Weight Loss

In a long article this week, The New York Times basically suggested that diet and exercise are not effective strategies for keeping weight off once it’s been lost. Contestants on the eighth season of the reality show The Biggest Loser shed an impressive tonnage. Yet all but one gained weight back in the six years since the show. The reason, the article explains, is that the resting metabolism of the newly thinned person slows and continues to slow, causing them to gain fat.

What strikes me about this piece is its failure to consider how the choices these contestants made might have contributed, or even directly caused, the slowing of their metabolisms and packing on of fat; instead their predicament is chalked up to “biology” (which is rumored to cause cancer, too). Even worse: the go-to response to the findings is that “we need to explore other approaches,” says Dr. David Ludwig, meaning drugs and surgery. I found this bizarre and irresponsible, considering that if you look at the reported approaches of the contestants, they seem—to me, at least—to be a recipe for screwing up your metabolism.

After the show, Danny Cahill—who has gained the most weight of the former contestants—attempted to lose a pound per day. Anyone with experience in this area will tell you this is much, much too fast a weight-loss strategy. You simply can’t lose seven pounds per week in a healthy and sustainable manner. And the way he tried was, frankly, absurd. He ate almost nothing: “one egg and two egg whites, half a grapefruit and a piece of sprouted grain toast” for breakfast, after a 45-minute run and before another 45-minute run, then a nine-mile bike ride and two and half more hours in the gym. First, why would anyone imagine that cutting the micronutrients from your meals—the two egg yolks he dispensed with—might help you lose weight? Second, he was starving himself, eating skinless chicken breast, a cup of broccoli and 10 spears of asparagus for lunch, after all the work just mentioned. This level of caloric restriction, nutrient deprivation, and exercise will cause your body to radically slow the metabolism to preserve itself.

But does the article consider how misguided Cahill’s efforts were? Not at all. It identifies extremely low leptin levels as the cause of the slowing metabolism, but this seems to me to be a consequence, rather than the cause. Leptin is a hormone. Put very briefly, fats like cholesterol help in the production of steroidal hormones, like testosterone. Eating an extremely low-fat, low calorie diet, like Cahill’s, could result in low hormone levels, and I suspect it could also cause low leptin levels (leptin is a hormone).

Finally, from what we’re told Cahill was doing a ton of cardio work but very little strength training. The age-old bias against strength work (which I discuss extensively in Lift) has almost certainly contributed to the obesity epidemic. The issue here is that people like Cahill tend to try to lose weight instead of trying to change their body composition: adding muscle (which might cause weight gain) will help promote healthy hormone levels as well helping to raise or at least stabilize resting metabolic levels. Like crash diets, just doing cardio is a quick but unsustainable strategy for keeping fat off.

What frustrates me about articles like this is that they present a completely unworkable solution to fat loss (here Cahill’s), conclude it doesn’t work, and then start pushing the drugs and the surgeries. Until Cahill starts eating more and vastly better (more fat, more protein, many more vegetables), doing less exercise but with much more strength training, he simply has not tried to keep the fat off in a responsible manner. And until those studying the causes of obesity start considering the strategies that any good coach or practitioner knows will work– meaning a proper diet, not just calorie counting, and serious strength work—they’re part of the problem, not the solution.

4 Comments

  1. Daniel,

    Great post. Putting my pre-order in for Lift now!!!

    I’m a big believer that there are upstream psychological and sociological factors affecting our relationships with food, exercise, and health, in general. The contestants on the Biggest Loser certainly are not a randomly selected group and may deviate from the general population along certain relevant psychological dimensions. Applying lessons learned from the sample of individuals participating in a reality TV show to the general population seems questionable at best. (I haven’t yet (but will!) read the NYT piece. Hopefully they included appropriate caveats.) The only conclusion that I take from this is that reality TV show participation doesn’t guarantee weight loss. Shocker.

    Lastly, I couldn’t agree more that the conclusion that we need to turn to surgery and drugs is both off the mark and dangerous.

    Best,
    Sara

    • Daniel Kunitz Reply

      Really thoughtful, Sara. Thank you! I’m entirely in agreement with you.

  2. I’m glad to read your response to this article. I have spent the past two weeks following the “always hungry” eating plan (I’d love to hear your take on that book) feeling optimistic about weight loss for the first time in decades. After reading the original article I felt hopeless. It seemed like I was doomed to follow the same pattern of loss and regain that I have my entire life. I prefer your perspective.

    • NewFrontier Reply

      I haven’t read the “Always Hungry” book, but I am familiar with its basic approach–and I think it’s very sound. I’d be interested in hearing how it goes for you over several or more months. You are certainly not doomed to follow that pattern of loss and regain. But I do think weight loss is a complex and difficult process that needs to be calibrated to the individual, and it always requires both eating well and getting enough and the right sorts of exercise. I’m going to keep posting on this, since there’s so much to say.

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