Recently a New York Times article about the Biggest Loser TV show made a big splash on some of my friends’ Facebook pages. The article is essentially a human interest story about contestants of the TV show. In case you’ve never seen the show, it’s a “reality” TV show in which extraordinarily overweight people go to extraordinary lengths to lose weight on national TV. The show was a massive success for a while, and an inspiration for many people.
Some of the contestants lost upwards of 200 pounds, but there is a problem. Of the 16 contestants from Season 6 (the sibkect of the New York Times article), only one has been able to successfully keep the weight off. Everyone else’s weight has drifted upwards, some as high as they started out. Peppered throughout the article are quotes and tidbits from researchers who used the contestants to conduct studies in weightloss and metabolism as well as other researchers of metabolism and weightloss.
Your body wants to be fat, okay?
Unfortunately, the former contestants’ metabolisms had slowed significantly, with one of them burning 800 fewer calories per day than would be expected for someone of his weight. On top of that, a certain hormone associated with satiety and weightloss was much lower than normal. This has led some people to the erroneous conclusion that losing weight shouldn’t even be attempted because their body will sabotage their efforts because it wants to be fat.
Thankfully, this conclusion is completely unfounded, and I’ll show you why. Now for this particular post, I will NOT be reading any of the research articles referenced. I will only be critiquing the actual text of the New York Times article.
Disclaimer: I do not mean to deny or denigrate the experience of the former Biggest Loser contestants (BLC)—but I do mean to show how their fate does not have to be your fate.
Some basic research
The most important aspect of healthcare research when it comes to applying the findings to other people is called generalizability–how well a study’s findings can be applied to other people. The most influential component of a research study”s generalizability is how “representative” or similar the sample is to us, the general public…or you specifically. So for example, if researchers find that statin medications can reduce the rate of heart attacks in very high risk patients (for example, men who have already had a heart attack), they cannot generalize those findings to say that statins will reduce the rate of heart attacks in young healthy people with high cholesterol. They must first do the study again with the new younger population before they can scientifically (let alone ethically) say that statins will reduce heart attacks in that population.
So, although the BLC (Biggest Loser Contestants) study is fascinating and provides an interesting window into extreme weight loss, how meaningful is it to you? I am happy to report, “not very”. First, they took people who were extremely overweight, with many of them weighing 300-400 pounds. Then they put them through an extreme (I hate to keep using that word but it really does fit) weightloss regmien. For example, Danny Cahill, the Season 8 winner lost 239 pounds. To do this, he tried to lose a pound a day. He had an extremely restricted diet, and was exercising upwards of 7 hours a day. He had to quit his job in order to comply with the program. Here’s an excerpt from the article:
Mr. Cahill exercised seven hours a day, burning 8,000 to 9,000 calories according to a calorie tracker the show gave him. Mr. Cahill set a goal of a 3,500-caloric deficit per day. The idea was to lose a pound a day.
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.
Mr. Cahill knew he could not maintain his finale weight of 191 pounds. He was so mentally and physically exhausted he barely moved for two weeks after his publicity tour ended.
How representative is this experience for the average person? Does it represent you? I can tell you it’s not representative for me. My maintenance calories for my current weight is 2800. I need to eat 2800 (more or less) calories to stay at my weight. Danny Cahill’s calorie deficit was bigger than my entire diet. I would have to eat negative calories to have a deficit that big. My current exercise regimen is a 30-45 minute weightlifting workout 3 times a week plus an hour walk the other four days a week. So in an average week, I’m spending less than 7 hours consciously exercising—less than Danny Cahill did in a single day.
I’ve lost 26 pounds recently on the exercise regimen I described above and eating a thousand calorie deficit (1800 calories per day). Once a week, I would do a “refeed” day where I ate closer to 2800 calories. I eat chocolate every day. I drink milk most days (raw, grass fed, full fat milk). I have bread, pasta, steak, birthday cake. I have ice cream on occasion. I even had half of a Miller’s Alehouse “Captain Jack’s buried treasure” (an ice cream/Oreo/Heath bar pie served over hot fudge). I just had to plan my calorie intake for the day accordingly. Compare that to the draconian diets of the BLC described in the article.
I, in no way, feel deprived. Nor have do I have binge cravings (which I have had in the past under different weight loss plans). I could live like this the rest of my life if I had to. When I reach my goal weight of 175 pounds, if I wanted to maintain that weight, I’d need to eat more or less 2600 calories per day.
The point is that my weightloss plan is 1) enjoyable, 2) sustainable, 3) when I reach my goal, I get to keep doing what I’m doing but have more ICE CREAM!!!!
But Danny Cahill’s metabolism is 800 calories less than normal!!!
Okay, fair enough. If my metabolism were that much slower, I’m sure it would be vastly harder to maintain my weight loss. However, I don’t think that will be the case for a number of reasons. The first is that generalizable word again. My 1-2 pounds a week weight loss with minimal effort is not comparable in any way to Danny Cahill’s except in the direction of weight. He lost more than half his bodyweight. I’m planning on losing less than 18% of my max bodyweight. Moreover, once I’m done losing the weight, I’m planning on bulking (purposefully eating more calories than maintenance to build muscle). I’m fairly certain that my increased muscle mass will help boost my metabolism preventing me from sharing Danny’s fate.
The second reason I don’t think that I will share the same fate that I am eating a fairly high amount of carbohydrates, 35-45% of my diet is carbohydrates, which helps to boost leptin levels. Leptin is a hormone (secreted by your fat cells of all things) that helps promote satiety and weight loss. The contestants of BLC all had much lower levels of leptin even years after the contest was over.
But even if my leptin is low, and my metabolism is permanently damaged, I still don’t think it will be to the same magnitude as the BLC contestants. The contestants with the highest weightloss had the lowest metabolisms and leptin levels, so the effect is proportional. As a ratio of fat lost, Danny lost 239 pounds, with 3500 calories to a pound. So his ratio is 800:836500 calories or around 1:1000. My total fat lost will be 37×3500 = 129,500. So proportionately, I might expect to burn 140 calories less per day. I’m pretty sure I can handle that. Maybe the ratio is based on initial weight, and not weight loss. In that case, he weighted 430 pounds, so 430:800 or 1:1.86. So for me, starting out at 212 pounds, I could expect 394 calories fewer in a day. That’s significantly higher, but still doable. After all, I’m eating 1800 calories a day and losing weight, so if I had to do maintenance minus 400 calories, that would still be 2200 calories a day (400 more than I’m currently eating).
Now, there’s a very good chance that I’m not representative of you, but chances are much higher that your more similar to me than you are to Danny Cahill or any of the other BLC participants.
But he’s got a PhD from Harvard!!!!! You just have a PhD from University of Florida.
He’s a Doctor! And you’re just a Nurse!!! Actually, some of the researchers cited in the article are medical doctors while others have PhDs in related fields like physiology. The most important thing to remember is that science is not exact, and scientists are not perfect. There are huge gaps in what we know. In fact, one of the researchers actually says this in the article:
He cautioned that the study was limited by its small size and the lack of a control group of obese people who did not lose weight. But, he added, the findings made sense.
“This is a subset of the most successful” dieters, he said. “If they don’t show a return to normal in metabolism, what hope is there for the rest of us?”
Still, he added, “that shouldn’t be interpreted to mean we are doomed to battle our biology or remain fat. It means we need to explore other approaches.”
The unscientificness (is that a word?) of that middle line is simply astounding. The only sense in which this group of “dieters” were successful is in the sheer number of pounds that they lost. But they were quite literally paid to lose weight. They had professional coaching, and medical staff on hand to deal with overexertion. They were competitors, not dieters. There is simply no relative comparison to an average individual looking to lose 10 – 40 pounds of fat who has to fit whatever he’s doing into his every day life. Or as Greg O’Gallagher (who designed my current workout/diet plan) says, “Fitness should enhance your life, not rule it.”
And another researcher:
“There is a lot of basic research we still need to do.”
Every scientist thinks what they are working on is extremely important, and more than anything else, they want to keep getting paid to do it. I’m not impugning any of the scientists and physicians in the article, but scientists and physicians have been known to be a little, well, unduly enthusiastic about the implications of their research—statins in the water anyone? The article also glosses over some flaws in the research such as only measuring leptin and not “other hormones”. It doesn’t mention what these other hormones are. That’s probably the fault of the author, not the scientists.
Well if you’re so smart, why don’t you explain it?
It seems that most people (in the U.S. anyway) have a tendency to gain weight. For most of us, it’s a pound or two a year. As the article points out, a pound of fat is 3500 calories. There are conveniently 365 days in a year, so 10 extra calories a day will give you about a pound of fat in a year. 20 calories a day will give you 2 pounds of fat in a year. Let that go unchecked for 10 years and you’re 10-20 pounds overweight. Pretty cool huh? The key then is not to let your weight get out of control. If you can stop it after 5-6 pounds, you can lose that weight quite easily and quickly, and then regain it again over the next three years. We really don’t know what the long term metabolic rate effects of this strategy would be. But we can assume based even on the findings of the BLC study that the less weight you have to lose the less impact it will have on your metabolism.
We also know that certain hormones are associated with weight loss while others are associated with weight gain. For example, leptin is associated with weight loss or weight maintenance, while insulin is associated with weight gain. Interestingly, insulin helps build muscle as well as fat, but it’s much easier to build fat than muscle. This is why body builders typically do bulk/cut cycles. During the bulk, they gain both fat and muscle. Then during the cut, they try to lose the fat while trying to preserve the muscle.
As the article pointed out, there is a lot that we don’t know. For example, the field of epigenetics which is the mechanisms of how genes are turned on or off is showing that we may all have fat genes, but some of us have them turned on while others have them turned off. And it’s not necessarily only on/off, but there are degrees of on. And most importantly epigenetics shows that our fat genes can be regulated by environmental events such as overeating or near starvation.
A very interesting finding is that Adenovirus 36 (AD-36) can cause mice that were previously normal to become obese. If we can determine which genes were turned on or off we may be able to reverse engineer the process and cure obesity in humans. Of course there is a chance that we could unleash a Thinner-style curse on the world.
As the Terminator would say…
The future has not been written; there is no fate but what we make.
Don’t let a study that says your body doesn’t want to lose weight stop you from taking control of your health and life. Since I’ve lost weight, I feel tremendously better, snore less, have more energy, am tremendously stronger, and everyone says how much better I look.
And the best part is that it is almost effortless and definitely enjoyable. Okay. It’s not exactly effortless, but compared to doing P90x, it’s effortless. The workouts are strength building (not size building) workouts. That means sets of 4-6 reps with 2-3 minutes of rest in between sets. So most of my time at the gym is spent waiting around. The only “cardio” I do is an hour long walk while I listen to podcasts. The diet does take discipline, but it’s mostly about planning not will power. Because I get to eat foods I like every day, I never feel deprived. I just had to get used to measuring my portions before I eat.
12 years ago, I decided that I should try and look like Brad Pitt in Troy before I turned 40. (He was 40 at the time of filiming.) I’m about to turn 42 and for the first time think I actually have a shot at reaching that goal thanks to flexible dieting and strength training. I highly recommend that you start today. There are tons of free programs out there. Heck. Keep reading this article to get you started.
So where exactly did you get those calorie numbers earlier?
There’s lots of complicated ways to figure out your maintenance calories, but an easy rule of thumb is multiply your bodyweight by 15. So at 186 pounds, my maintenance bodyweight is 186×15 = 2790 calories or 2800 rounded up. If you want to aggressively lose weight, you want a 25% deficit which turns out to be about bodyweight times 10 or 11. You can read a lot more about the specifics of the diet I’m on in my last post.
Using a flexible dieting approach, you can eat whatever you within your calories and protein requirements. You can even break your diet strategically for social purposes (weddings, birthdays, etc.). If you’re looking for a very scientific approach combined with practical advice from coaching clients, I’d recommend looking at Lyle McDonald’s books (note, I get a small commission if you buy through my link):
- Guide to Flexible Dieting (a great introduction to the concept of Flexible Dieting)
- Rapid Fat Loss (a more extreme approach to weight loss meant to be used for a short amount of time; you can see my review of this book here.
- Ketogenic Diet Handbook (Keto diets are all the rage, and although I don’t think they’re especially wonderful, if it helps you stay consistent on the diet, hey, it’s worth doing right?)
As for workouts, I prefer strength training with barbells, and Starting Strength is a great beginner’s program.
- Starting Strength free program
- Starting Strength book with exhaustive discussion of the whys and hows of each exercise in the program.
- Barbell Medicine is a blog and video podcast by two Starting Strength Coaches who are also physicians.
Another good option is Zach Hackerson’s free programs
- Beginner Strength Program
- Hypertrophy program (for the person who’d rather look jacked than be strong)
Still not convinced?
And on that note, I’m signing off. What are you still doing here? Okay, fine. Watch this video you couch potato!