Well, the health & wellness sector of the internet world blew up this week over the Biggest Loser study. In case you missed it, researchers looked at contestants from Season 6 of the Biggest Loser. They wanted to know how their resting metabolic rate (how many calories burned when at rest) changed in the years following the show. Fourteen of the 16 show contestants participated. In addition to resting metabolic rate, the scientists also tested leptin levels. (Leptin is a hormone that tells the brain when you are full- high leptin means you feel full, low leptin means you feel like you are starving. Got it? That will be important later.) The researchers tested all this before the show, at the finale, and 6 years after. What they found was pretty shocking- aaaaaaand not shocking all at the same time.
The shocking results
All but ONE contestant regained most of their weight back Not only that, but they now burn way less calories than they should for their size – on average, 500 calories less. Not only that, but their leptin levels tanked. At the show’s finale, their leptin levels were rock bottom (read that- STARVING). At the 6 year mark, their leptin levels had risen, but only to half of what they were at the beginning (read that- ALWAYS HUNGRY).
So these poor people were left hungry and burning way less than they should. It’s no wonder they regained. How do you fight that? It’s heartbreaking, no doubt- the Biggest Loser has made my stomach turn for years- producers putting up photos in the house of contestants’ thighs and love handles in order to shame them to exercise over 7 hours a day with fewer than 1,000 calories, Jillian Michaels screaming that she will break their bones if they don’t stay on their treadmills, teasing them with their favorite foods. I know it’s voluntary, but it’s shocking we can treat other human beings this way. ANYWAYS- not only is it heartbreaking, but now it seems it wasn’t even worth it.
Why it’s not really so shocking
Is it really that shocking that exercising 7 hours a day on less than 1,000 calories is damaging to your body? It doesn’t take a rocket scientist (or nutrition scientist) to figure out that SOMETHING SOMEWHERE in your body is going to be affected. Still, I’m so glad this study came out…
Sometimes we have to see things in the extreme to see how our smaller, “nicer” versions of it are damaging. You may not be working out for hours on only a few hundred calories, but how many times have you gone to bed hungry after eating your “healthy dinner” wishing you could get back to your college weight?
What it really tells us
In the NYT article “After ‘The Biggest Loser,’ Their Bodies Fought to Regain Weight“, Dr. David Ludwig, and obesity researcher is quoted as saying,
“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 media has looked at this, though, and only focused on the first two lines. We are sunk. There is no way you can be healthy if you’ve already started gaining weight. You are helpless.
But, is that really what this study tells us? I’d argue a resounding, professional Heck, no! It tells us crash diets don’t work.
In fact, one thing the media hasn’t really seemed to mention is something in the Discussion section of the study. They have found that patients who have had gastric bypass surgery (which in 95% of cases I’m not for, but still) do not see this same problem of burning fewer calories than they should be. This tells me that it’s the method of weight loss, not the fact of weight loss itself.
Well, what do we do now?!
Realize that as unglamorous as it may be, slow and steady (and consistent and long term) wins the race. Eat more vegetables. Pull in the reins on the sugar (there’s no reason we need a treat EVERY day). Make healthy (not crazy restrictive) your norm. And if you don’t see anything after a few weeks, tweak (don’t quit).
You can read more in my earlier post on Dishin’ called “THE TRUTH ABOUT HEALTHY EATING.”