The Biggest Loser has been in the news again this week. This time, though, the focus isn’t on the remarkable transformations the contestants experience through a strict low-calorie diet combined with hours of vigorous exercise each day. The results are impressive considering that the average weight loss of the winners is almost 170 pounds, or nearly 50% of their original weight! The show does demonstrate that hard work and dedication do lead to results, and provides inspiration for many viewers who should lose weight themselves.
But what happens when the cameras are turned off? Unfortunately, most of the contestants regain much of the weight they lost during the show and some end up even heavier than they were at the beginning. A new study published last week confirms that this is true and suggests that long-lasting changes to metabolic rate are to blame. But there is more to the story, which is relevant to anyone who has lost weight and gained it back, as I explain in my Health & Fitness Column in the Aiken Standard this week.
The new study followed contestants from season 8 of the Biggest Loser for six years. Only one of the 14 contestants continued to lose weight after the show ended. The others gained back much of the weight they lost and four are heavier than they were previously. The researchers also measured resting metabolic rate which tells how many calories you burn at rest, the majority of your energy expenditure each day. The results show that the metabolic rate of the contestants decreased significantly after the show ended and stayed low for years. The decreased metabolic rate was expected, but the fact that it stayed low for so long was a surprise.
This finding is an important reason why the contestants gained weight back: they were burning hundreds of calories less each day! Considering that a difference as small as 100 calories per day can lead to weight gain over time, it is no surprise the Biggest Losers became big gainers. Even if they were careful to maintain a low calorie diet and exercise every day, weight regain was almost inevitable. This change was so dramatic because of the extreme weight loss; people who lose more reasonable amounts of weight would have a much smaller change in their metabolism.
While the change in metabolic rate is important in explaining weight regain in Biggest Loser contestants, it is far from the only factor. In order to lose weight and keep it off, people need to learn a whole new lifestyle involving what, when, why, and how to eat and exercise. These lifestyle changes are difficult to make and can take months or years to fully adopt. Participating in any weight loss competition, whether that is the Biggest Loser or a team weight loss program at work, leads to quickly losing weight by following and inappropriate diet or participating in exercise that is too intense instead of learning new skills and behaviors. Again, maintaining that weight loss is difficult, to say the least.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that losing weight rapidly, especially under the watchful eyes of doctors, nutritionists, and personal trainers (not to mention millions of viewers), would be difficult to sustain upon returning home without that support. This is consistent with prevailing wisdom that the quicker someone loses weight, the quicker they are likely to gain it back.
The lesson here is that there are powerful biological changes that occur following significant weight loss that make it challenging to keep the weight off. Add to that a focus on losing weight quickly rather than developing long lasting habits only makes it more difficult. Being a “successful loser” requires realizing that the effort must be sustained long after the diet ends.
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