothing) will certainly make my doctor think I’m an irresponsible trashy mess who is too much of a liability to prescribe hormones.

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