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The Sad Story of why “The Biggest Losers” Can’t Win


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By now, you’ve likely heard about the New York Times cover story documenting the aggressive weight regain seen in nearly all contestants on the show “The Biggest Loser” (definitely worth the read if you haven’t read the article).

I won’t rehash the entire article, but I think it’s important to point out a few keys stats:

  • On average, contestants regained 70% of the weight they lost on the competition (regaining an average of 90lbs)
  • Contestants’ metabolic rates were reduced an average of 500 calories per day (more on that in a second)
  • Body fat percentage (which is basically what people see when they look in the mirror) had dropped to an average of 28% by the end of the competition. At a six year follow-up point, body fat percentage had increased back to 45% (starting body fat was 49% on average, so visually each contestant was basically back to where they started)

Ok, WOW… Are we reading that right? 
Alright, enough doom and gloom, I know – you get it. Clearly an extreme program like “The Biggest Loser” isn’t healthy, and I think deep down we all know that. Interestingly however; In spite of our rational minds, many of us put ourselves in a very similar situation to what these contestants found themselves in.

The Body’s Resistance to Change
The body has several protective systems in place to limit change. One area your body is particularly good at is throwing a wrench into weight loss. Your body doesn’t necessarily know weight loss is good for it, if anything your body perceives it as a very real threat to its survival, and responds accordingly.

The Body’s Response to Weight Loss
As soon as weight loss begins, three key events happen:
Metabolic Rate Drops. Put simply, you give your body fewer calories, it will use fewer calories. Your metabolic engine basically becomes more efficient. Activities, exercise, and even keeping your organ systems functioning all will require fewer calories when you attempt to lose weight (for more on this go here).

Hormonal changes in the body result in a great urge to eat. When you start losing weight, your body ramps up its “hunger” hormone (called ghrelin), and reduces your fullness hormone (called leptin). The net effect of this is your body is driven to consume more calories, which isn’t necessarily great, given your body is burning fewer calories.

Your body makes food more pleasurable (yes, that’s actually true). Your body will increase levels of dopamine (the make you happy neurotransmitter) when eating. The more tasty the food, the greater the dopamine response, the greater the pleasure. In fact, some research has demonstrated brain scans of gambling addicts while gambling and compared them to dieters eating their favorite foods. On comparison, these brain scans will often look the same.

Is all Hope Really Lost?

So, quick review…you want to lose weight, you start doing more and eating less and your body says “I’ll show you, I’ll reduce your calories burned and I’ll make you want to eat more by making you more hungry, less full, and by making food actually taste better.” Harsh! Your body must have held a grudge for the hell you put it through back in undergrad years! This is certainly a sobering concept, it’s a wonder we lose any weight at all.

Okay, at this point you’re probably thinking you’re doomed – you’re never going to lose weight and keep it off. However, quite the opposite is true. It just requires the right approach, mindset, and game plan. In part 2 of this blog we’ll talk about the steps you can follow to be a winner on your weight loss journey.

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Thanks for reading!

Michael Stack, CEO and Exercise Physiologist



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