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The Biggest Loser – Weight Regain

There was a study making the rounds recently about The Biggest Loser show. The flurry of activity on Facebook and other social media platforms was quick to jump on the “OMG, losing weight completely botched up their metabolisms” bandwagon. Here’s the New York Times article, if you’re interested to read the media’s reporting of the study. Can your RMR (resting metabolic rate) decrease from major weight loss/extreme dieting? Yes, it can. It’s called Metabolic Adaptation. Could that be a factor in the weight regain the contestants saw? Yes, it could be a part of the reason. But it’s not the whole story. 

I’m actually not going to dig in and critique the study itself. I will someday write a post about metabolic adaptation in general, since I think it deserves to be talked about. But for now, I want to talk about the other pieces of the weight regain puzzle.

Some snippets from the NYT article about the study:

“Sequestered on the “Biggest Loser” ranch with the other contestants, Mr. Cahill exercised seven hours a day, burning 8,000 to 9,000 calories according to a calorie tracker the show gave him.”

“Eventually, he and the others were sent home for four months to try to keep losing weight on their own. Mr. Cahill set a goal of a 3,500-caloric deficit per day. The idea was to lose a pound a day. He quit his job as a land surveyor to do it. His routine went like this: Wake up at 5 a.m. and run on a treadmill for 45 minutes. Have breakfast — typically one egg and two egg whites, half a grapefruit and a piece of sprouted grain toast. Run on the treadmill for another 45 minutes. Rest for 40 minutes; bike ride nine miles to a gym. Work out for two and a half hours. Shower, ride home, eat lunch — typically a grilled skinless chicken breast, a cup of broccoli and 10 spears of asparagus. Rest for an hour. Drive to the gym for another round of exercise. If he had not burned enough calories to hit his goal, he went back to the gym after dinner to work out some more.”

“[…]for the next four years, he managed to keep his weight below 255 pounds by exercising two to three hours a day. But two years ago, he went back to his job as a surveyor, and the pounds started coming back.” [The bolded emphasis above is mine.]

Let’s discuss this in the bigger picture, shall we?

Is there anything sustainable AT ALL about the way in which these contestants lost their weight?? If you need to quit your job in order to exercise enough to lose weight, there is something very wrong.

Running 1.5 hours on a treadmill
Plus biking 9 miles (twice)
Plus 2.5 hours of exercise
Then another “bout” of exercise after dinner
Doing all that every single day…  is INSANE!

Yes, this is a television show and a competition. But these are also real people. People who have lives that exist outside of the gym. People who need and want to be able to balance their health and weight loss with a happy and fulfilled life. Where is the balance? Where is the sustainability? Where, dare I ask, is the enjoyment?

If we lose our weight by extreme means like the contestants on The Biggest Loser did, it’s no wonder that when the extreme methods can’t be maintained, progress stops or reverses. We shouldn’t be surprised by this. It’s true of diets and gimmicks much less extreme than TBL too. Any method that feels like it sucks is going to be unsustainable. All of us who have ever been on a diet that we hated, only to gain our weight back afterwards, know this first-hand.[bctt tweet=”Any method that feels like it sucks is going to be unsustainable. ” username=”raisingnutritn”]

Dieting and other extremes just don’t work in the long term. There are a few reasons for this, one of which is, of course, the sustainability piece. Another very big key reason though, is that there are underlying emotional and psychological factors playing a huge role in weight loss (and maintenance of weight loss).

Why do contestants on The Biggest Loser tend to regain their weight? Why do MOST of us who diet regain our weight? It is both simple and complex...

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Psychology plays a HUGE role

A few statements from that NYT article stuck out to me:

What people don’t understand is that a treat is like a drug, […] “Two treats can turn into a binge over a three-day period. That is what I struggle with.”

I used to look at myself and think, ‘I am horrible, I am a monster, subhuman’”

These are factors we should be looking at when it comes to long-term weight loss and maintenance success!

These thoughts and feelings are sabotaging. They are depressing. And they show that eating is about much more than just calories in and calories out. We can manipulate calories for a time. Most of us can do anything for a while if we put our mind to it. But when sh*t gets hard, or we feel “subhuman,” we turn to what we know. For many people, that thing was, and still is, food.

Having a treat turn into a three day binge is a clue that there is something deeper going on. Yes, sugary things taste good. If we allow ourselves to enjoy them occasionally, they don’t tend to turn into a binge-fest. But if this person feels completely out of control after having a treat, that’s something that needs to be talked about. Binges don’t just happen. There are thoughts, typically pretty sabotaging ones, behind them. (The concept of good and bad foods is a big one that plays into this!)  Those thoughts can lead to some pretty intense emotions, and they need to be addressed, otherwise the problem just keeps happening. I’d guess that the thoughts and feelings behind those binge urges weren’t something the trainers took much time to discuss with her though. It’s far easier to tell her to just not eat that stuff, right? It’s not “allowed.” Yeah, that’s helpful. Not. 

We’ve got to start talking about SHAME

If a very overweight person doesn’t address the feelings, thoughts, and emotions that helped get them that way, weight loss likely won’t stick. They will try and try, over and over, and yo-yo up and down because they’re not addressing the root of the problem.

Yes, calories matter (of course).
Yes, hormones and metabolism matter.
Yes, exercise matters.

But it is all essentially irrelevant if a person is so consumed with shame, guilt, feelings of failure, depression, and sabotaging thoughts and feelings about food that they cope by eating. It is the mental side of the equation that profoundly affects the calorie balance side.

About six weeks ago I had the pleasure of going to The Fitness Summit, an annual symposium of some of the best-of-the-best in fitness and nutrition. One of the speakers was Kelly Coffey, a trainer who has lost, and kept off, over 150 pounds. Her presentation was the highlight of the event. She spoke about exactly what I discussed above… the mental and emotional side of major weight loss. She’s been obese. And she’s been thin. She’s yo-yo’d up and down like so many others in the process. She’s been there. And as someone who has experienced such a significant weight loss, she knows first hand just how critical that mental/emotional component is.

It wasn’t until she addressed her underlying SHAME she felt that she was able to maintain a lower weight, even though she’d had weight loss surgery at a previous point in her journey (and then gained much of her weight back). The psychological side is THAT important. You can’t hate yourself into a smaller version of yourself. You can’t run yourself into the ground with punishing workouts and miserable diets and expect to sustain it.

Weight Regain is due to unsustainable methods

The Biggest Loser is an extreme event in massive exercise and calorie restriction. It is not something that is sustainable. That alone creates an atmosphere in which contestants are almost guaranteed to fail once they get back to real life. When you add in the fact that the show doesn’t bother to address the underlying psychological aspects that got these people to their obese state in the first place, then it’s no wonder we see them years later almost back to their original weight.

Yes, metabolic adaptation exists. But it is not the only reason that these contestants regained their weight. It is so much more complex than that.