Let’s be real. Most reality TV shows are nothing close to reality and they demonstrate characteristics that we wouldn’t want to teach our kids. But, is there anything we can learn from them? A recent study published in the journal Obesity followed contestants for 6 years after the show ended. What they discovered was frightening.

The majority of contestants gained their weight back.  

While many of you might not be surprised by their weight gain, the reasons for it are not as simple as you may have thought. You probably think the contestants regressed because of:

  • A general lack of willpower.
  • Their return to old habits.

While they’re both true, they aren’t the whole reason.

Researchers of the 6-year study didn’t just observe the contestants, they also measured their basal metabolic rates at the start and throughout the study. What they found is that, as the contestants lost weight, their bodies slowed their own metabolism down so that they were burning less calories, thus making it harder for them to keep the weight off or lose more weight. One contestant had dropped down to eating 800 calories a day, but was still slowly regaining weight! I cannot think of a more depressing situation than starving yourself, and then seeing your weight creep up anyway. What else could you do?

But let’s think about this for a moment. Why did this happen? Why did their metabolic rates slow down? 

There’s a two-part answer to this.

Answer 1: It had to.

With less mass on the contestants’ bodies, they required less energy to do routine actives like walking. A simple way to look at this (physicists, please forgive this oversimplification) is work, where work (energy expended) equals mass x distance. As mass decreases (weight is lost) work reduces, less calories are needed, and less are burned.

Answer 2: Homeostasis.

It seems that beyond the idea of answer 1 above, the body tries to conserve energy. There are many ways to look at this, but first, look at it as a survival mechanism. Maybe the body thinks it’s starving so it slows everything down, just in case it can’t find food. Maybe it’s just becoming more efficient, similar to how doing the same workout day after day leads to a plateau in weight loss, performance and muscle growth.

The other idea, which I think is the likeliest, is the idea of homeostasis. The body is used to being a certain weight so it naturally wants to stay close to that weight. How many of us have lost the same frustrating 20 pounds, over and over again? Our body seems to want to rebound to the same weight! Why is this? The body “likes” a certain comfortable “set point,” just like how we always tune our A/Cs or heaters to a specific temperature in our homes and cars.

This means that as we lose weight, our bodies will fight against us! But instead of being disheartened by this, what can we do to succeed in our individual health journeys?

How to succeed in sustaining your improved health

First off, luckily most of us are not super-obese like the contestants in the The Biggest Loser so it likely won’t be as difficult for us as it was for them. Here are some points to consider on your journey:

  1. It’s not just about willpower. As you get healthier, it grows to make progress. Your body is adapting to the new changes, so you will have to adapt as well.
  2. Exercise is critically important. The researchers didn’t focus on the theme of exercise in the study because it wasn’t their main point, but a major change besides the drop in basal metabolic rate was the change in exercise. During the show, contestants had a personal trainer and worked out for an impractical 6-8 hours a day. When they left the ranch at the end of the show, they had to return to their real lives. “Real life” typically involves a combination of jobs, kids, errands, etc. that does not allow for the same 6-8 hours of exercise. Remember exercise burns calories and increases your metabolic rate not just while you are exercising, but beyond.
  3. You should expect, plan for, and not get depressed as your progress slows down or plateaus. What this means is that you need to change your program if you want to continue to progress. Everyone can eat better, exercise more, sit less, sleep more (yes, sleep helps you lose weight) to fight back against your body’s desire not to change.
  4. Finally, and this is probably the most important point, if homeostasis is so important and hard to fight against, then it’s critical to set your body’s “sweet spot” or “normal” body weight as early as possible. What I’m referring to is our children. Childhood obesity is a tremendous problem. Yes, we need to improve our own health, but also help our kids, families, friends, co-workers become as healthy as possible as early on as possible so that they don’t have to fight discouraging battles when they get older. You may feel bad saying “no” when your kids ask for ice cream, but if you really love your children, rest assured that your “no” is helping them avoid a lifetime of chronic illnesses and the chronic “battle of the bulge” that many of us currently face.


About the Author

Harvey Hahn, MD, FACC

Dr. Hahn graduated from Loma Linda University in 1994. He is currently the director of the Cardiovascular Fellowship Training Program at the Kettering Medical Center in Kettering Ohio.

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