In today’s episode of Body Kindness we’re talking about That Biggest Loser Study.
Last week the media exploded when the New York Times reported a new study of Biggest Loser Season 8 contestants that found that their bodies had “fought to regain weight”. Six years after the show:
- all but one contestant had regained a significant portion of their lost weight – an average of 70%
- their resting metabolisms had permanently slowed, burning an average 500 fewer calories a day than other people their age and size
- they had significantly lower levels of leptin, the body’s satiety hormone.
You won’t be surprised to discover that Bernie and I have a lot to say about this study. We unpack the findings and talk about what they mean for the rest of us. I’ve also got some great advice for Bernie on how to find a healthy, body kindness way forward.
So if the news of this study made you want to throw your hands in the air with despair ‒ or left you feeling more confused than ever ‒ don’t miss this episode.
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Listen to Episode 8 below…
Here’s what we talked about…
- I explained why this study is significant. It’s extremely rare for a study to run for six years – most studies only last a matter of months, usually due to funding. The results are meaningful as six years is long enough to show the potential for weight cycling.
- We talked about our reactions to the article and its uncanny timing so soon after Bernie’s Loser Letter in Episode 7. Bernie says he was floored by the news and still unsure what to think. There is some hurt and anger, yet some relief to hear that there are biological reasons why he’s struggled with his weight post-Loser despite all his efforts. He sensed something was not right with his body, but carried a personal sense of blame and shame for gaining weight.
- I expressed my annoyance that the researchers don’t seem to learn anything significant from their own study by concluding that The Biggest Loser results are still better than other methods out there. Their call to action is to “fight” and find a way to turn leptin into medication. Do the researchers realize that they’re not just measuring the impact of doing the show on metabolism but also each contestant’s entire dieting history? We know the more and longer someone has dieted, the higher weight can climb.
- It’s maddening to see the author and researchers use the same kind of thinking that created all these problems to try to solve them. Deep down society doesn’t want to hear about the existence of fat people! They have been around forever. While there are lots of factors at play, size diversity exists.
- We talked about the two key findings of the study. The first was the metabolic slowdown of the contestants. Their metabolism was low when they left the show – which is expected as the body needs fewer calories to survive as it loses weight. But what confounded the researchers was as participants regained weight, metabolism did not increase proportionately.
- This means a person who has lost weight is burning fewer calories and has a slower metabolism than a person of the same size who has not experienced weight loss.
- Of the Season 8 participants Danny Cahill had the biggest discrepancy in metabolic rate, burning 800 fewer calories per day. In real life terms, this would mean he would have to skip lunch every day of his life in order to prevent weight gain. Accepted scientific wisdom has been that your body will need more calories as you gain weight but the study showed this was not the case.
- The other significant finding was that contestant’s leptin levels were extremely low after the show. Leptin levels were expected to increase in the following years but only reached 50% of predicted levels. Leptin is the satiety hormone that says “hey, I’m full!” (the opposing hormone is ghrelin which tells you when you’re hungry).
- I explained that if you engage in extreme weight loss methods like Biggest Loser then shift to more moderate measures, even if you try to tune into your body’s fullness signals your hormones will tell you that you don’t have enough. Bernie says this describes his experience of satiety since leaving the show.
- The conclusion here is that the body fights back. The weight loss methods on The Biggest Loser are about vanity, and health and wellbeing get hijacked for extreme weight loss.
- I also expressed my frustration that some “weight loss experts” say this study simply demonstrates the dangers of extreme diets, however many studies point to similar metabolic results in more moderate approaches. We can’t accept that dieting is worse for your body than taking care of it!
- Bernie asked me what we should do with these findings, worrying that this study might make our listeners feel like giving up.
- I mentioned Dr. Deb Burgard, a California psychologist and eating disorder specialist who disagrees with the conclusions of the study:
“People are still talking about ‘solutions’ like medications to eliminate hunger or massive therapeutic teams for life — and I think clinicians do not want to disappoint higher weight people who are desperate to change their weight. We have to grapple with the facts here and open our minds to what we can do to support the wellbeing of people at every weight.”
- I believe this is where the answer lies – we need to support wellbeing and true health first – physical and mental. You can be healthy and unhealthy at a wide variety of sizes.
- I encouraged Bernie to find peace with the past and his Biggest Loser experience so he can get to a place of wellbeing. While there may be metabolic impact beyond his control, he is in charge his other choices. I encouraged him and our listeners to not check out of self care, but rather to continue on his Body Kindness path. The three pillars of Body Kindness – love, connection, and caring – are guides for how we make choices. I believe the answer lies in being kind to his body, eating balanced food and nourishing himself. Being rigid and restrictive won’t help, it will only reduce leptin levels.
- I encourage people to not give up on taking care of yourself but to start thinking about – what is my value, what does self care look like for me, and commit to that.
- This is hard in a society that isn’t accepting of different sizes and shapes but we can change society by using our voices and by advocating for ourselves and what health means.
- I gently challenged Bernie to call a truce with his weight-based approach and try focusing on habits. Is he willing to pursue the idea of being in his current body while taking care of himself?
- Bernie says while he is feeling he chooses to feel empowered by the news and work towards making peace with the past.
- We finished with some wisdom from my coffee cup:
Links mentioned in the show
- New York Times – After ‘The Biggest Loser’, Their Bodies Fought To Regain Weight
- Read the study in Obesity journal – Persistent metabolic adaptation 6 years after “The Biggest Loser” competition (or download directly here)
- Follow-up article from Medical Daily: No One’s A Winner On ‘The Biggest Loser’: Contestants Have Slower Metabolisms, Often Regain Lost Weight
- “The root of the problem is not willpower but neuroscience” – another follow-up from the New York Times: Why You Can’t Lose Weight On A Diet
- Abbey’s Kitchen: Dangerous Secrets from The Biggest Loser
- Here are the weight cycling research studies I referred to:
- Dieting and weight cycling as risk factors for cardiometabolic diseases: who is really at risk?
- Influence of obesity, physical inactivity, and weight cycling on chronic inflammation.
- Prevalence and correlates of large weight gains and losses.
- Recent weight changes and weight cycling as predictors of subsequent two year weight change in a middle-aged cohort.
- Weight-loss attempts and risk of major weight gain: a prospective study in Finnish adults.
What did you think of Bernie’s letter?
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Nothing in this podcast is meant to provide medical diagnosis, treatment, cure, or prevent any disease or condition. Individuals should consult a qualified healthcare provider for medical advice and answers to personal health questions.