Have you seen the press lately about The Biggest Loser Show? Articles like this one in the New York Times have been reporting that many contestants have gained back significant amounts of weight.
I am not surprised. Over 80% of people who lose weight on a diet – gain it back (and often then some). This is because most diets have several critical flaws. And because The Biggest Loser is kind of like a diet on steroids – the normal diet mistakes seem magnified.
But The Times article painted a pretty hopeless picture, saying that the reason that they gained back the weight is because the metabolism slows down when you lose a lot of weight. So the logical conclusion is – since it is impossible to maintain that amount of weight loss, why even try?
HOLD UP. Just hold up one second.
Lets look at that a little more closely. Yes, there is some truth to the fact that a 300 pound person’s metabolism is just naturally working harder than a 150 person’s metabolism. Think about it this way – if a 150 pound man is given a backpack with 150 pounds of rocks in it to carry around all day long, sure – his metabolism will have to work harder – to do everything. Walking up a flight of stairs would be more like hiking up a steep mountain. Everything he does while carrying that 150 backpack would take more effort and burn more energy. His heart will pump harder, his lungs will work harder, etc.
So I will concede that point.
However, we also have to consider the fact that the metabolism slows down not just because someone loses weight, but also how they lose the weight…
The very premise/goal of the show The Biggest Loser and of most diets is well, wrong. It is focused on losing weight. First of all, when we say we want to lose weight – we really mean we want to lose excess fat. When we lose weight by drastic dieting and cutting calories – often we will lose water weight, and if we don’t correct the metabolism, we can also lose muscle mass – which is not good, because it actually lowers our metabolic rate. In order to get the body burning fat – we need to get the metabolism out of sugar burning mode and into fat burning mode. So when we focus on healing the underlying metabolism – many symptoms can come into balance (including weight). Fixing the metabolism is really about optimizing our overall health – which can help to balance our weight, lower disease risk, improve brain and mental health, and much more. I hosted an event called The Metabolism Summit back in February where over 30 experts came together to talk about how to optimize the metabolism – and I love what Dr. Phil Maffetone said:
One of the most common misconceptions in nutrition and health is that in order to lose weight, we need to cut calories. I used to believe it too. And at first glance – it kind of makes sense. Eat fewer calories than you expend, and you will create a calorie deficit – and lose weight! Right? Not so fast. The reason that theory does not work – is because our bodies are not calculators. We have hunger hormones and other hormones that impact our metabolism, we have gut bacteria that impact our metabolism, stress, sleep, and so many other factors that can cause that equation to go haywire. Not to mention the fact that not all calories are created equal. For example, 100 calories of broccoli with grass fed butter impacts the metabolism and hunger differently than one of those 100 calorie cookie packs. The 100 calories of broccoli offers vitamins, minerals, fiber, healthy fat, and will not spike our blood sugar or insulin. Whereas the cookies offers very little nutrition, and does spike the blood sugar and insulin – leading to a crash later, increased hunger, and that insulin spike that tells the body to store the calories as fat. So counting calories is a waste of time in my mind. Instead – we should be counting the stuff that really counts – like trying to get more nutrients and less sugars, processed foods, and chemicals. Dr. James LaValle summed it up well:
When I used to “diet” to try to lose weight, I can remember being miserable and hungry all day long, and the only thing that got me through was thinking to myself…”when this is all over, I can have my ice cream again.” This kind of mentality only sets us up for yo-yo dieting. One of the most important things about reaching and maintaining a healthy weight – is to shift our mentality from viewing this as a short term temporary thing, and more of a gradual lifestyle shift – to arrive at a new way of eating and living. We need to make this mental shift in order for the changes to happen metabolically. When we shift the metabolism – it becomes easier to stick to our new way of eating – because our tastebuds change, our hormones get balanced and are processing our sugars and carbs and are not sending mixed up signals like telling us we are hungry when we just ate. When the underlying metabolism is working well – it is easier (almost effortless) to maintain a healthy weight! So we are no longer dying to dive back into the ice cream when it is “all over.” I have read in articles, that The Biggest Loser contestants went home with very little if any support for how to maintain the loss. This is an issue. It is one thing to lose weight when you are away from home at a camp doing nothing but working out and eating what you are told to eat. The real trick to reaching and maintaining a healthy weight is to form new habits – that can be maintained.
Stress is terrible for our metabolism in many ways, and this is the one that is probably my biggest struggle still to this day. When we are under high levels of stress – this causes our blood sugar, cholesterol, stress hormones, and blood pressure to rise. When our stress hormones are needed in such high demand – they end up stealing from our other hormones – which can lead to hormone imbalances. Stress overtime can lead to worn out adrenal glands – which can then lead to thyroid issues and other hormone imbalances – this not only affects our blood sugar, but also the underlying metabolism. Stress increases inflammation in the body, and it can be the ‘switch’ that turns on disease. So if you want a happy metabolism – then you are going to want to look at ways of lowering your stress levels. I only watched the Biggest Loser once – and that was enough for me to see the writing on the wall right then. Let me paint a picture – they put a bunch of people who need support into a highly stressful situation, where they yell at them, and make them get weighed in their skivvies in front of millions of viewers. When the Biggest Loser contestants get on that scale – you can see the fear in their eyes. What if they did not lose enough weight? What if they actually – gasp – gained weight? The Biggest Loser causes higher levels of stress! I love what Dr. Kurt Perkins said on The Metabolism Summit about excess stress and blood sugar:
Did you know that the bacteria in your gut can basically determine if you are overweight or not? Certain bacteria in our digestive tract can cause you to crave sugars and feel hungry, and cause you to absorb more calories from carbohydrates. While there are other bacteria found in studies to be associated with satiety and leanness. You know that friend that can eat cake and not gain an ounce? Yep – probably has more of that good bacteria. So if we want to get more lean – we will want to fix our digestion and bacterial balance. Digestive problems are at an all time high – with an estimated 1 in 5 regularly suffering from GI issues. When our gut health is compromised – we are more likely to suffer from food intolerances and allergies – both of which are associated with inflammation, weight gain and other chronic health complaints like pain, fatigue and migraines. Our gut bacteria also affects our immune system, mood, heart health, inflammation, brain function, and much more. I think the question is – what doesn’t gut bacteria affect? Christa Orecchio summed it up well on The Metabolism Summit:
Where, oh where to start with blood sugar? When the blood sugar is imbalanced, it causes a cascade of symptoms – ranging from weight gain to hormone issue and increased disease risk. Chapter one of my book The Perfect Metabolism Plan is called Break up with Sugar – because it really is the #1 thing most people need to do i order to get the metabolism working for them and not against them. When we are eating a steady stream of sugars and high glycemic carbs – it puts the metabolism into sugar burning mode – which means – it is burning sugars for fuel – not fats. Eating a high sugar diet for a long time causes the body to be less responsive to insulin, and the situation gets worse – more fat storage, fatigue, and increased risk of diseases. But sugar is also highly addictive – it is one of the hardest changes to make. That is why I am creating the Break up with Sugar Program – an online course that helps people take back the control from sugar – and get the metabolism into fat burning mode.
We live in an increasingly toxic world – chemicals in our foods and environment, and too much sugar and other substances that are taxing our liver. When the body’s organs of elimination get overwhelmed and can not remove all the toxins – the body stores them away in the safest place it can away from the brain and organs – in the adipose tissue. Some of these toxins are actually shown to lead to obesity – this class of toxins are called “obesogens.” They include monosodium glutamate, aspartame, and others. Then there are the endocrine interrupting chemicals that cause hormonal chaos. You can see where I am going here. So it is important when we want to lose weight – that we consider doing a gentle detox – which means avoiding new toxins and supporting the organs of elimination to remove the existing ones safely – like nutrients that support the liver, kidneys, the colon, and more. One way that many of us are overtaxing our liver – is from a high sugar diet (especially fructose). So cutting way back on sugar and simple carbs is an important step in resetting the metabolism not just for the blood sugar balance, but also to support the liver and kidneys.
Exercise is an important piece of the metabolism puzzle. It is pretty obvious that being sedentary is not good for the metabolism. Exercise can help the body deplete glycogen stores, which supports healthy blood sugar, and when done right it can help to boost testosterone and rev up the metabolism. But there is an interesting thing about exercise that a lot of people do not know – more is not always better. When we do too much cardio or endurance exercise for too long, it causes our stress hormone cortisol to become elevated – which as you know from reading the point about stress – sets us up for weight gain, not loss. Think about what The Biggest Loser does – they throw the contestants into extremely long and hard workouts (it is a wonder no one has died) – this is not a recipe for long term health. So what type of exercise is best for the metabolism? Short bursts of intense cardio, weight lifting, and things like yoga that lower stress levels. My interview with Dr. Phil Maffetone for The Metabolism Summit is a must watch if you are a distance runner, endurance athlete, or just someone that is frustrated with the weight around their midsection, despite working out. So many gems in his interview, including this one:
The science is very clear that weight gain and sugar addiction is not just about willpower. So why do we keep perpetuating that myth? All that does is lead to a lot of blame, shame, and cause people to lose hope. We need to stop the blame game – and people the information that really works. I think it is very important to educate people about the impact that hormones have on the metabolism. Hormones are very powerful. They are in charge of a lot of our metabolic processes as well as our impulses and feelings. Take hunger for example. We have hormones that are in charge of managing our feelings of hunger. When those hormones go awry – having willpower of steel is just not enough. For example, if we have leptin resistance – then we can have out of control hunger. We might eat a full meal, drive by a burger joint and feel the need to eat a full meal there. It doesn’t really make any sense – and because of that – can cause feelings of guilt and shame. We also have a very powerful hormone called insulin. Insulin’s job is to move glucose into the cells to be used for energy. It’s other job is to store the excess – most of which is stored as fat. So when the body is not listening to the hormone insulin (as in insulin resistance & pre-diabetes) then the levels of insulin rise – this means the glucose is not getting delivered to the cells for energy, and more is getting stored as fat. Just these two hormone imbalances is a recipe for stubborn weight gain. There are a lot of other hormones in the metabolic equation too. But it is not all doom and gloom if you have these issues. Often making the right changes in nutrition and lifestyle – can help to improve the metabolism’s sensitivity to insulin, leptin, Ghrelin and other important hormones. But realize – that this kind of change does not happen overnight, and it is certainly not likely to happen when you are under high levels of stress or not sleeping well either. I had an amazing talk with Dr. Lauren Noel on the Metabolism Summit – all about hormones role in weight gain, she summed it up quite well:
We often do not think about sleep affecting our weight and metabolism, but it does. Big time. Studies show that just one night of poor sleep can cause the body to show signs of insulin resistance. Sleep deprivation can cause hormone imbalances that cause us to feel more hungry. So I have to hand it to The Biggest Loser – they realized the importance of sleep. Starting in season 7, they conducted sleep studies on all contestants before the show – and the first time they did it they found that – ALL of the contestants had sleep apnea – yes, ALL of them! Here is the story of one of the Biggest Loser contestants was finally able to get a good nights’ sleep on The Biggest Loser! There are a number of reasons that our sleep can be off – our stress can throw our cortisol rhythms off (instead of sleeping pills, we need to fix our stress levels and adrenals – a simple saliva test could tell you if that is your issue), we could have sleep apnea, poor blood sugar regulation can interrupt sleep, and even things like parasites can cause sleep disturbances. For a lot of people, just some simple bedtime rituals can make big changes – like turning off electronics an hour before bedtime. The blue light from screens can interrupt melatonin levels – impacting sleep. Some people will benefit from taking magnesium before bed, or another supplement that supports calm – like L-theanine.
So my advice is to just say no to diets and calorie counting, and exercising like a crazy person, and instead focus on healing your metabolism and health. Andrea Beaman said it beautifully on The Metabolism Summit:
Just know – it is possible to reset and reboot a metabolism – if you have the right tools and information.
My book The Perfect Metabolism Plan outlines the 10 keys you need to unlock your optimal metabolism. In addition, the book contains over 50 recipes and a 3 week plan to put it all into action!
Article written by Nutritionist Sara Vance, author of the book The Perfect Metabolism Plan A regular guest on Fox 5 San Diego, you can see many of Sara’s segments on her media page. She also offers corporate nutrition, school programs, consultations, and affordable online eCourses. Download her free 40+ page Metabolism Jumpstart eBook here.
©2015, all rights reserved. Sara Vance.
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