Weight loss contests make for compelling television, and now fascinating science. A New York Times reports on a study to be published in the journal Obesity May 2, 2016, and exposes the dark side of extreme weight loss. Unfortunately only the participants bear the downside consequences, and give a whole new connotation to the show’s title.
WEIGHT LOSS IS MORE THAN A MATH PROBLEM
The study of 2008 Biggest Loser contestants underscores how much the body adapts to the rigors of calorie deprivation. After the competition ended participants in the study gained most of their weight back, sometimes more, despite valiant efforts to maintain the weight loss.
While researchers are stunned at the results, some of us working in the trenches can only sigh. Maybe the scientific community, the medical community, most weight loss programs and the public at large are finally going to listen. Weight loss, and more critically maintaining weight loss, is not merely a math problem.
DRASTIC WEIGHT LOSS MESSES WITH YOUR METABOLISM
Researchers followed The Biggest Loser contestants over six years and assessed a wide range of metabolic parameters. While they expected the contestants to experience a slow down in their resting metabolic rate, they didn’t expect the slow down to be so severe or to endure over time–especially as they regained weight.
In fact, as the years passed the contestants gained ever more weight with ever more sluggish metabolisms, sometimes gaining weight on calorie deficits as large as 500-800 calories a day less than expected for someone of the same body size.
Clearly, there is much to learn about helping the body effectively burn fat for fuel. At a minimum we need to evolve from a preoccupation with counting calories. The whole concept behind eat less, exercise more ignores the body’s incredible capacity to adapt to scarcity.
We also need to step away from a preoccupation with weight. The number on the scale has little to do with metabolic health. We simply must stop pretending weight is an adequate surrogate for metabolic health— or anything else. Weight loss contests are part of the problem, whether we observe the phenomena in the medical setting, the public health arena, in the workplace, at the gym, or on TV.
WORKING WITH THE BODY
Instead of a preoccupation with counting calories and weight, it’s time to step up our game and learn to work with the body to achieve effective energy metabolism. Anything else is misguided.
A complex mix of hormones and other regulators influence our metabolic rate and profoundly impact what happens to the calories we consume. While we don’t know or understand everything yet, a range of factors determine whether the body burns the energy we eat as fuel, or stores it as fat.
BURNING FAT FOR FUEL
For over 20 years I have worked with clients to improve their metabolic health and lose fat weight. I’ve learned a few lessons along the way.
- The body needs to effectively burn fat for fuel in order to minimize the negative metabolic impact of weight loss.*
- Effective fat loss requires a good enough balance of protein and fat in the diet while carefully choosing the type and quantity of carbohydrate rich foods. While the dietary approach for each person will be unique, the goal is to limit excessive secretion of insulin in order to reduce the body’s capacity to store fat, increase it’s capacity to mobilize fat for fuel, and maintain sensitivity to the hormone leptin. (leptin is the hormone that signals satiety)
- The stress of excessive calorie restriction and/or extreme exercise increases the release of stress response hormones, including cortisol. Cortisol increases insulin resistance, increases the desire for carbohydrate rich foods, and negatively impacts the body’s ability to burn fat for fuel.
- Effective fat loss requires keen observation, the capacity to honor when we are hungry, as well as the self regulation to stop eating when we have consumed enough. Unfortunately excessive stress, inadequate activity, a plethora of medications, and many other factors steamroll the subtle cues of hunger and satiety, making it difficult for even the most vigilant to determine what the body needs.
- The most profound impact of physical movement makes it easier to burn fat for fuel. (Not the number of calories burned!) The wrong diet can sidetrack the benefit, and training too long and too hard also impairs the body’s capacity to burn fat more effectively. The metabolic fallout will catch up with anyone attempting to burn more calories than their basic metabolic needs.
- Working with the body takes time– often a lot of time– in order to build necessary skills and develop adequate self regulation. The demand for fast, impressive results broadsides the process and everyone promising or expecting fast and easy results is to blame.
- Weight loss experts preoccupied by the energy balance equation have neglected to explore all the other factors influencing energy metabolism, from greater exposure to endocrine disruptors to inadequate nutrition support and counseling for a population exposed to an increasingly abundance and adulterated food supply.
The New York Times authors are quick to assume that dieters are at the mercy of their own bodies. I’m not so sure that’s quite right, and I have questions.
Did the doctors, dietitians, and trainers associated with The Biggest Loser ever realize that their approach to weight loss could be part of the problem? Were they so caught up in celebrity that they failed to wonder why almost every participant regained the weight and more? Are we witnessing the manifestation of a very real, pervasive, and distorted assumption that the diet works and it’s the participant who fails?
TRACKING FOR METABOLIC HEALTH
The Biggest Loser Contestant’s experience tells me that most need to rethink their approach to weight loss and weight management. Supporting metabolic health requires more than achieving a number on the scale. Concerned clinicians and researchers will need to be more invested in the process, not just the outcome.
I’m looking for opportunities to help clients learn to work with their body to burn fat better for fuel. I’m looking for opportunities to help fitness facilities and work site wellness programs step away from a preoccupation with calories burned. I’m looking for opportunities to help medical institutions shift away from a preoccupation with weight.
It’s time to focus on metabolic health instead. How can I help you?