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“There are no doubt exceptional individuals who can ignore primal biological signals and maintain weight loss for the long term by restricting calories, [but] for most people, the combination of incessant hunger and slowing metabolism is a recipe for weight regain — explaining why so few individuals can maintain weight loss for more than a few months.” David Ludwig, MD, New Balance Foundation Obesity Prevention Center (The New York Times, May 2, 2016)

“We have to…open our minds to what we can do to support the well-being of people at every weight…Weight-suppressed people are not the same physiologically as people who were never heavier… And the weight loss attempt makes them less healthy in the long run.” Dr. Deb Burgard, eating disorder specialist (Medicaldaily.com, May 2, 2016)

Make “The Biggest Losers” Winners

You may have heard about the study showing that participants in “The Biggest Loser” televised competition lost the weight-control battle in the long run. It’s the longest follow-up investigation ever of changes after weight loss and regain. The competition was still taking its toll six years later. Contestants had regained most of the weight they lost. No surprise there. The stunner was that their metabolism was still suppressed six years later. Adding insult to injury, the participants who did best keeping the weight off suffered the biggest drop in metabolism. Simply put, there were no winners.

The glory of losing a pound a day morphed into a nightmare. Starving themselves and exercising for many hours every day paid off in heart break. Some experts maintain that the contestants would have been better off staying fat. Others are looking for drugs to override hunger and slowing metabolism or call for therapeutic teams to guide the obese through the mine field of weight loss.

We’ll examine the key details and then look at how to lose weight and keep it off. Clearly, starvation and killer workouts are not the answer.

Scientists overseen by senior researcher Kevin D. Hall, an expert on metabolism at the National Institutes of Health, measured the body composition and resting metabolic rate (RMR)—calories burned at rest—of 14 of the participants in “The Biggest Loser,” when the competition began, at the end of the 30-week competition—and 6 years later. Metabolic adaptation, defined as residual RMR after adjusting for changes in body composition and age, was a crucial factor in evaluating the overall results.

“Weight loss is accompanied by a slowing of resting metabolic rate (RMR) that is often greater than would be expected based on the measured changes in body composition. This phenomenon is called metabolic adaptation, and it acts to counter weight loss and is thought to contribute to weight regain,” the researchers wrote in introducing the study. “We hypothesized that the degree of metabolic adaptation would be correlated with weight regain,” they added. Metabolic adaptation was expected to go up or down with weight regain. Unfortunately, that’s not how it turned out.  

The cold numbers are remarkable, but the ultimate reality comes through in what individual participants went through to lose the weight—and where they ended up.

Average weight loss at the end of the competition was 128 pounds, about 4 pounds a week. After 6 years, 90 pounds of the loss had been regained, while daily calories burned at rest dropped by 704—or 499 when adjusted for weight and age. Some, of course, did better and others did worse. A few managed to keep most of the weight off, while others ended up heavier than before the competition.

When the show began the contestants had normal metabolisms for their size. Six years later, their metabolisms were radically slower pound for pound. On average, they would have to cut an additional 500 calories to maintain their thinner bodies than they would have before the competition.

Then came the surprise.

“Contrary to expectations, the degree of metabolic adaptation at the end of the competition was not associated with weight regain, but those with greater long-term weight loss also had greater ongoing metabolic slowing,” the researchers concluded. The contestants couldn’t win for losing. Those who did best at keeping weight off saw the biggest drop in metabolism.

Science writer Gina Kolata tracked the painful experience of overall winner Danny Cahill in her lengthy piece in The New York Times. (May 2, 2016)

Cahill lost an astonishing 239 pounds in seven months—about a pound a day—going from 430 to 191 on the final day of the competition.

Cahill exercised seven hours a day, burning 8,000 to 9,000 calories according to the calorie tracker the show gave him.

Kolata described his weight loss regimen:

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. At times, he found himself running around his neighborhood in the dark until his calorie-burn indicator reset to zero at midnight.

With that killer regimen, it’s no surprise that he gained back more than 100 pounds in the years after his big win. He kept his weight below 255 by exercising two to three hours a day while traveling the country as a motivational speaker. But the weight started coming back when he returned to his regular job as a surveyor.

“Soon the scale hit 265,” Kolata wrote. “Mr. Cahill started weighing and measuring his food again and stepped up his exercise. He got back down to 235 to 240 pounds. But his weight edged up again, to 275, then 295.”

Continuing: “His slow metabolism is part of the problem, and so are his food cravings. He opens a bag of chips, thinking he will have just a few. I’d eat five bites. Then I’d black out and eat the whole bag of chips and say, ‘What did I do?’”

Cahill’s experience and that of his fellow competitors shows that the body will fight back for years. “[That’s] new and important,” Dr. Michael Schwartz, an obesity and diabetes researcher who is a professor of medicine at the University of Washington, told Kolata.

“The key point is that you can be on TV, you can lose enormous amounts of weight, you can go on for six years, but you can’t get away from a basic biological reality,” said Dr. Schwartz, who was not involved in the study. “As long as you are below your initial weight, your body is going to try to get you back.”

Dr. Hall and his team of researchers were more reserved, but concluded essentially the same thing. They wrote that “long-term weight loss requires vigilant combat against persistent metabolic adaptation that acts to proportionally counter ongoing efforts to reduce body weight.”

Dr. David Ludwig, the director of the New Balance Foundation Obesity Prevention Center at Boston Children’s Hospital, who was not involved in the research, was more hopeful—and constructive. He told Kolata that the new finding “shouldn’t be interpreted to mean we are doomed to battle our biology or remain fat. It means we need to explore other approaches.”

Dr. Ludwig said that simply cutting calories is not the answer. “There are no doubt exceptional individuals who can ignore primal biological signals and maintain weight loss for the long term by restricting calories,” he said, but he added that “for most people, the combination of incessant hunger and slowing metabolism is a recipe for weight regain — explaining why so few individuals can maintain weight loss for more than a few months.”

Like Dr. Ludwig, I’m hopeful about the prospects for permanent weight loss. I lost 50 pounds—and have kept it off for going on 40 years. I know it can be done.

My Take

In my second book Ripped 2 (published in 1982), I wrote about the body’s response to severe calorie restriction. It’s called “The Famine Phenomenon.” Your body doesn’t know you’re simply trying to shed excess pounds. It thinks a famine is coming—and braces for it by storing extra fat.

Covert Bailey warned in his weight-control classic Fit or Fat? that extreme dieting encourages your body to become fatter. It makes perfect sense. He explained it like this: “Now if you can visualize that fat represents a magnificent safety device against famine, you can appreciate that the body will attempt to make more of it under stress circumstances.” Severe measures, such as those practiced in “The Biggest Loser” competition, are a major stress.

Frankly, I didn’t believe I could eat less and gain fat—until it happened to me, twice. I know because I was in the public eye both times; my body composition was being measured under water at the Lovelace Medical Center. The details are in Ripped 2, where I counseled: Don’t try to lose more than one pound a week. Stick to a balanced diet. Reduce your calorie consumption slightly. Increase calorie expenditure slightly. Your success will depend on how well you deal with the famine phenomenon.

What I didn’t understand was the newly discovered long-term suppression of metabolism. Something I believe I avoided, probably because I have never deprived myself for very long.

Fortunately, I began practicing moderation in eating and training long before I learned about the famine phenomenon. While I’ve never been really “fat,” I have been what might be called bulky. I topped out at 200 in my mid-20s. The “chubby cheek” photo below was taken by my father in August of 1964, when I was 26. I’m not sure what I weighed, but I believe it was close to 200.

August 1964, about 200 pounds


I vividly remember seeing 200 on our bathroom scale, because my first wife raised hell about it. Up until then my main focus had been on how much I could lift, without much thought about how I looked. I never weighed that much again.

Carol and I started jogging and being more careful about our diet in the year-and-a-half leading up to our marriage late in 1968. We tried many diets, but I never felt deprived or left the table feeling hungry. The photo below was taken right before we were married. My cheeks are still a little chubby, but I had trimmed down to about 180.

Photo by Milner Studio, late 1968, about 180 pounds

When Matt was 2-years-old in 1974, my weight was down to about 165 or 170. And when Lovelace Medical Center weighed me underwater for the first time on August 24, 1977, my weight was 155 pounds and 11 ounces—and my body fat was 2.4 percent. The photo below was taken by Bill Reynolds about two years later. My chubby cheeks are gone.

Photo by Bill Reynolds, September 1979, about 160 pounds

Almost 40 years later, I weigh about 150; see our pictorial page for photos up to the present day: http://www.cbass.com/PICTORAL.HTM

The secret is to eat quality foods, exercise—and never allow yourself to feel hungry or deprived: http://www.cbass.com/PHILOSOP.HTM

While many people have a much bigger weight problem than I ever did, I’m confident that patience, perseverance—and moderation will work for them as well. I’m equally confident that extreme measures will fail.

June 1, 2016

Comment on this article: FEEDBACK

See also The "Real" Biggest Lose Winner: http://www.cbass.com/success_stories15.htm


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