Is All Weight Loss Doomed to Failure?
In the past few weeks, the publication of an article in the journal Obesity has set social media's reaction rhetoric ablaze. A team of researchers conducted a cohort study of fourteen former participants of the NBC show weight loss competition The Biggest Loser, tracking and monitoring their efforts to retain their weight loss from the show over a six-year period.
The findings appeared bleak. Almost all of the contestants either regained the weight they had lost on the show, or came very close. And despite having endured a twelve-week festival of masochism sponsored by dangerously low hypocaloric conditions and Subway, not only were they overweight again, their metabolisms had slowed by around 20 percent, meaning weight loss efforts for the future had a disadvantage from the off.1
Many media outlets have insinuated that The Biggest Loser study is a proof of the futility of fat loss. From their reporting, it seems like if you’re overweight and want to change, it's best you save yourself the effort and give up now.
Is Weight Loss Really Doomed to Failure?
It's hard not to scratch my eyes out reading those reports. If you're familiar with my writing, you'll know that I reserve a particularly distilled brand of cynicism for scientific study reviews that take a unilateral view on complex human processes. It irritates me enough when a multifactorial problem is shot at with a circumstantial solution, but more so when the resulting theory is overblown by sensationalist journalists who should be more responsible.
What is true about the reports is that weight regain is extremely common after dieting.
Scientific literature strongly supports what is known as set point theory: the theory that your bodyweight is regulated by a central controller located in the hypothalamus in the brain.2 Set point theory posits that if your weight significantly fluctuates, your brain employs certain mechanisms to bring the bodyweight back down and reestablish homeostasis.
The main mechanism the brain deploys is to upregulate your hunger hormone, ghrelin. A dieter on the rebound will also crave calorically dense food such as pizza, burritos, and ice cream as the brain encourages as much energy surplus as possible to put the weight back on.3 To compound the effect of this, a dieter usually has a residually slow metabolism as a result of a habitually low caloric intake.
The result? The weight piles back on.
But Here's the Good News
Whilst it's true your body notices when it has lost weight, the literature also shows that your brain recognizes its new bodyweight after a certain period of time, and your brain's adjustment to your new set point can be as little as three months after the termination of dieting. After this time, the brain begins to recognize the body mass you're carrying around as normal, and stops trying to get you to regain weight.4
How do I know this? Because I recently had to battle with the phenomenon myself. After losing 11kg to drop to the -69kg weight class, I began eating normally again almost straight away after my diet ended, regained 3kg and panicked when I couldn't seem to put the brakes on in the months afterward. After hitting 74kg, I hired the best nutritional support I could find and worked with him for four months to stabilize my bodyweight. It took a lot of monitoring, but my weight has been stable again for the past eight weeks, and my eating is back up to what it was pre-diet, with 6kg of my previous fat loss still intact.
Failure Is Not Inevitable
The bottom line is that proven strategies exist to mitigate the set point theory effect. Gradually reintroducing calories, monitoring your bodyweight with an app like Happy Scale to keep an objective log of your weight, getting appropriate support, and making sure you're keeping active all go a long way to successfully maintaining your new bodyweight. Nutritional companies such as Precision Nutrition and Renaissance Periodization also have some great online resources on the why and how of implementing maintenance periods.
Your brain's set point mechanisms to maintain your bodyweight are evolutionary strategies designed to help you survive famine. The Biggest Loser study is an example of these mechanisms at work, but a more finite example of how the show enforces extreme fat loss with very little support post-production to help the participants maintain it.
If you've got an inspired and healthy weight loss goal, diet on. Despite what the reports say, weight loss really isn't doomed to failure.
1. Erin Fothhergill, et al., "Persistent metabolic adaptation 6 years after the 'Biggest Loser' competition," Obesity (2016): doi:10.1002/oby.21538
2. RB Harris, "Role of set-point theory in the regulation of body weight," FASEB 4(1990): 3310-3318.