That’s underpromising and overdelivering at its finest. There’s not only one easy step to destroying your metabolism, but one word: diet.
This is what we can learn from the strangest of places: television. From The Biggest Loser.
Here’s the plot. A group of otherwise average, very fat people, arrive at a compound. They’re greeted with niceties, then the dogs come out. The dogs in this case are celebrities cast in the roles of mostly mean, occasionally-sensitive-in-a-passive-aggressive-way “wellness professionals”. They immediately put the show’s participants on very-low-calorie diets and start force-exercising (the exercise version of force-feeding) them. It’s the exact opposite process of turning a baby cow into veal, but arguably as cruel and stupid. Drama ensues. And, yes, the participants lose weight. A ton of weight. Over the course of the six months of the show, the participants went from an average of 325 pounds to an average of 200 pounds.
Then the credits rolled, the advertisers collected their millions, everyone went home, and fans left inspired: “I’m going to do that.”
But the plot thickens. Thankfully some of the nerds from high school made it to adulthood as scientists, physicians, and researchers and they have another story to tell that goes a bit deeper than the always-shallow story told by vapid Hollywood types. These researchers decided to conduct a study and poke and prod the participants. They studied them for the six-month duration of the show and for the six years following the show. (1) What’s the rest of the story?
First, the participants when from an average of 200 pounds at the conclusion of the show to an average of 290 pounds six years after the show. They gained a ton of weight!
What the researchers discovered next is absolutely fascinating. It’s also something you absolutely need to know if you’ve ever lost weight and gained it back. The researchers measured the subjects’ resting metabolic rate throughout the course of the study. Measures of resting metabolic rate were taken before the show began, during the six-month period of the show, at the conclusion of the show, and throughout the six-year period following the show.
Resting metabolic rate is a measure of the energy you burn simply by existing (expressed in kilocalories* per day). If you sat around all day one day, you’d burn this many kilocalories. Before the show (and before the reverse-veal-making began), subjects’ average resting metabolic rates were what could be considered normal. That is, they were in line with gender-matched, age-matched population norms. After the show, subjects’ resting metabolic rates had dropped by about 500 kilocalories per day. This, but itself, wasn’t a starting finding for the researchers, nor should it be for anyone in the know regarding exercise physiology, nutrition, and related sciences. A great deal of previous research has shown us that fast weight loss, diets, and no-pain, no-pain exercise lower a person’s resting metabolic rate. But the general assumption prior to the study on The Biggest Loser participants was that a person’s resting metabolic rate restored itself when the person moved away from such extreme practices and into maintenance reverse-veal-making. This study revealed something staggering!
For the entire six years following the show, subjects’ resting metabolic rate remained 500 kilocalories lower than normal.
Let’s talk about what this means in practical terms. Think of someone you know who’s the same gender as you, and about the same age. If your resting metabolic rate is 500 kilocalories per day lower than his/hers, as far as your metabolism is concerned, you eat a Big Mac every day before even get out of bed without enjoying a morsel of food. Stated another way, the first hour of exercise you do every day only gets you back to having their, normal, decently functioning, metabolism. You have to exercise two hours for every one hour they exercise, in order to live with the same daily energy balance.
In effect, the weigh-loss approach employed on this show, characterized by extreme approaches to the misguided “calories-in, calories-out” model, especially dieting, broke the participants’ metabolisms. Absolutely destroyed their metabolisms. Permanently**. For life**.
That’s what dieting does. It’s why dieters become yo-yo dieters. It’s why people lose weight and gain it back. If effect, the very process that’s helping you lose weight in the short term ensures that you’ll gain weight in the long term.
That’s what “diet gurus” do to you. Like master manipulators, they give you want you want and take it away from you at the same time. Then they blame it on you. These “diet gurus” get to walk around without any blood on their hands. They get to say, “I helped those people. They lost a ton of weight. It’s too bad they weren’t able to keep it off.” Behind closed doors, they’ll blame it on people’s lack of willpower. This after they put their victims in metabolic debt for the rest of their lives. That’s what living with a broken metabolism is: metabolic debt. At best, people carry their broken metabolisms with them like bad credit scores. It’s very hard and it takes a long time to turn things around. At worst, people carry their broken metabolisms with them like felony offenses on their criminal record: forever.
I frequently talk with people who tell me about the weight they lost in the past, often from working with a “wellness professional” or following the program of “wellness professional” via a book or online. One particular conversation stands out above the rest. A woman came to me for coaching. In our first conversation, she declared proudly, “I know how to lose weight: I’ve lost 50 pounds five times.” She really believed she knew how to lose weight. What she couldn’t see was that she had gained 50 pounds six times. Her system was the perfect system for gaining weight!
“Success” has a very low bar in the area of weight loss and for the “wellness professionals” selling weight loss. Consider how you’d judge an engineer who designs bridges. Say an engineer designed a bridge to span a river where you live. He/she does his/her job, the bridge gets built, and it’s the pride and joy of the area. The engineer is featured in our local newspaper as a community hero. Four months after the unveiling, the bridge collapses while people are driving over it and dozens of people die. Because this bridge worked well for four months, do you consider this bridge a success? Do you consider this engineer a success? You probably consider this bridge and this engineer to be epic failures. If this happened near you, and if you knew people affected by this negligence, you’d probably be very angry at this engineer.
Yet people walk into the offices of “diet gurus” every day, hand over their money, and say: “Will you please put me on a diet?” The charlatan smiles his/her fake smile and his/her whitened teeth glisten as he/she tells you about all the people he/she has helped lose weight. He/she even has before and after photos to really hook you. Of course, “after” in this case, refers to after four or five months, not after four or five years. If he/she showed you the collapsed bridge, you’d run away. I’m showing you the collapsed bridge. With science.
Diets should come with a Surgeon General’s warning:
- This diet will suck. It’s completely unnatural to starve yourself.
- The money you spend on this diet will be a waste. You’ll never get it back. Diet’s don’t work. (2)
- In the future, when you start a new diet, you’ll refer to this diet you’re about to go on as stupid.
- If you lose weight on this diet, you’ll gain most of it back. As a result of this diet, you might even end up weighing more than you do now in a few years. (1)
- This diet will slow your metabolism by about 500 kilocalories per day for the rest of your life**. (1)
- This diet will begin or continue your pattern of weight cycling. Weight cycling will shorten your life through cardiovascular disease and/or other ailments related to chronic stress and chronic inflammation. (3-7)
- Even if this diet helped you lose weight and you were able to sustain the weight loss, weight loss, by itself, doesn’t cure ailments, prevent ailments, foster wellness, or increase longevity. (8)
- This diet will increase your chances of developing an eating disorder. (9,10)
- This diet might involve the consumption of diet pills and diet powders. These might be described as natural. Pills and powders aren’t natural. Pills and powders don’t grow on trees. Apples and almonds are natural. Apples and almonds grow on trees.
If you’re angry, it’s justified. You’ve been lied to. In the culture that brought you Santa Claus; weapons of mass destruction; and no-money-down, no-income-verification, adjustable-rate mortgages; all with a straight face; are you really surprised? Nothing in pop culture has been created with your interests in mind. Certainly not any diets.
The good news is you’re out of the cave now. It’s uncomfortable, even painful at first, but there are better ways out here. I use them all the time with my clients. For starters, I teach them to eat based on inclusion rather than exclusion, on nourishment rather than restriction. The learn to eat well and they thrive. You can too. The absolute first step is to ditch the diets. Permanently. For life.
*When referring to the amount of energy in food or the amount of energy burned during exercise or activities of daily living, it’s common to label the units of energy as calories. The scientifically correct label is kilocalories. (If we’re going to hold wellness professionals who teach eating to the same standards as engineers who design bridges, some due diligence is in order.)
**The resting-metabolic-rate data from the study of The Biggest Loser participants shows suppressed resting-metabolic rates for the entire six years following the show with no trend toward improvement. This, combined with the collective body of research on dieting as well as my vast coaching experience, give me the confidence to say that dieting breaks most people’s metabolisms for life. (They can be fixed with a great deal of attention to all aspects of exercising well, eating well, and holistic self-care. Ceasing dieting is absolutely imperative.)
In the references for this article, I’ve added bonus information for you: quotes from the scientists, physicians, and researchers who conducted these studies. Don’t be duped by a charlatan. Empower yourself with science. With truth.
(1) Persistent Metabolic Adaptation 6 Years After “The Biggest Loser” Competition. Obesity, 2016, 24(8), 1,612-1,619.
“We found that despite substantial weight regain in the 6 years following participation in ‘The Biggest Loser’, RMR [resting metabolic rate] remained suppressed at the same average level as at the end of the weight loss competition. Mean RMR [resting metabolic rate] after 6 years was 500 kcal/day [kilocalories per day] lower than expected based on the measured body composition changes and the increased age of the subjects.”
(2) Ineffectiveness of Commercial Weight-Loss Programs for Achieving Modest but Meaningful Weight Loss: Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Journal of Health Psychology, 2017, 22(12), 1,614-1,627.
“This study collates existing evidence regarding weight loss among overweight but otherwise healthy adults who use commercial weight-loss programs. Systematic search of 3 databases identified 11 randomized controlled trials and 14 observational studies of commercial meal-replacement, calorie-counting, or pre-packaged meal programs which met inclusion criteria. In meta-analysis using intention-to-treat data, 57 percent of individuals who commenced a commercial weight program lost less than 5 percent of their initial body weight. One in two (49%) studies reported attrition ≥30 percent. A second meta-analysis found that 37 percent of program completers lost less than 5 percent of initial body weight. We conclude that commercial weight-loss programs frequently fail to produce modest but clinically meaningful weight loss with high rates of attrition suggesting that many consumers find dietary changes required by these programs unsustainable.”
(3) Dieting and Weight Cycling as Risk Factors for Cardiometabolic Diseases: Who Is Really at Risk? Obesity Reviews, 2015, 16(S1), 7-18.
“As the prevalence of diet-induced weight cycling is increasing due to the opposing forces of an ‘obesigenic’ environment and the media pressure for a slim figure (that even targets children), dieting and weight cycling is likely to become an increasingly serious public health issue.”
(4) Weight Science: Evaluating the Evidence for a Paradigm Shift. Nutrition Journal, 2011, 10(9), 1-13.
“Weight cycling can account for all of the excess mortality associated with obesity in both the Framingham Heart Study and the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES). It may be, therefore, that the association between weight and health risk can be better attributed to weight cycling than adiposity itself.”
(5) Medical, Metabolic, and Psychological Effects of Weight Cycling. Archives of Internal Medicine, 1994, 154(12), 1,325-1,330.
“There are stronger and more consistent links between body weight variability and negative health outcomes, particularly all-cause mortality and mortality from coronary heart disease. Weight cycling may also have negative psychological and behavioral consequences; studies have reported increased risk for psychopathology, life dissatisfaction, and binge eating. The bulk of epidemiologic research shows an association of weight variability with morbidity and mortality, although the mechanisms are not clear at present.”
(6) How Dieting Makes the Lean Fatter: From a Perspective of Body Composition Autoregulation through Adipostats and Proteinstats Awaiting Discovery. Obesity Reviews, 2015, 16(S1), 25-35.
“Given the increasing prevalence of dieting in normal-weight female and male among young adults, adolescents and even children who perceive themselves as too fat (due to media, family and societal pressures), together with the high prevalence of dieting for optimizing performance among athletes in weight-sensitive sports, the notion that dieting and weight cycling may be predisposing a substantial proportion of the population to weight gain and obesity deserves greater scientific scrutiny.”
(7) Metabolic Dysfunction Following Weight Cycling in Male Mice. International Journal of Obesity, 2017, 41(3), 402-411.
“Increased internal adipose tissue is strongly linked to the development of metabolic syndrome associated conditions such as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and hypertension. While further work will be required to elucidate the mechanisms underlying the neuronal control of energy homeostasis, these studies provide a causative link between weight cycling and adverse health.”
(8) Long-Term Effects of Dieting: Is Weight Loss Related to Health? Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 2013, 7(12), 861-877.
“We examine whether weight-loss diets lead to improved cholesterol, triglycerides, systolic and diastolic blood pressure, and fasting blood glucose and test whether the amount of weight lost is predictive of these health outcomes. Across all studies, there were minimal improvements in these health outcomes, and none of these correlated with weight change.”
(9) Rigid Vs. Flexible Dieting: Association with Eating Disorder Symptoms in Nonobese Women. Appetite, 2002, 38(1), 39-44.
“These findings suggest that rigid dieting strategies, but not flexible dieting strategies, are associated with eating disorder symptoms and higher BMI [body-mass index] in nonobese women.”
(10) Obesity, Disordered Eating, and Eating Disorders in a Longitudinal Study of Adolescents: How Do Dieters Fare 5 Years Later? Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 2006, 106(4), 559-568.
“Dieting and unhealthful weight-control behaviors predict outcomes related to obesity and eating disorders 5 years later. A shift away from dieting and drastic weight-control measures toward the long-term implementation of healthful eating and physical activity behaviors is needed to prevent obesity and eating disorders in adolescents.”
Remember your mantra for today: NOURISHING MOVEMENT, NOURISHING FOOD, NOURISHING LIFE.
There’s a place below to share your feelings on this article if you’d like. I’d love to hear from you.