Lessons From the Biggest Losers

Reblogged from http://eat-real-food-or-else.com , a site devoted to nutrition and cooking. Low starch or paleo advocates should love the delicious recipes and other info found there, One striking conclusion is that calorie restriction is “remembered,” and afterwards, the body remains in a energy conserving, fat storing mode.

An NPR broadcast last week (May 2, 2016 – All Things Considered) reported on a study that examined what happened to the participants in the TV reality show The Biggest Loser after the show was over. A (not too surprising) fact was that many of them regained much of the weight they had lost during the show.

One of the report’s conclusions was that body weight is biologically determined and that “it’s not just a matter of willpower to produce weight loss and to keep weight off.” It seems that the body wants to regulate its fat content to a set point, like a spring: you can compress it, but as you let go, it returns to its original position.


No surprise

This finding, of course, doesn’t come as a surprise. Anybody that has been on a weight loss diet could have told you that. With the risk of sounding conceited, this result was highly predictable, not to say inevitable.

So why do most people still believe that after going on a weight-loss diet, they can return to their old ways and still keep the weight off?

This has always seemed odd to me, until I examined the prevailing weight-loss beliefs more in depth.

It turns out that most people, including doctors and health professionals, view the body as a calorie bag: if you eat more calories that you expend, you gain weight; if you spend more than you eat, you lose weight. Before people embark on their lean quest, their weight is more or less constant (maybe several pounds higher than they wished, but stably so). The logical deduction is that what they are eating balances exactly what they expend. Therefore, if they could only lose the extra pounds, they’d be fine and could resume their old lifestyle happily ever after. QED.

Logical? Well the fact that this scheme doesn’t work should be proof enough that the “calorie in – calorie out” view of weight control is incorrect.

Regulation – The Spring effect

Actually, how fat is stored in our cells is a complex, regulated system, the body trying hard to stabilize the amount of fat around a set value.

This set value is a function of our genetics, as well as our long term nutritional behavior, environment and medical history; with age our body is less resilient, and coping with excesses becomes more difficult.

Still, another sensible line of reasoning says that you can’t produce something out of nothing, and that, in order to gain weight, you have to take in more calories than you consume. After all, like gravity, thermodynamics are not just a good idea, they are the law! So how can a weight-loss contestant eat less than ever, keep-up the exercise, and still gain the weight back? Read on…

Somewhat of a surprise (but not that

One contestant interviewed explained that she had worked extremely hard at shedding the original weight: it took a grueling regimen of diet and exercise. Listening to her, one could sense that she is a very strong-willed person; nobody could suspect her of being lazy or self-indulging. Yet after she gained the weight back, she found it nearly impossible to lose it again.

The interesting “discovery” of the study was that after they lost weight, the people’s basal metabolic rate (BMR, amount of energy expended while at rest) was disproportionately low compared to the rest of the population: these people needed to burn less calories to sustain their weight than people with the same weight that have never been on a weight reduction program. Conversely, these weight-reduced people needed to eat less than the other people in order to sustain their weight.

Another interesting observation was that, after they regained their weight, the people’s BMR was still low. That contributed to make losing weight the second time around even harder.

There is a prevalent view that muscles burn more calories than fat, and that if you lose fat and build-up muscle, your metabolic rate will increase. The study’s findings go against that theory.

A conclusion

The “calorie in – calorie out” view of the body has been proven wrong over and over again. To reach your ideal weight, you need to improve your metabolism. This goes way beyond “eating less and exercising more”. It includes changing your metabolism, lifestyle and especially your nutrition.

Calorie restriction makes you metabolically weaker.



  2 comments for “Lessons From the Biggest Losers

  1. Jim
    May 17, 2016 at 3:40 pm

    A bit off topic, but would a lower basal metabolic rate lead to an increased lifetime for the red blood cells and a consequent uptick in measured HbA1C?

    • May 18, 2016 at 9:30 am

      Hi Jim, you are bringing up an interesting issue; the life expectancy of red blood cells (RBC). There are dozens of issues that affect red cell turnover. For example runners with hard heel strikes have a higher turnover and consequent lower effective Hb1C. However as the red cell does not have any mitochondria their metabolism is not controlled by the normal parameters of metabolic rate. RBC’s derive energy from anaerobic glycolysis; the kinetics of this reaction is not driven by the ‘metabolism’ of the subject. And, to make it muddier, there are actually large variations in RBC half-life within individuals. Forgive me for reading your mind but, yes, there are plenty of reasons to be suspicious of A1c as a perfect reflection of overall energy management within an individual. Dr. Mike

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