In the recent April New York Times article, After “The Biggest Loser” their bodies fought to regain weight, they focus on what it means to keep off weight for individuals in the long term, who are currently overweight and/or trying to stop weight gain. The premise of the article is how the biology of these contestants does not allow ”people” to keep the weight off. This has been getting a lot of attention. Many clients have been discouraged that they shouldn’t even try to lose weight because this study says that your body will gain the weight back no matter what you do.
This is simply not true. The first point is do you, or even most of the population compare with the average “Biggest Loser” Contestant from Season 8. Let’s look at a common measure to “compare” people which is the Body Mass Index (BMI) ( also used as a health screening tool). The BMI number is a calculated ratio of your weight and height, and is correlated to all causes of death and disease that are caused by various health risks such as high blood pressure, heart disease and type II diabetes to name a few.
According to BMI research, you are in the healthy range if your BMI falls between 18 to 24, considered at health risk by being “overweight” from a BMI of 25 to 29, considered at significant health risk by being “obese” from from a BMI of 30 to 39 and then at high health risk or “morbidly obese” if it’s 40 or higher. Most people get this calculated at their primary care physical or appointment. If you haven’t and are curious, we can calculate this for you.
The contestants on Season 8 of “the Biggest Loser”, that were included in this study, had an average BMI of 49.5 (morbidly obese and estimated at less than 1 in 40 adults). The average male contestant weighed in at 430 pounds and the average woman at 250 pounds. These were very heavy people. The total number of contestants that were followed up and in the study was small. 14 of 16 competitors participated. This means they are a very small subset of the population at the extreme end of weight gain and is unlikely to represent you.
The “Biggest Loser” competition show runs for 30 weeks or 7.5 months. At the end of Season 8 the contestants lost an average of 230 pounds or an astounding (not to mention good for ratings) 7.6 pounds per week. (clearly the men lost more and the women lost less). How did they do this? The participants were calorie restricted and relied on steady state aerobic exercise, and a lot of it, burning around 8,000 calories a day. They also performed some resistance training.
With this type of steady state aerobic activity, the body adapts and loses high power muscle fibers and develops aerobic or low power muscle fibers. (Think of the difference in appearance of a marathon runner and a sprinter). If that wasn’t bad enough, across the board repeated studies of weight loss shows that 20 to 25% of the weight lost is lean muscle tissue along with the fat. So not only did these contestants lose high power muscle fibers by the work outs, the fact that they were losing weight in this rapid, restricted manner, was also contributing to the loss of lean muscle tissue. The average competitor on Season 8 of “The Biggest Loser” lost 19% body fat, and a significant amount of lean muscle. At the start of the show the average man weighed 430 lbs with 212 lbs in fat and 218 pounds of lean muscle. During the 30 weeks the average male participant lost 156 lbs of fat and 74 pounds of lean tissue. This loss of lean muscle is a horrific 32% of the total weight loss. Perhaps more staggering is the thought that when these individuals gained back weight it comes back as fat and not as lean metabolically active muscle tissue that they had before. A huge tragedy for the contestants and brings us to one of the biggest points of this article and study
One of the main points of the NY Times article was the drop in their Resting Metabolic Rate (RMR). RMR is the amount of energy required to be alive. The RMR of the participants significantly decreased over 30 weeks, and this drop left them more prone to gain weight after the competition ended. We know that the best way to decrease RMR is by 1) steady state activities, 2) severe caloric restrictions, 3) rapid loss of weight and 4) loss of lean muscle tissue. These contestants were not doomed by their physiology but in our opinion by the methods used to lose the weight. Unfortunately, this approach is what gets all the hype because it can drop weight fast but it will not last!
Lastly, it is clear from reading the article and the study that a number of these participants speak of an emotional disturbance throughout their life with their relationship with food. The show provides a great comradery and support system with individuals who have a shared experience while on the show and a lot of encouragement and support. However, without emotional and behavioral counseling, the years of emotional upheaval surrounding body weight and food intake will likely continue to plague these individuals as they struggle with their relationship with food especially after the show ended and the focus on them had faded. This study in our estimation only shows that there is no way you can ever work your way out of a bad diet and that you must address the behaviors that affect you and your relationship with food for long term success. (Along with a whole lot of concern about the methods used.)
At the Well Effect® we specialize in instructing and guiding individuals in all these areas with a proven record of long term success. Our Soma Science℠ approach to body transformations is a scientifically effective and efficient approach as we help people becoming healthier with weight loss. We teach you how to participate safely with strength training and interval training that maintains and builds lean body muscle mass while losing weight to help maintain and improve your metabolic rate. Implicit in our Soma Science℠ approach is that body transformations can not be done with exercise alone and we use our expertise to examine your food choices and help you manage your food intake so the you can “Eat like you want to weigh”™.