This week, a lot of people forwarded me the New York Times article After ‘The Biggest Loser,’ Their Bodies Fought to Regain Weight. The most common question accompanying the article was basically, “So are we all doomed to stay fat forever?” Well I’m afraid I have good news and bad news. As I’ve said many times before, you’re never doomed and there are ways to successfully maintain a lower weight without constant hunger for the rest of your life. The bad news is that it will always be easier for someone to gain weight that once was overweight than someone that has always been lean.
You can move your set point but you can’t lock it
Let me get the bad news out of the way first, your body does want to return to it’s old weight after weight loss. This isn’t news to anyone that’s successfully lost weight in the past. Once your body establishes a “set point,” it will speed up or slow down your metabolism as necessary to maintain it. It’s why we only gain a pound or two over the holiday season instead of 20, but it’s also why it’s easier to regain weight after a diet than it is to lose it. In time, this set point moves a little and settles closer to the new weight, but I’ll be honest, if you were once overweight, then you never will be able to eat with impunity again.
There are people that seem to have the ability to eat anything and stay lean, but in reality, their appetite regulating mechanisms just work properly. You may watch them down a huge meal, but you likely weren’t around later to see that they didn’t feel like eating much else for the rest of the day. However, even when they do eat an unusual amount of calories in a day (or week) it doesn’t seem to effect them much because as I like to say, those people never “stretched the balloon.” Just like how a balloon that was once inflated is easier to blow back up, a body that was once overweight is easier to reinflate as well. It’s why I tell people that cutting calories for a little while isn’t a realistic goal. You need to change what you eat and you need to do it long-term. Changing the quality of the foods you eat will lead to long-term changes to your blood chemistry, metabolism, and microbiome, and it’s these changes that will result in long-term success. Cutting your calories for a few weeks or months will burn off some pounds, but going back to your old habits will put it right back on (and usually more).
Recovery is a life long process
In a previous article, I compared the difficulties with breaking a drug addiction to those of losing weight, and I want to continue that analogy here. For the average person, a few drinks here or there are meaningless and don’t really amount to any consequences, but to a recovering alcoholic, even one beer after years of sobriety could trigger a downward spiral back into addiction. Is it unfair that an addict can’t even have one beer? Maybe a little, but that’s the reality he now has to live with.
You can see that same frustration with the ‘Biggest Loser’ contestants. They talk about how eating a few chips can lead to downing the whole bag, or how having a few treats can lead to a 3-day binge. While at one time you may have been able to get away with eating clean 60 percent of the time and indulging the other 40, to maintain a lower weight for the long-term, you’ll need to find more clean foods you enjoy so you can get that percentage higher. Unlike addiction recovery, you don’t need to avoid all treats all the time, but you probably will have to significantly limit the ones that trigger binging.
Also like with recovery, every successful day makes it easier to stick with it. It’s true you’ll have to work a little harder, but plenty of research shows that the longer you maintain your new weight, the more likely you are to keep it off. I accept the New York Times article’s assertions that trigger foods lead to binge-eating, but I don’t accept that the only other option is to be hungry all the time. They explained that the participants’ appetite-controlling hormone leptin plummeted after being on the show, so on top of burning less calories each day, they’re now always hungry. The truth is that one of the reasons they were obese in the first place is because they had so much leptin that their bodies stopped listening to it.
This is the part of the article that I think filled people with the most dread. It’s one thing to have to eat healthier now than you did as a kid (that’s just part of growing up), but the idea that the only way to succeed is to be hungry all the time just sounded horrible. It’s also not true. Leptin is an important appetite and metabolism-regulating hormone, but the dysfunction with the contestants’ leptin was not caused by the weight loss, but rather it was leptin resistance that caused their obesity in the first place. I did notice some workout habits that likely caused leptin to plummet unnecessarily, but I’ll get back to that later. First let me explain how leptin should work and how it works backwards in people that are leptin resistant.
The purpose of leptin is to tell your brain (in particular your hypothalamus) how much energy (fat) to store. Evolutionarily speaking, while it was good to store some fat for fuel, too much fat was not advantageous for survival either (it made you the slow one in the pack when the saber tooth tiger came charging). Leptin is actually released from your fat cells. High levels of body fat release high levels of leptin, which tells your brain to stop eating and raise your metabolism to burn off the extra fat stores. Low levels of body fat (and leptin) means that you’re close to starving. To prevent this, your body ramps up your hunger and lowers your metabolism.
In people that are obese, their bodies are flooded with leptin, but just like with insulin resistance, if the system is constantly bombarded by a signal molecule, it eventually stops listening. Even with tons of leptin in the system, the brain thinks starvation is imminent so appetite is not suppressed like it should be and metabolism is actually slowed. Too much leptin contributes to leptin resistance, but so can other factors like inflammation, high triglyceride levels and high-fructose corn syrup. Improving your leptin resistance is one of those blood chemistry improvements that will make it easier to lose weight without starving yourself.
Improve leptin sensitivity
Avoid processed foods: I’ve long bashed processed foods and here is another example where refined sugars and high-fructose corn syrup mess up your blood chemistry and set you up for obesity and chronic illness. Just look to the article on how to structure your meals and you’ll be able to lose weight while satisfying your appetite.
Eat lots of vegetables: We’re only now beginning to understand the importance of the microbiome in regulating our immune system, metabolism, and overall health. Humans may not be able to digest the fiber in vegetables, but the bacteria in your large intestines can. It then turns this fiber into short chain amino acids that strengthen your intestinal lining to shield the rest of your body from invading organisms that make you sick. When these good bacteria don’t get the fiber they need, they turn on you and eat that same intestinal lining. Poking holes in the first line of defense for your immune system allows all kinds of bacterial endotoxins to flood your system and cause inflammation. Eating a good mixture of prebiotic foods like leafy greens and probiotic foods like yogurt will strengthen your microbiome and reduce damaging inflammation.
Take fish oil pills: Fish oil has been shown repeatedly to reduce inflammation throughout the body. This could help aid in improving leptin resistance. In fact, one study found that fish oil supplementations increased both the resting and exercising metabolic rate. There are multiple theories on why it worked, but perhaps reduced inflammation and reduced triglyceride levels (two risk factors for leptin resistance) helped improve leptin sensitivity.
Exercise (but don’t go nuts): I’ve spoken before about how your body adapts to increasing levels of exercise when it comes to weight loss, but it bears repeating since most of the contestants on ‘The Biggest Loser’ were exercising 3 to 8 hours a day. No wonder their leptin levels plummeted to zero. Exercise has been shown to improve leptin sensitivity, but overdoing it reduces circulating leptin levels. You can workout an hour straight without any leptin reductions, or break it up throughout the day for the increased fat burning advantages of multiple workouts, but don’t make exercise your job (like one of the winners on the show did after quitting his actual job to maintain his exercise schedule).
Eat 20 to 30 percent protein: Keeping your protein content above 20 percent has been shown to protect you from losing muscle when dieting to lose fat, it controls appetite, and it improves leptin sensitivity. It’s just another one of the ways that protein fills you up and keeps you feeling satiated long-term.
Yes it’s harder but it’s not hard
I think a lot of people were freaked out by the New York Times article because it filled them with the old sense of “the only way to lose weight is to be miserable.” Not only that, but it made it sound like everyone is doomed to regain it no matter what they do. I’ve personally lost 70 pounds and I’ve kept it off for 10 years now. I don’t do it by starving myself or exercising 6 hours a day, but I do need to eat healthy and I do need to exercise frequently. I previously only worked out 5 days a week, but after years of research on the benefits of exercise, I bumped that up to 7 days a week. I don’t do it to control my weight, I do it for the incredible range of health benefits it provides for my body and brain. It’s the same thing with eating healthy. Yes it keeps me from gaining weight, but the benefits it provides not only for my overall longevity but for my daily energy levels and mental well-being outweigh any temporary pleasure from a cookie. Eating like crap and gluing myself to my couch makes me feel terrible. Is it unfair I have to be more disciplined with my food than others? Maybe a little, but it’s not even bothersome. Having to exercise my discipline just makes that stronger too, which makes it easier for me to accomplish all the other little tasks I need to get done on a daily basis. My biggest problem with the New York Times article was it implied we’re all doomed. I’ve succeeded, I’ve helped many others succeed, and plenty of other people have hit their goals as well. Life is full of all kinds of obstacles that may seem unfair, but that just makes it feel all the more satisfying when you overcome them.