Last week a New York Times article ¹ exposed
a new study in the Journal Obesity (2) that observed 14 contestants of the Biggest Loser reality show. They lost “hundreds of pounds”, then struggled to keep their weight loss, and even gained weight in the next 6 years (1). Their metabolism dropped to 500 calories lower than expected which, the Times concludes, made it even harder for them to keep the weight off.
Is there a lesson here for everyone?
I couldn’t help but wonder how many people will be discouraged from trying to lose weight after seeing this article that took center stage in the Times, and on many other web pages that day.
The news piece was riddled with quotes like:
“Contestants lost hundreds of pounds during Season 8, but gained them back. A study of their struggles helps explain why so many people fail to keep off the weight they lose”. – Times
“It has to do with resting metabolism, which determines how many calories a person burns when at rest. When it (the show) ended, their metabolisms had slowed radically …” -Times
“You can’t get away from a basic biological reality…As long as you are below your initial weight, your body is going to try to get you back.” – Dr. Michael Schwartz, an obesity and diabetes researcher, professor of medicine at the University of Washington.
The Times offers a depressing prognosis to those who are trying, or thinking about trying, to lose weight.
Most clients and friends whom I asked confirmed that the message they got from reading the article was:
It doesn’t matter how much effort you put into trying to lose weight, your body will fight back and you will probably never succeed.
Just the facts
The study itself (2) measured body composition (percent of fat and lean mass) and resting metabolic rate (calories burned at rest) of 14 people from the Biggest Loser season 8. Measurements were taken at the beginning of the competition, the end of the competition and after 6 years. It did not document activity, exercise, diet, lifestyle or any other measurements in-between. The results were:
- Contestants lost an average of 127 lbs.
- After 6 years they gained an average of 90 lbs back (70%).
- Their resting metabolic rate was less than expected by an average of 500 calories per day.
There are two important points about the study that the Times didn’t cover.
Important information that people really needed to receive from the study wasn’t given much attention, if any, in the news. I wrote this blog post hoping to prevent unnecessary misconceptions about weight loss, and to publicize what I think are the most important take-home messages from the study.
Point 1: If you’re not morbidly obese, the results of this study don’t directly pertain to you.
Research results technically apply to the kinds of subjects that the research examines. The Biggest Loser participants in this study were morbidly obese, with an average BMI of 49 (±10) (2).
The morbidly obese person has a very distinct circumstance: Morbid (or severe) obesity is a body mass index (BMI) of over 40, over 40% body fat, and 100-200 or more pounds overweight (3). Those who have 100 – 200 pounds to lose can react differently from those who have 30-50 lbs to lose when it comes to the general recommendation of calorie reduction and exercise because of physical and hormonal changes that take place in an extremely overweight body.
Severely (morbid) obese individuals …have on average far more complex health issues and encounter very different challenges in the health care system than the majority of (moderately) obese individuals (3).
The morbidly obese makes up 3.8% of the population (5).
It’s too many people, but at the same time it is not the majority of the population who are trying to lose weight on their own, without a doctor’s guidance.
Over 60% of Americans are overweight
and have some pounds to lose with body fat over 25% and a BMI over 25 (4). Twenty-eight percent of the population is obese with a BMI of 30 or above and 30% or more body fat (5,6). That is the majority of the people who are overweight, and most likely the kinds of people who read this article and were disheartened.
If you’re overweight, this is the lesson to be learned from the Biggest Loser article in the New York Times:
If you’re not morbidly obese, this is not a story about how you can’t lose weight, it’s about the hardships of those in an extreme situation that you don’t want to get yourself into.
Point 2: The biggest loser contestants still had a significant metabolism.
The Times’ article zeroed in on the participants’ loss of metabolism after weight loss. It read to me like they may have been relegated to eating 800 calories per day (or something like that) for the rest of their lives. But upon looking at the actual research, one can see that at the end of 6 years the participants’ average, measured, resting metabolic rate was 2,000 calories give or take 466 cal per day. With exercise, the participants’ average daily calorie burn is about 2,500 calories, give or take 500. Even though their metabolic rate was less than what researchers calculated it should be, they were not left to eat nearly nothing. At 2,500 calories, or even 2,000 calories per day, you can have a good amount of food and nutrients.
Despite the lack of relevance to most people, the article got people talking and asking questions. After surfing social media and asking clients what they thought about the article, below are the 5 top questions & comments I heard and my responses as they apply to those who are not morbidly obese:
- Will my metabolism go down if I lose weight? The metabolism drops when the body gets smaller. There is less living tissue to support (lean and fat), so the metabolism adjusts accordingly. A smaller person simply burns less calories than a larger one. On another, more complicated note, some studies have shown that after 2 weeks or of calorie reduction, some people’s metabolism may go down further than what would be predicted(12). The only way to increase your metabolism is to move more (exercise) (13). Healthy weight loss is always a balance of calorie reduction and increased movement.
- Did participants keep up their exercise and diet after they went home? The study didn’t mention what people did when they went home. The NY Times did say the subjects were sent home with a specific, four month plan. After that, they were left to go it alone, and the study didn’t take the subjects’ activities over the 6 years into account.
- What about the subjects’ history of obesity? Were they genetically destined to be overweight? The NY Times shared that Mr. Cahill’s weight problem began in the 3rd grade, but we don’t know much about the others. The research didn’t take into account whether the participants had family history of obesity, genetic markers for obesity, or how many years the competitors spent in the severely obese category. All of these things make a difference in terms of how easy or hard it can be to lose weight and maintain weight loss, but they weren’t the questions asked.
- Was the speed of weight loss a problem? Some studies say that the speed of weight loss doesn’t make any difference in whether or not weight loss can be maintained long-term (9). But it’s more complicated than that. From a behavioral standpoint we know that making small, meaningful changes in stages makes it easier for a person to stick with the changes (10,11). Making many, large changes at once makes it harder to maintain them over the long run. So, even though the speed of weight loss may not determine whether weight loss will stick, it can determine whether the new habits needed to keep the weight loss will stick.
- The participants lost their support system. Did that make a difference? These contestants had a team of people working with them to reach their goals. Then, they were suddenly left to continue their weight loss on their own. I’m not saying they didn’t work hard to keep it off once they went home. But, time and again it shows that those who have both leadership and social support have more success in losing weight and keeping it off than those who don’t (8). As we work towards physical transformation the body is constantly adjusting and readjusting as a result of the changes we are making. In response we need to adjust and readjust our tactics. When these subjects left and went back to their normal life, they no longer had educated experts to help them continue making appropriate adjustments that may have been needed to lose more weight and keep it off. I tell first-time clients that one session with me will help them for a little while (if they follow my directions). But if they have more than 5lbs to lose, one round of changes probably won’t be enough to get them to their destination.
If you have some weight to lose, you can lose weight and you can have a healthy body.
I work with many people who are overweight and moderately obese. And if that’s you, I can speak to your situation.
My clients do well in the long run.
Here are some similarities between those who succeed:
They lose weight by about 1-2 lbs per week, sometimes more and sometimes less, through both diet and exercise. They have ups and downs but generally we keep the scale going down as long as they stick to the program and do their homework.
They gain muscle from exercise which makes it so the scale doesn’t go down as fast as it would if they were just losing fat. But we take their body fat measurements regularly, so they get real data on how much fat they’re losing and how much healthier they’re getting.
They’re in it for the long run, not only to look better and be lighter on the scale which, of course is an awesome result. But they’re also in it for the positive health effects that they’ll get from changing to a healthier way of life. Starting earlier in life is always more beneficial as the body will get “used to” these healthy habits and they can help tremendously in pushing back the affects of aging to include weight gain with age.
Losing weight successfully and becoming healthy requires a commitment: A commitment to be good to yourself. A commitment to making the best food choices for your body regardless of whether you feel like doing it, until it finally feels good to you. A commitment to making movement a priority. AND, It requires a commitment to your own health, knowing that the physical effects you desire will take time, but they will come.
Thanks for reading and following along. If you liked this info and if you’re interested in working with me and my team, you can get in touch here. Or if you’d just like to join my e-mail list for regular tips and motivation, head over here to do that.
Comments are open. Have you successfully lost weight? Let us hear from you!
1. After ‘The Biggest Loser,’ Their Bodies Fought to Regain Weight. NY Times, May 2, 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/02/health/biggest-loser-weight-loss.html
2.) Persistent metabolic adaptation 6 years after “The Biggest Loser” competition. Erin Fothergill, Juen Guo1, Lilian Howard1, Jennifer C. Kerns2, Nicolas D. Knuth, Robert Brychta, Kong Y. Chen, Monica C. Skarulis, Mary Walter, Peter J. Walter and Kevin D. Hall,*Obesity. Published online May 2, 2016. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/oby.21538/full
3.) Morbid Obesity Rates Continue to Rise Rapidly in the US. Sturm and Hattori. Int J Obes (Lond). 2013 Jun; 37(6): 889–891.
doi: 10.1038/ijo.2012.159 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3527647/
4.) NIH Overweight and obesity statistics as of May 2016. http://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/health-statistics/Pages/overweight-obesity-statistics.aspx
5.)Gallup Poll: Obesity rate ticks up in 2013. http://www.gallup.com/poll/167651/obesity-rate-ticks-2013.aspx
6.) Gallup Poll: Obesity Rate climbs to record high in 2015 http://www.gallup.com/poll/189182/obesity-rate-climbs-record-high-2015.aspx?g_source=obesity&g_medium=search&g_campaign=tiles
7.) CDC Childhood obesity facts: http://www.cdc.gov/healthyschools/obesity/facts.htm
8.) How to Fix the Obeisity Crisis. David H Freedman. Scientific American, February 2011.
9.) Myths, Presumptions and Facts about Obesity. New England Journal of Medicine, 2013; 368:2234-2237June 6, 2013 http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMsa1208051#t=articleBackground
10.) Fast Company: The Secret to changing your habits – start incredibly small. www.fastcompany.com/3022830/how-to-be-a-success-at-everything/the-secret-to-changing-your-habits-start-incredibly-small
11.)American Psychological Association. Making Lifestyle Changes that Last. http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/lifestyle-changes.aspx
12.) Adaptive thermogenesis with weight loss in humans, Müller and Bosy-Westphal, Obesity
Volume 21, Issue 2, pages 218–228, February 2013
13.) The Role of Exercise effort Weight Loss and Maintenance. Donnelly, J., Smith, B., Jacobsen, D., Kirk, E., DuBose, K., Hyder, M., & Bailey, B. (2004). Practice points. Best Practice & Research Clinical Gastroenterology, 18(6), 1009-1029.