Weight Loss Yo-Yoing: Are Biggest Losers Doomed to Be Biggest Gainers?

Biggest loser

Lose some pounds, then gain some pounds is an all too familiar pattern for many. Yet, stories in People’s annual issue about adults who lost half their weight capture readers’ attention and television reality shows the depict diet journeys inspire hope. However, new research suggests that “The Biggest Losers” may be doomed to weight loss yo-yoing and boomeranging back to become the biggest gainers because of metabolic adaptation.

A study published this month in the journal “Obesity” followed contestants from the television show “The Biggest Loser” suggests that once the cameras stopped rolling, the pounds were destined to come back. With viewers routing them on, the once severely obese contestants lose significant amounts of weight (generally about 100 pounds) with a strict diet and workout regime. The research study followed a group of them for six years after the cameras stopped rolling, and the pounds started coming back because the program messed with their metabolism. The scientists also looked at the long-term effects of bariatric surgery on patients’ weight.

The researchers followed 13 pairs of dieters. Each pair consisted of a former “Biggest Loser” contestant and a bariatric surgery patient, who were matched for gender, age and weight.

The study was not trying to determine if people burn fewer calories after losing weight, because that is known. Those who lose considerable amounts of weight pay a metabolic penalty for some time afterwards because their bodies are not used to their new shape and nutrient requirements.

The brain establishes a point it is used to as the correct weight and food intake for each person. As a result, when someone who was regularly 150 pounds and drops to 90, the brain goes into starvation mode trying to return the body to its normal weight.

That is what also happens when someone on the television show starts at 300 pounds and loses 100 pounds. Their metabolism gets slower and they have to eat fewer calories than someone else who weighs 200 pounds to maintain the poundage loss. The “Biggest Losers” TV contestants had a metabolism penalty of more than 400 calories more than half a year after finishing the show (That means they had to eat more than 400 fewer calories than other 200 pound people to maintain the new weight.)

By contrast, the surgery patients had a much smaller metabolism penalty. After six months, they only required about 200 fewer calories than someone else at their new weight and some studies show that the penalty diminished further on.

Most weight-loss plans require changing one’s food and exercise behaviors in a manner that cannot be maintained for life. However, the brain/metabolism response for those who go on special diets makes the weight loss difficult to maintain. Most gain the weight back over the next five years once they return to their normal life and try to eat like before. One reason the surgery patients may have had less of an impact is that their diet did not change to lose the weight; their body did.

Extreme measures may make entertaining viewing, and give people false hope. Those rare people who lose a lot of weight and keep it off do so slowly and steadily by making permanent changes in their diet, such as cutting out added sugars. In the end, all but one of the “Biggest Losers” participants were doomed to the weight loss yo-yoing cycle; they regained much of the weight within six years (half did keep off at least 10 percent) and four of the biggest gainers wound up heavier.

Written and Edited by Dyanne Weiss

Washington Post: 5 reasons we regain weight
Obesity: Persistent metabolic adaptation 6 years after “The Biggest Loser” competition
New York Times: Why You Can’t Lose Weight on a Diet
Washington Post: Why the weight loss study everyone has been sharing is misleading
New York Daily News: The Biggest Losers’ became the biggest gainers, but scientist who studies obesity says there is reason to be optimistic

Photo courtesy of o5com’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons license

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