Genetics make us fight weight loss!

Our bodies fight to gain back weight after weight loss by lowering our Resting Metabolic Rate (RMR)?

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George Ethridge – New York Times

Obesity and The Biggest Loser On May the 2nd a paper published in the journal “Obesity” caused uproar across the international press, social networks like twitter and Facebook (link above to the actual paper). This paper did a study on previous contestants of the infamous TV show called The Biggest Loser in the US where they report that genetics caused the bodies of contestants fought to gain the weight back! If you follow it on Facebook or Twitter you see numerous people identifying with the contestants, losing hope and using it as an excuse to give up on their weight-loss journeys.

I personally love reality TV and The Biggest Loser is a programme I watch on a regular basis.  Before I started my own weight loss journey three years ago this programme inspired me to take the first step and similar to the contestants in season 8 I have gained some weight back on and my RMR is lower than it should be! So I can relate to the people in the story.

I am also a food scientist though and I realise there is always two sides to the story so I wanted to look into the science a bit more and report it here.


The background

The project on The Biggest Loser contestants was the first to measure what happened to people over as long as six years after they had lost large amounts of weight with intensive dieting and exercise. “It is frightening and amazing,” said Dr. Hall, an expert on metabolism at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, which is part of the National Institutes of Health the. “I am just blown away.”

Researchers know that just about anyone who deliberately loses weight — even if they start at a normal weight or even underweight — will have a slower metabolism when the diet ends. So they were not surprised to see that “The Biggest Loser” contestants had slow metabolisms when the show ended.

What shocked the researchers was what happened next: As the years went by and the numbers on the scale climbed, the contestants’ metabolisms did not recover. They became even slower, and the pounds kept piling on. It was as if their bodies were intensifying their effort to pull the contestants back to their original weight.

Mr. Cahill (a contestant from Season 8) was one of the worst off. As he regained more than 100 pounds, his metabolism slowed so much that, just to maintain his current weight of 295 pounds, he now has to eat 800 calories a day less than a typical man his size. Anything more turns to fat.


Biological Reality Fights back!

The struggles the contestants went through help explain why it has been so hard to make headway against the nation’s obesity problem, which afflicts more than a third of Irish adults. Despite spending millions on weight-loss drugs and dieting programs, even the most motivated are working against their own biology.

Their experience shows that the body will fight back for years. And that, said Dr. Michael Schwartz, an obesity and diabetes researcher who is a professor of medicine at the University of Washington, is “new and important.”

“The key point is that you can be on TV, you can lose enormous amounts of weight, you can go on for six years, but you can’t get away from a basic biological reality,” said Dr. Schwartz, who was not involved in the study. “As long as you are below your initial weight, your body is going to try to get you back.”


A Critical Analysis of the Paper and Results

I am still holding off judgement on this paper and the results it is portraying. While this is a study looking at a group of TV contestants it does not reflect what happens in reality. In the show the contestants are on a very tight calorie controlled diet and are exercising up to 9hrs a day! In the real world we are not subjecting our bodies to that and it is a much more gradual process. Through normal dieting (up to 1-2lbs a week) our bodies can adjust more easily and it is not as much of a shock.

One of the best ways to increase your RMR is to build muscle. With severe weighloss often muscle is depleted as well as fat and that is one of the reasons why your RMR drops. By eating high protein and low complex carbs and with the right exercise plan you can regularise your RMR. The contestants in the show often say that once the show is finished they have to fend for themselves without the proper skills or techniques. It is easy for them to see the weight rising and panic and start to reduce their calorie intake even more which in turn drives their RMR down.

  • The big thing for me that was missing from the Biggest Loser study was control! Controlling the variables is very important and there is no evidence of that in this paper.
  • The contestants may have been starving themselves as they knew they were being studied.
  • There is no control group that have not gone through the programme to compare the results with.
  • There was no comparison with other types of diets that are more sustainable

Obesity and weight loss is a very complex area to study and what works for one person may not work for another. My advice I would give is to:

Be more aware of your calorie intake and your exercise. You don’t need to reduce your food intake or run a marathon to lose weight. Simple changes work best. Walk up the stairs instead of taking the lift, listen to your hunger and be aware of your hunger level.

Don’t confuse hunger and boredom.

Don’t reduce calorie intake massively and be aware of the calories you are using and where they come from. You could eat a fast food meal and still be hungry after taking in 900 calories or you could eat a home cooked stew or curry and not be able to finish it a 600 calories!

Eat as close to natural as possible and make as many meals as possible yourself from raw ingredients.

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