Why Are The Biggest Losers Gaining So Much Weight?

Metabolism and Obesity

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Basal Metabolic Rate

Why Are The Biggest Losers Gaining So Much Weight?: A Nutritionist Explains

by

Laura L. Rokosz, PhD

My friend Larry asked me what I thought of a NY Times expose on why contestants from The Biggest Loser tend to regain most or all of their lost weight (NY Times ).  The article suggested that this may be due to the extreme exercise and food deprivation tactics that disrupt the basal metabolic rate (BMR), which refers to the number of calories we burn at rest.  Even more troubling is the observation that after returning to their original weight, the contestants’ BMR tends to be significantly lower than when they started the contest.  A related article published in the NY Post (NY Post) implied that this could be due to weight loss drugs given to some, or all, of the contestants.

As a nutritionist I would like to add my two cents describing what I think is driving the weight gain.  A few years ago I interviewed for a position to oversee weight loss studies using extreme calorie restriction.  I am so glad that I never got the job.  After treating over 200 patients in just one year, I can conclusively say that the only way to achieve sustained weight loss without damaging the metabolism is to follow a modest calorie meal plan that leads to no more than a two-pound loss per week.  In order to appreciate this strategy one needs to consider the key drivers of our basal metabolism.

Thyroxine (T4) 

The Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) is largely driven by the thyroid’s ability to make thyroxine (T4), a thyroid hormone essential for enabling us to extract energy from the food we eat.  When the thyroid is underactive we gain weight (among other things) because the food we eat is being stored as fat instead of being efficiently metabolized to make energy.  I therefore, wonder if the contestants on The Biggest Loser were monitored for thyroid hormone function during their weight loss journey. 

Muscle Mass

A second driver of our BMR is muscle mass.  The more muscular you are the more calories you will burn at rest.  Unfortunately, hours upon hours of aerobic exercise will likely lead to a loss of muscle mass, not a gain.  It has been my observation that most folks who lose relatively large amounts of weight in a short period of time are those who are losing muscle mass.  Muscle mass is also something that should be routinely measured when dieting.  In case you are unaware, muscle weighs three times more than fat and so, loss of this tissue type will initially lead to a noticeable loss in weight.  As the BMR declines further we end up on a slippery slope of continued muscle loss followed by weight gain in the form of fat.

Energy Conservation

Finally, as I have told just about all of my new patients dismayed by their body composition, human beings have only had a readily available food supply for about 75 years.  The first grocery store chain only opened some time in the 1940’s.  Prior to that our bodies have only known famine.  As a result, we are exceptionally adept at fat storage needed for survival during periods of food scarcity.  Extreme dieting will only lead to a reduction in metabolism (so, less fat loss) in an effort to conserve energy.

The Winning Strategy
If we have learned anything from The Biggest Loser it is that rapid weight loss can never be a winning strategy.  This may help television ratings but does not improve overall health in any way.  Sadly, the article in the NY Post shared that not only did many of The Biggest Loser contestants NOT improve their health but some also lost their jobs, marriages and mental well-being.  I contend that perhaps a reality show tracking the journey of contestants over the course of one to two years may be more appealing if the outcome is the promise of a lifetime of health and happiness.  Surely, this would be a winning strategy for the contestants and the viewers.
 


 

Bioelectrical Impedance Analysis (BIA) is an excellent tool for monitoring muscle mass and basal metabolic rate

We welcome you to make an appointment for a detailed Body Composition Analysis using BIA.  Book here.

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