Many people are talking about the new study that found that participants in the Biggest Loser TV show generally regain weight that has been lost, and then suffer with a reduced metabolic rate making maintaining their weight extremely difficult . The researchers focused on changes in resting metabolic rate (RMR) that occurs as a result of weight loss. This phenomenon is called “metabolic adaptation” or “adaptive thermogenesis.” The results of the study indicated that the participant’s RMR was decreased by about 500 calories a day by the end of the show’s competition and that this metabolic adaptation persisted six years later. Therefore, to simply maintain a stable weight they would have needed to eat an average of 500 calories a day less than they had before the show began! The show’s format and goals are hurting its participants!
At Atlanta Center for Eating Disorders, we have been trying to get this message out for over 20 years. This is not a new concept, but as a culture, we strongly resist accepting it. Diets don’t work and it’s not because of a lack of willpower but because of what is sometimes referred to as “starvation syndrome,”  which is a series of neurophysiological changes that occur when the body takes in less nutrition than it expects. These changes occur regardless of the size of the person before the dieting occurred (that is whether the person has anorexia nervosa or is severely overweight as in the TV show).
Basically, the brain does not know the difference between a diet and a famine, thus when there is a reduction in calories taken in, many protective neurological changes take place. These include hormonal changes resulting in lowered RMR  meaning that calories (energy) is not released as easily, leading to fatigue and cognitive changes which lead to an obsessive preoccupation with food, and neurophysiological changes in dopamine and other neurotransmitters  that are associated with how we respond to rewards. Thus the body is trying to burn fewer calories while simultaneously making food more interesting and rewarding.
That is a disaster for even the most motivated dieter!
So what’s the answer? It is unclear in the research if there are permanent ways to lose below your set point, which is different for everyone. But we do know that if you attempt to lose weight, you would have to do it so slowly that your body doesn’t catch on, so to speak.
Try the following instead:
1) Stop dieting. Your body’s response will likely lead to weight gain.
2) Develop a lifestyle that is full of variety in activity and food choices.
3) Don’t ever wait until you lose weight to do something that you would enjoy doing.
4) When you eat, choose nutritious, satisfying and (dare I say it?) fun foods and eat it all mindfully.
5) Fully enjoy what you eat and you will know when you are satisfied and can move on to other activities; a lack of hunger leads to a reduction in food related thoughts.
6) Honor eating as something that is needed and enjoyable (which paradoxically makes it less needed). Honoring a meal means turning off the TV, sitting at a table, eating at a relaxed pace with appreciation rather than guilt.
7) Recognize that health can come in all sizes.
8) Don’t make comments about other people’s weight; it’s none of your business and they may be eating less than you!
9) Appreciate your body for what it can do for you.
10) Don’t buy into our culture’s myth that appearance is the most important thing about you and recognize it as only one of the unique aspects about who you are.
1) Fothergill, E, Guo, J., Howard, L., (2016). Persistent metabolic adaptation 6 years after “The Biggest Loser” competition Obesity: A Research Journal. Article first published online: 2 MAY 2016
2) Todd Tucker, The Great Starvation Experiment: The Heroic Men Who Starved So That Millions Could Live, Free Press, A Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc., New York, New York, ISBN 978-0-7432-7030-4, 2006.
3) Rosenbaum M, Hirsch J, Gallagher DA, Leibel RL (2008) Long-term persistence of adaptive thermogenesis in subjects who have maintained a reduced body weight. Am J Clin Nutr. Oct;88(4):906-12.
4) Aveno NM, Bocarsly ME, Rada P, Kim A, Hoebel BG.(2008) After daily bingeing on a sucrose solution, food deprivation induces anxiety and accumbens dopamine/acetylcholine imbalance. Physiology Behav. Jun 9;94(3):309-15. doi: 10.1016/j.physbeh.2008.01.008. Epub 2008 Jan 16.