Don’t you just love Cinderella stories?
While I don’t usually watch too much TV, there’s one show that helps overweight people transform their bodies with diet and exercise so they become the happy, healthy people they’ve always been on the inside. And I can’t miss it.
I’m sure you’ve been mesmerized by it as well. I’m talking about the Biggest Loser.
For over 12 years, celebrity personal trainers such as Jillian Michaels and Bob Harper have been training overweight and obese contestants to achieve huge amounts of weight loss over the course of approximately seven months.
With a normal diet and exercise program, you should typically aim for a healthy goal of losing 1–2 pounds of weight per week. But for the Biggest Loser contestants, only losing that measly amount would get you kicked off the show!
I’m not kidding; these contestants lose anywhere from 15 to 25 pounds per week!
As unsafe as this sounds, the contestants also have some of the best physical trainers, sleep specialists, exercise doctors, and therapists to guide them through this huge transition.
Which got me thinking about what happens when the contestants leave the show and rejoin the rest of us struggling to keep the weight off on our own. Do they truly know a sustainable approach to weight loss?
Fortunately, I’m not the only one who thought this way.
Kevin D. Hall, a senior investigator at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, had the same sentiments towards the show and wondered how these contestants fared six years later. So he conducted a study with a team of researchers—and his findings were thought-provoking.
Let’s take a look at his research, plus learn more about what happens to our bodies when we lose a dramatic amount of weight, in today’s article.
What Does the Research Support?
Kevin’s professional background has been focused on how our metabolism and brain respond to factors such as diet and physical activity, so he was the perfect lead for the study.
He gathered a team of researchers and studied 16 of the Biggest Loser Contestants (eventually this dropped to 14 participants). In particular, he wanted to see how their resting metabolic rate (RMR) was affected by their drastic weight change during such a short period of time.
Now, thanks to a phenomenon known as adaptive thermogenesis, science has already shown that losing weight tends to slow down your resting metabolic rate, which is essentially a measurement of how many calories it takes for you to stay alive with no activity.
These researchers wanted to uncover what happens to your RMR when you lose a significant amount of weight.
The results: The Biggest Loser contestants completely slowed down their metabolisms to the point that they’d have to eat far less calories than someone of the same weight just to maintain their current weight.
We’re not talking about a few calories here and there; we’re talking almost 800 calories less!
This meant that if they had even a small splurge that tipped them over their calorie requirements for the day, it immediately turned to fat. And this was the case for almost all of the contestants.
Our Bodies Naturally Fight Our Weight Loss Efforts
So what’s really going on here?
According to the research, our bodies are programmed to get us back to our starting weight whether we want that or not. This same principle holds true whether you lose 10–20 pounds or 200+.
Essentially, we’re going against biology when we attempt to keep those pesky pounds off.
How frustrating is that?
And if that wasn’t enough, this reaction is inevitably going to make you hungrier as a result. After all, reducing your calories by as much as 800 is enough to make a person feel weak, exhausted all the time, and craving carbs, which is another recipe for weight gain.
But before you buy a ticket for the ‘we’re all doomed train’, understand that this is just a tiny study (only 14 people!) and these results are not statistically significant to raise the white flag on all weight loss efforts.
Instead, this study only proved that we need a different approach to this whole obesity and weight loss battle.
So What Should We Focus On?
We need to approach weight maintenance differently than weight loss.
With weight loss, you can reduce how many calories you eat and how many are burned through exercise. But if you don’t tackle the reduction in your RMR and the plummeting leptin levels once the weight has dropped off, you’ll have a much harder time maintaining your hard work.
Now, to do this successfully, you actually have to focus on the brain.
See, you’re battling two problems when it comes to maintaining weight loss: you’re dealing with low levels of leptin, plus your brain is trying to get your body back up to your starting weight. So if these issues are not addressed, you’re likely going to regain the weight back.
Let’s take a look at these two in depth.
Leptin Levels Matter
We’ve talked about leptin before.
It’s a hormone that our bodies produce and one of its main responsibilities is to send a signal to our brain letting us know that we’re full.
Since Kevin and his team did not concentrate on how leptin played a role in the weight regain of the contestants, a team of researchers led by Dr. Joseph Proietto of the University of Melbourne did.
50 overweight people were studied after being put on a mere 550 calories per day. Over the course of eight weeks, the average weight loss per person topped nearly 30 pounds (no surprise there!).
But eventually the weight crept back within the next year just like it did with the Biggest Loser contestants.
Here’s what they found: Not only did the weight management hormone leptin plummet, but so did four other hormones connected to satiety (or feeling full).
When this happens, you start feeling ravenous and hungry all the time because your brain doesn’t ever receive the signal that you’re truly full.
Unfortunately, we haven’t come up with a decent solution to combat this.
The only trick that may help would be something like a natural appetite suppressant in order for long-term weight loss efforts to last.
What About the Brain?
On top of your brain not receiving the signal that you’re full, you also have to consider that the brain is trying diligently to get itself back to its original starting weight (and the calories that got it there).
In this study, 153 patients were tested over the course of 52 weeks. Some of the group received a placebo while the others were given a diabetes drug that expels 360 calories per day in the urine of the participants.
The individuals who were given the calorie expelling pill had no idea that these calories were even leaving the body.
As imagined, those who lost the calories in their urine experienced a small, gradual weight loss.
However, the alarming part was that these participants also ate an additional 200 calories each day for every five pounds they lost.
This meant that the weight gain was not coming from the slowing down of their metabolism; it was coming from those pesky calories that the brain tried to account for as they were lost through urination.
There’s no doubt that these contestants felt hungrier (they had reduced signals to their brain telling them they’re full) so they inevitably ate more.
Those trying to keep weight off must battle both an insatiable hunger (from reduced hormone levels) and watching their calorie intake. Yikes!
Is there anything else you can do since counting calories may not be enough?
The best advice I can give is to be diligent about your weight loss efforts and find a diet that works with your body.
Be Diligent With Weight Loss
And if sugar’s your weakness, you need to learn how to break the addiction.
You should keep a close watch on your portion sizes as well since even a small increase in calories is enough for you to gain weight.
It’s also essential to keep moving.
So in addition to your workout of 30 minutes or more a day, you should also take 2–3 walk breaks in between meals if you’re stuck at a desk all day or you lead a sedentary life once you’re off the clock.
Find a Nutrition Program that Works With Your Body
Your next form of attack in this weight loss battle is to find a diet that works with your body.
Try starting out with an elimination diet so you can see how your body responds to certain foods. If you’re finding that carbs make you even hungrier, it may be time to cut them down or eliminate them entirely.
The idea is to not use a one-size-fits-all nutrition program until you’re certain that it works with your body.
In the end, keeping the weight off may seem virtually impossible, and at times it might be.
The key is to find a diet that works with your body and have steps in place when a hunger pang strikes (drink more water, go for a walk, or choose foods high in protein and fiber so you’ll stay fuller longer). Take these steps and you’ll be in good shape, both physically and mentally, to long-lasting weight loss results.
What information in this article surprised you the most? Are you a closet Biggest Loser fan too? Tell me about it in the comments!
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