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There have been many questionable reality shows on television, particularly in the early 2000s. One especially notable show was The Biggest Loser. The premise behind this show was to take clinically obese contestants, break them into teams, train them hard and monitor their restrictive diets to lose weight. The team and the person who lost the highest body fat percentage won a cash prize.
For 30 weeks, each contestant dedicated 90 minutes in the gym six times a week. None of those 90 minutes seemed pleasant. In the show, trainers yell at the contestants in the gym, forcing them to exercise to exhaustion. They even had last-chance workouts, which were often physically and mentally gruelling, and occurred just before their weigh-ins to squeeze their weight below their fellow contestants. This is all while limiting their calorie intake to approximately 1200 kcal/day.
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Then, of course, there are those celebrities constantly showing up in much slimmer bodies almost overnight (yes, Kim K, I am looking at you). The message it drives is this: weight loss is a contest of sorts where reaching your goal in minimum time is seen as a fabulous achievement. My heart stops when I think of how this messaging our expectations around weight loss. Take The Biggest Loser, for instance. Viewers saw the contestants lose up to about 10 lbs in the first week, terribly unhealthy as nutrition coaches, such as myself, simply know. Let me reiterate this: the universally accepted guidance is this:1–2-pound weight loss is the healthiest, most sustainable rate to lose weight.
Understandably, everyone wants a quick fix. However, most people will chronically and dramatically underestimate the work and time required to see a transformation. At the same time, they will also overestimate their ability to stick to a gruelling workout plan and restrictive diet. In a cruel twist of fate, this creates the perfect condition to lose motivation, give up on the efforts, go back to their old habits, and regain weight.
I think it’s worth finding out what happened to the contestants after the cameras stopped rolling. Did these contestants keep up their weight loss? To help you answer that question, think of the last time you did an extreme diet or workout program; what happened to you? Did you gain back the weight, perhaps with interest?
If the answer is yes, you may dispute this by saying, “well, I didn’t have a personal trainer that smacked food out of my hand,” or “I just need someone to push me to go harder.” If you’ve been on the extreme dieting roller coaster and have seen nothing but yo-yo numbers on your bathroom scales, this is important for you to read.
Here are some hard truths – the contestants also gained back weight.
On the show, they lost weight but went home to their old lifestyles, old eating habits, and old social support systems – just like you. But on top of that, something strange was occurring inside their bodies – their RMR (resting metabolic rate) and their leptin levels (hunger hormones) were no longer syncing up.
We know this happened because a team of researchers took the baseline data the contestants submitted to the show, and compared it against their results, six years in the future, in a paper called Persistent Metabolic Adaptation 6 Years After the Biggest Loser Competition. The researchers wanted to see how much weight (if any) they regained and what happened to their metabolism.
According to the records, the average contestant before the show was 328 lbs, and 30 weeks later was approximately 199. After six years, however, the average contestant weighed about 290 lbs, a 70% increase in weight.
It’s tempting to blame the individual and say they weren’t strong enough to continue their new lifestyle changes. After 30 weeks of learning from trainers and nutritionists, you would think some lifestyle habits would stick. But this However, bear with me. There are two more things you need to know. The first is their RMR six years on, and the second is how their leptin levels changed.n finishing their 30 weeks, they were registering at about 2. Six years on? Their leptin levels have risen back up to approximately 28.
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What is this showing us? It’s showing us that six years on, their bodies are still burning fewer calories each day, but their hunger cues are likely increasing. To even just maintain their weight, the contestants would have to consistently eat approximately 1900 calories per day or increase their exercise capacity to burn more calories, all while battling signs from their bodies that they are hungry. That’s an infuriating state of being.
I think it’s important to know what happened to the contestants many years on because the show may only highlight its success stories and dramatic transformations. For every success story, there may be hundreds of failed or short-lived attempts that the public will never hear about. As sexy as quick results are, it doesn’t work for everyone, as seen in this study. However, this doesn’t mean your weight loss attempts are in vain; it just means that you must employ a different strategy and foster different skills to enjoy long-term results.
You’ll need skills that you can build over time with practice, such as patience, consistency, self-compassion, and staying positive when the goal seems out of reach. The practical skills you need are understanding when you are hungry, being satisfied after eating (not stuffed), eating slowly and mindfully, and being prepared to take responsibility for your food decisions.
All these small but easy-to-do practices will culminate into a slow-burning fat loss journey, where you lose approximately 1-2 pounds per week. That number may seem small compared to dramatic transformations. However, imagine if you stayed the course for one full year; that could be a 50+ pound weight loss. Staying the course and being consistent will also make it easier for your body to adapt to these physiological changes and make it possible for you to keep weight off – for good.
Jen Thomas is a Chennai-based weight loss coach
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