How to Avoid the Biggest Loser Phenomenon

Everyone is talking about the so-called “Biggest Loser” study. In case you missed it, the study tracked the progress of 14 contestants on the Biggest Loser reality show, each of whom lost a massive amount of weight over the course of several months on the show.

Six years later, all but one of the contestants has regained a significant amount of weight. Four are now heavier than before the show began. However, as the study demonstrated, this was not simply a failure of will power. It was in large part due to the fact that the contestants’ metabolisms are now dramatically slower than they were before they lost the weight. Even when they stick to the number of calories that “should” allow them to maintain a lower weight, they gain weight anyway.

As I read the article, I had a strong sense of deja-vu. This is essentially the same finding that different researchers published in the New England Journal of Medicine five years ago. What I wrote in response back then applies equally to this latest study: This research really shows is that dieting is counter-productive–and that extreme dieting is extremely counter-productive.

As the Biggest Loser contestants have learned the hard way, when you lose a lot of weight in a short period of time, it can do serious and lasting damage to your metabolism. And although the composition of your diet (that is, how much protein, fat, and carbohydrate you eat) can also affect your metabolic rate, those relatively modest effects are dwarfed by the impact of rapid weight loss on metabolism.

But this doesn’t mean that there is no hope for those who want or need to lose weight. I’ve got four strategies that could help prevent the worst of the damage–and might even help restore metabolisms that have already damaged by rapid weight loss.

1. Lose weight slowly. I know this isn’t going to be popular advice because most people want to lose weight as quickly as possible. But as this latest study reminds us, rapid weight loss creates long-term hormonal and metabolic changes in your body that make it extremely difficult for you to maintain that hard-won weight loss.

The approach I outlined here may in fact be the slowest “diet” you’ve ever been on, but it’s sustainable. One reason it’s sustainable is that slow weight loss is less likely to trigger the sort of catastrophic metabolic collapse that we see in the Biggest Losers. The other reason is that this approach focuses on permanent shifts in behaviors and habits rather than short term dieting tricks.

2. Rethink your goal. If you are very overweight, your “ideal” weight might be higher than the ideal weight for someone who has never been overweight. Remember that losing even a modest amount of weight–say, 5 to 10% of your body weight–can deliver enormous benefits in terms of improving your health and reducing your disease risks, even if you remain significantly overweight.

Losing a small amount of weight and keeping it off will do far more good (and far less metabolic damage) than losing a large amount and gaining it back.

3. Consider calorie cycling. I’ve previously suggested this approach, in which you alternate between higher and lower calorie days, as a way to break through a weight loss plateau. I think it also has the potential to prevent or even help restore a damaged metabolism.

4. Try weight loss intervals. I’m sure you’ve heard about interval training. It’s one of the most effective ways to exercise and it involves alternating short bursts of intense effort with longer “recovery” intervals. I’d like to propose something similar: Weight loss intervals.

Let’s say you have 40 pounds to lose. Instead of trying to lose all 40 pounds in a single sustained effort, try losing just 5. Then, give yourself a one-month recovery interval, where you focus simply on maintaining your new lower weight. Then, start your next weight loss interval. Yes, this will take a bit longer than other methods. (Are you beginning to see a pattern here?)

Researchers have found that dieters who practice weight maintenance strategies before starting their weight loss program are far more successful in keeping the weight off. One thing I like about the concept of weight loss intervals is that it gives you lots of practice at weight maintenance…something that is so often missing from our weight loss strategies. With any luck, it’ll also keep your metabolism from freaking out.

Does the Biggest Loser study prove that weight loss is futile? I don’t believe it does. But it certainly offers a road map for how not to go about it.

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