On May 2, 2016, the New York Times broke the story: “After The Biggest Loser, Their Bodies Fought to Regain Weight”. Columnist Gail Kolata reported on a study that followed Season 8’s (2009) Biggest Loser reality TV show contestants to find out what happened after their dramatic weight loss efforts. The researchers found that, except for one contestant, all regained most of the weight they had discarded within the six years following Season 8.
The main reason advanced for these findings was that the extreme calorie restriction (Contestants lowered their calorie intakes by 500 calories a day) and hours of daily exercise caused the contestants to have a dramatic drop in metabolism. Prior to going on the show, the contestants’ metabolic rates were tested and found to be normal. In the years after the show, testing found that the contestants’ bodies were burning hundreds of calories fewer, on a daily basis, than would be expected, even though they continued to eat nutritional meals and remain physically active. Moreover, the contestants “constantly battled hunger, cravings, and binges” due to plummeting levels of leptin, a hormone responsible for regulating appetite. The findings may explain why so many people fail at dieting altogether and why those who succeed in losing extra pounds eventually regain the pounds they’ve shed.
Other media outlets carried the story, bringing in their own experts to comment. Some experts said that the contestants might have experienced their problems due to the extreme and rapid measures with which they subtracted hundreds of pounds. They stated that slow weight loss with small percentages of calorie restriction would not cause such problems. In a follow-up article, on May 4, Kolata disagreed, citing studies that any calorie restriction lowers metabolism and eventually causes people to regard any pounds they have shed (Kolata, 2016).
Moreover, neuroscientist Sandra Aamodt (Aamodt, 2016) wrote that long-term dieting does nothing to improve health and does more harm than good. She wrote that obese men “have only one chance in 1,290 of reaching the normal weight range within a year; severely obese women have one chance in 677.” She cited a study showing that only 1% of dieters ever succeed at permanent weight reduction. She also cited long-term studies showing that dieters are more likely than non-dieters to become obese within one to 15 years of their first attempts at dieting.
Is there any hope at all for large people who want to weigh less? Are these results inevitable for anyone who is unhappy with their size? Despite the results of the Biggest Loser study, there is a small percentage of people who do keep the pounds off. How do they do it? I decided to look into these questions for more information. Here’s what I found.
Avoid Calorie Restriction
Calorie requirements are determined mainly by weight, activity, and gender (Corsetty and Pearson, 2000). A moderately active 200 pound man, for example, requires an average daily calorie intake of 21 calories per pound; 4200 calories. A moderately active 150 pound woman requires an average daily calorie intake of 18 calories per pound; 2700 calories a day. Pregnant women should add 300 calories a day. Lactating women should add 500 calories a day. Women past menopause should subtract 250 calories a day.
Calorie restriction causes the body to go into calorie conservation mode, producing constant hunger and cravings. Higher levels of calorie restriction cause faster weight reduction and almost always guarantee weight regain. This explains what happened to The Biggest Loser contestants.
The equation for weight management is not so simple as calories consumed minus calories burned. All calories are not equal. Calories from refined carbohydrates are the ones most easily converted to body fat. Sugars, starches from grains, and processed foods are most likely to play havoc with blood sugar levels and insulin efficiency, both of which factor into weight gain. What you eat matters more than how much you eat.
Recommendation 1: Stop counting calories and stop calorie-restricted dieting. Instead focus on eating fresh, colorful fruits and vegetables for fiber. Get lean proteins from fish, chicken, turkey, nuts, beans, eggs, and mushrooms. Include fat from oils and butter in your meals. Avoid or minimize refined carbohydrates.
Chronic stress plays a role in weight gain, producing an abundance of cortisol, a hormone that changes metabolism and causes the body to retain fat. For people with a genetic tendency toward excess weight, stress is also a trigger to eat refined carbohydrates, which cause weight gain.
Recommendation 2: Reduce or eliminate stress as much as possible. Develop the coping skills you need to manage unavoidable stress. Daily Mindfulness Meditation has proven to lower anxiety, promote well-being, and reduce cortisol levels (Rankin, 2013)
Slow weight subtraction, based on healthy nutrition, should help to maintain metabolism. If weight reduction seems impossible despite your best efforts, have your thyroid tested. Low thyroid levels can play havoc with metabolism. Hypothyroidism can be easily corrected with medication. Here are additional steps to bolster your metabolism:
Recommendation 3: Boost your metabolism in these ways (Schwecherl, 2014):
- Consistently get adequate sleep. Studies show a high correlation between obesity and poor sleep because 1) lack of sleep contributes to low metabolism, and 2) inadequate sleep inhibits leptin production.
- Drink green tea on a daily basis – it’s loaded with anti-oxidants and is good for metabolism.
- Get daily exercise. Strength training and interval training will do the most to increase metabolism, although the effect on calorie-burning is negligible. The easiest way to do interval training is to do 15 – 20 minutes of an aerobic activity, with a 2-minute warm-up, then alternate 30 seconds of high intensity with 90 seconds of easy movement, ending your set with a 2-minute slow cool down (Mercola, 2015).
- Get 2,000 miligrams of Omega 3 fatty acids daily to reduce inflammation, balance blood sugar, and regulate metabolism. You can get Omega 3 from salmon, herring and tuna. If you dislike the fishy taste of fish oil-based supplements, switch to flaxseed oil supplements instead.
- Drink adequate amounts of water because dehydration slows metabolism.
Balance Your Leptin Levels
Leptin is a hormone that tell your body when your stomach is full. It signals the brain so that you stop eating. Overweight people generally have low leptin levels. Dieting, long-term fasting, and calorie restriction can lower leptin levels, creating a tendency to overeat.
Recommendation 4: Increase your leptin levels in these ways (Mercola, 2012):
- Get sufficient sleep. Leptin is manufactured during sleep.
- Avoid refined carbohydrates, especially sugars. These foods set up leptin resistance, which makes your cells less receptive to the effects of leptin.
- Eat foods high in zinc such as spinach, lamb, seafood, nuts, beans, mushrooms, and pumpkin. Alternatively, take a daily zinc supplement.
- Get moderate exercise.
When Should You Eat?
Some sources I consulted stated that people who want to subtract pounds should eat five or six small meals a day so that they boost their metabolism; they never feel hungry and thus will not overeat. Several sources also said that eating a high-protein breakfast will help with metabolism.
Dr. Joseph Mercola, however, differs. In Effortless Healing (2015), he stated that there is no relationship between eating breakfast and weight reduction. In fact, he wrote that skipping breakfast is a good way to eliminate cravings and hunger throughout the day. He wrote that the value of eating several small meals a day is a myth. Instead, Mercola advocated “intermittent fasting” for healthy weight reduction. Intermittent fasting means eating only within an eight-to-ten hour window, say from noon to 8 pm. He stated that this method reduces sugar cravings, normalizes hunger levels, boosts brain health, improves gut bacteria, lowers risk of heart disease, and slows the aging process.
The method you choose is up to you. You could experiment with each to find your best fit. In the meantime, here is one recommendation that I can give you.
Recommendation 5: Eat when you feel hungry and stop when you feel full. Overweight people consistently eat for reasons other than feeling hungry. They eat according to external cues (seeing food, smelling food, watching other people eat, etc.). They base eating decisions on their emotions. Diets don’t help because they teach people to eat according to charts and menus, instead of their bodies’ natural signals.
Learning to eat when you feel hungry and stop when you feel full means you will begin to eat intuitively, the way naturally slender people eat. If you can’t detect sensations of hunger or satiety, or if you feel “hungry all the time and never satisfied” it’s most likely because you are not yet consistently following the previous four recommendations. Additionally, it will help you to eat mindfully – eating slowly, without distractions, conscious of the sensations of tasting, chewing, swallowing, and the changes taking place in your body as your stomach fills.
Maintenance Requires Vigilance
Gail Kolata’s article on the Biggest Losers received over 2000 comments, some from people who have succeeded in keeping the weight off. They had a common theme: constant vigilance. These people reported that they keep close track of their weight, they are extremely careful about how they eat. They are highly selective in their food choices. They exercise often. They tolerate feelings of hunger between meals. They turned hopes into reality.
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