Earilier this summer, a special report from The New York Times shared several findings published in the journal Obesity that provide insight into health, nutrition, and lifestyle changes. By following up with contestants from the hit NBC reality show The Biggest Loser, a team of researchers from the NIH, Towson University, and the Washington DC VA Medical Center found out why former “losers” struggled mightily to maintain the weight losses they achieved on the show.
One contestant weighed 444 pounds when he was first featured on the primetime program. By the season’s end, he had shed 155 pounds, bringing him to a weight of 289 pounds. Since then, however, he regained 159 pounds, bringing him up to 448 pounds— four pounds heavier than he was before the show began. The article is full of similar examples of weight loss followed by the contestants quickly regaining weight—in fact, 13 of 14 contestants regained weight, and four are now heavier than they were before.
The researchers found that the contestants had a precipitous drop in their Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR). The BMR determines how many calories a person burns at rest. In people who lose weight the BMR goes down, and the hope is that it will eventually recover. However for the contestants on The Biggest Loser after the conclusion of the show, their BMR remained low. One contestant had to eat 800 calories less a day to maintain his weight.
However, the show’s doctor, Robert Huizenga, questioned the BMR measurements (which were taken six years later) and said it is difficult for most contestants to find or afford adequate ongoing support from specialists and the time to continue to maintain an active lifestyle. Furthermore, the small sample size and lack of controls limited the power of the findings.
Another reason for the failure of the candidates to maintain their weight loss could be related to levels of the hormone leptin, which is involved in regulating hunger and satiety. By the end of the show the leptin levels of most of the contestants had plummeted and failed to recover, allowing hunger and satiety levels to go unchecked, which could explain the subsequent weight gain.
While obesity is a multifaceted issue, the study points out the difficulty in maintaining one’s weight after dramatic weight loss. Most experts recommend losing no more than two pounds per week. It’s not just so that you can adjust to a healthier lifestyle; it’s so your body can learn how to react to the changes.