An article in the NY Times tells the story of contestants on the television show The Biggest Loser, in which obese people go through hard-core exercise and dieting to lose weight. The one who loses the most weight is the winner.
Unfortunately, almost all of the contestants regain the weight they lost, and some of them are heavier than when they started.
At their current weights, after their weight loss and regain, their metabolic rates are much lower than would be expected for people of their weight. One contestant has a metabolic rate a full 800 calories lower than expected.
As a result, they struggle with hunger in order to at least try to prevent more weight gain.
Physiologically, they’re a mess.
What they did wrong
Losing weight through a low-calorie diet and aerobic exercise is not a sustainable way to lose weight.
A low-calorie diet, one that’s implemented by counting calories, can leave you hungry all the time, with the temptation to binge when the urges get out of control.
The popular habit of “burning” calories through aerobic exercise is also an exercise in futility. Aerobic exercise just doesn’t burn that many calories. You might burn 400 calories in a full hour on a StairMaster, and one sugary Starbucks drink as a treat afterwards fully negates that loss.
Once the biggest losers lost their weight after their intense boot-camp-like efforts, any let-up in the effort results in regain of weight. Boot camps are almost by definition not sustainable, so this is a terrible way to lose weight.
Sustainable lifestyle changes are necessary.
Loss of muscle means lower metabolism
Probably the main reason that the contestants’ metabolic rates are so much lower now is that they lost muscle, which burns calories at rest at a much higher rate than fat.
If weight loss isn’t done properly, a substantial portion of the lost weight is muscle.
A group of people that were placed on a low-calorie diet and aerobic exercise – walking, cycling, or stair-climbing – lost 18 kg (40 lbs) in 12 weeks. Unfortunately, of that weight, almost 25% (4 kg or 9 lbs) of that loss was muscle.
That means that their metabolic rates are going to be much lower after the weight loss, and they’ll have great difficulty keeping the weight off.
In the same study, a group that ate a low-calorie diet but did strength training lost 14.4 kg (32 lbs), and all of the lost weight was fat. None of it was muscle.
The strength training group will have a normal metabolic rate. They’ll also have better insulin sensitivity, better health all around, and feel and look better too.
High-carbohydrate diets mean lower metabolism
The NY Times article gives little information on what the subjects eat. Given the emphasis on keeping calories low and burning them off through aerobic exercise, and given the fat-phobia of doctors and the public, it’s a reasonable guess that the participants were eating a standard American diet, which is about 50% of calories as carbohydrates.
A study that compared a low-fat diet – which is necessarily a high-carbohydrate diet – with a low-carbohydrate, high-fat diet, found that the subjects on the low-fat diet burned approximately 350 fewer calories a day than those on the low-carb diet.
That’s a lot, and if calories ingested were the same in both groups, would result in a weight gain of one pound (.4 kg) every 10 days.
Keys to sustainable fat loss
As usual, doing what the mainstream recommends will get you what the mainstream gets: skyrocketing rates of obesity, diabetes, and misery.
To lose weight permanently, you have to do the opposite of what everyone else is doing.
For starters, low-carbohydrate, high-fat (LCHF) diets are the best way to lose weight and to keep it off. Probably the most important way they work is to keep those eating this way from being hungry all the time. Therefore there’s no temptation to binge.
But as we also see above, LCHF also means a higher metabolic rate, so more energy is burned 24 hours a day.
What does a LCHF diet look like? For guidance, check out Dr. Ted Naiman’s Burn Fat Not Sugar. In essence, the diet eliminates grains, sugars, starches, and vegetable oils (but olive oil is fine), and emphasizes meat, dairy, vegetables, fruits and nuts. Here’s Dr. Naiman’s infographic on what to eat:
The second aspect of sustainable weight loss is to build muscle, and nothing works for this as well as weightlifting, either with free weights or machines.
With weightlifting incorporated into a diet and fitness regime, no muscle will be lost during weight loss. In fact, you can even lose fat and gain muscle at the same time. One group of subjects who used extra protein along with their diet and weightlifting routine, lost 7 kg of fat and gained 4 kg of muscle in 12 weeks.
I wrote much more on how weightlifting helps fat loss and muscle gain, besides being a uniquely healthy exercise, in my book Muscle Up.
Be the biggest winner and sustain fat loss
To lose weight in a sustainable manner, forget The Biggest Loser and everything it promotes and stands for.
Quit eating the garbage that most people eat.
Quit doing the exercises in futility that the mainstream advises.
Instead, eat low-carbohydrate, and lift weights. Our guest writer Joe O’Brien used these two methods to lose 100 pounds of fat, to gain muscle, and to sustain his fat loss and muscle gain.
If you’re gung ho about fat loss, another healthy practice that you can add to low-carb and weightlifting is intermittent fasting, the world’s easiest diet plan.
PS: Besides Muscle Up, my book on the uniquely healthful exercise that is strength training, see my latest book, Dumping Iron.
PPS: Check out my Supplements Buying Guide for Men
PPPS: I missed adding the link to the study showing greater energy expenditure on a low-carbohydrate, high fat diet. Effects of Dietary Composition on Energy Expenditure During Weight-Loss Maintenance
I’ve tried a lot of ways to lose weight. Vegitarianism (4 years), raw (1 month), paleo (3 years), Atkins (1 year), as well as super low calories plus aerobics (400 calories jerky plus 2 fruit with 3 hours elliptical – steady 1/3 pound per day loss), as well as organic for the last 5 years.
You are right, i lost and gained it back with the low cal/high aerobics (I funtioned well as a teacher at that time).
With organic, pastured paleo I gained 30 pounds over 2 years (lots of walking, go,figure).
Is it possible that fats can be a problem? Fat, when in muscles, cause insulin sensitivity. (Intramyocellular lipid concentrations are correlated with insulin sensitivity in humans: a 1H NMR spectroscopy study). Further, fats are not found in nature essily enough for 80% of our caloric needs (avacadoes are natural, oils have to be processed, animal fats have a very short non-refrigerated shelf life).
I’m using Tim Steele’s Potato Hack during the week, and potato’s and other starches as my primary source of calories on the weekend. Friday I go to the gym for McGuff”s big 5. Potato’s are extreamly satiating. I’m losing 2-5 pounds per week.
Heavy consumption of fats seems questionable. If we replicate a pure carnivore approach possibly, though what population ever did that as a whole? What society replicated the heavy fat consumption your postulating? Not a fringe group such as the inuit, a larger group. Also, can we replicate this with refridgeration (not very likely necessary today, merely a reflection of the very unstable nature of many oils). Hmmm, fats are the location where many toxic substances are sequestered, so eating these seems an apex preditors archilles heel.
Steve: Most hunter-gatherers have eaten a large fraction of their diets as meat. How much fat there was, I don’t know, but fatty parts of meat have always been prized. The Masai live on meat, milk, and blood. As for losing weight, fat is readily stored, but on the other hand, high insulin (from carbs) prevents fat from moving out of fat cells. I don’t know what to make of the potato diet, but if you’re losing weight on it, then great.
It appears that the study you refer to adjusted for body composition. So, assuming that the study is valid, it seems that there’s more going on than just loss of muscle.
I do think that strength training is useful for weight loss, but I think it’s more important to train the organ which controls food intake, i.e. the brain.
Which study do you mean?
I thought this is what you were alluding to:
I read that, and you’re correct that the subjects had lower “metabolic adaptation”, which is metabolic rate adjusted for body composition. Still, total energy expenditure for bodybuilders is higher than for controls. https://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/59/1/10.short And post-exercise metabolic rate is higher for 24 hours or longer when resistance training is done. https://jap.physiology.org/content/75/4/1847.short So I think that the Biggest Loser contestants need to be doing weight training as well as reducing carbs per the article showing that lower carbs means higher metabolism.
While a faster metabolic rate does equate to losing fat easier it has also been implicated in faster aging.
However, if you are overweight, getting a faster metabolic rate is beneficial to help the weight come off easier but once you are at your goal weight trying to lower your Resting Metabolic Rate will help you live longer.
Now the next question is, how do you get your RMR as low as possible?
Possibly . . .
. . . this open access paper made an association of reduced thyroid function with slower ageing.
Yes, I was joking of course, but you’re right about mild hypothyroidism and aging. I’m hypothyroid myself, on thyroid medication, but I think it’s not totally resolved; I feel cold a lot for instance, so maybe that is good for my anti-aging program.
What medication do you use for your hypothyroidism? Thyroxine? And if yes, how many micrograms? I am on this medication myself, with a rather low dosage (i think) of just 75 micrograms. I also feel cold quite often, but i am not sure if it is connected to my thyroid.
Dominik, I do use thyroxine – also known as levothyroxine, l-thyroxine, and T4 – at 150 micrograms/d. At that dose, my TSH is <1.0. For awhile I got very involved in some alternative thyroid strategies, like taking my temperature often and using Armour thyroid and/or T3. I believe that these things can be useful for some people, but they are a royal pain, and hardly any doctors prescribe Armour or T3; the latter must be taken twice a day. I also became skeptical of the late Dr Broda Barnes' idea that temperature is an indicator of hypothyroidism - body temperature can be low for a number of reasons, and it's not all thyroid. In any case I now take the T4 and find it good enough, and it's simple, cheap, convenient, and doctors don't give you any hassle over it.
Hi P.D. — about the feeling cold thing…could this possibly be related to low iron status? That’s been on my mind lately because a couple of months ago, while still taking IP6, I noticed I was starting to feel cold all the time (esp. hands and feet). I did a bit of research and noted that one of the symptoms of mild anemia is reduced cold tolerance, especially for extremities. I stopped taking IP6 and it seems the problem has progressively gone away. (Unfortunately I didn’t get tested to see what my iron stores actually are at the moment….I hate the rigamarole of doctors visits, and just had a checkup a few months ago too.) So, a couple of things from this: 1) It seems likely that IP6 works well for reducing iron, and 2) make sure it doesn’t work too well!
Joshua, while cold can be related to low iron status, I doubt that’s the case here. Ferritin (iron) rises and falls slowly, other than in the case of blood loss. Anemia also takes some time to resolve, and also anemia can only be diagnosed with a blood test, and has other symptoms, like fatigue, exercise intolerance, and shortness of breath.
Low Carb/High Fat, Weightlifting and Fasting appear to be the holy trinity of proper health and physique. Thank goodness I discovered your work at 28 instead of 48. Huge.
A less scientific, and more common sense reason, these people gain the weight back is because they didn’t actually do it themselves. They have someone they’re answering to. They have someone guilting them and keeping them on track.
I lost weight on a diet plan where the food was made for me and all I had to do was eat what was given to me. It worked and I lost a lot of weight. When I got off of it I gained it all back and then some, with the added bonus of not regaining the muscle I had when I started.
If you’re not the one holding yourself accountable you’ll never truly succeed because you’re dependent on someone else. You must do the work yourself, inside the gym and out.
Thanks for this and other great articles. I have made some progress with body recomposition, but my progress has been slow, so I was hoping to get your expert feedback on my situation that I detail below. I’ve never been obese (or even fat really, i.e. my BMI has never been above 26).
My question for you is specifically about the potential causes of extremely low RMR. I understand that body composition, gender, and age explain about 85% of RMR variation. I had my RMR measured early in the morning (with a KORR oxygen measurement machine) and the result was 1282 cal/day even though I’m a very active 33 year old man with no more than 14% body fat at 165.
In other words, an RMR of less than 8 cal/pound! The trainer who did the test thinks this is simply because I’ve not been eating enough, i.e. the impact of 2-3 months of dieting. But the variation still seems too large to me.
I’m healthy as far as I know, and I’m planning to have all my hormones checked to rule out any abnormalities there (with the blood tests that you recommend on your site), but I’d be grateful for any feedback you may have as well as what adjustment to make in a fat loss protocol.
Very many thanks,
P.S. I eat about 1900-2100 cal/day (with more than 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight). I drink a large cup of coffee, a few cups of green tea, and take 60 mg of ephedrine daily. I lift 4 days a week (moderate volume, fairly high intensity) and brisk walk 6 days/week for about 45 minutes a day. I want to start refeeds on Sat/Sun every week, hoping that would adjust the leptin and the rest of the affected hormones.
Should I simply accept (I guess like the Biggest Loser contestants even though I’ve never been obese) that my body has an RMR that’s about 500 cal less than other similarly active men of my size/age and eat less accordingly to achieve the same results?
Hi Sacha, have you had your thyroid levels checked? Low thyroid causes a low metabolic rate and is a relatively common cause of fatigue and other problems. and also goes undetected a lot. Also, the trainer could be correct that if you’ve been losing weight, your rate might be lower, although I think a program of weightlifting and a relatively low carb diet could prevent/fix a lot of that. Another thing, do you know what your rate was in the past? Is it possible you’ve always been this way?
Thank you for your response. I just ordered the comprehensive male hormone panel through LifeExtension that you recommend on your Blood Test Guide page, so I hope to find out if the thyroid is the cause in the coming weeks.
Unfortunately, I’ve never had my RMR tested before, so I have no other point of comparison, so I suppose it is possible that I’ve always been this way without knowing (I’ve never been fat, but I’ve also never been very fit, e.g. have never seen my abs).
The RMR test was fairly expensive, but I plan to take it again in 3 months to see if there are any changes.