Conflicting Research on Dieting
By Deborah Beck Busis, LCSW
Director, Beck Diet Programs
A recent article published in the New York Times, “After ‘The Biggest Loser,’ Their Bodies Fought to Regain Weight,” details how most of the contestants on the television show, “The Biggest Loser,” regained much, if not all of the weight they had lost while on the show. The article also describes how the contestants’ metabolisms slowed down as they lost weight and did not return to their original level once they regained their weight. The level of the hormone leptin, which influences hunger, also did not return to the original level, and in fact, reached only about half of what it had been before they started to diet.
The article certainly is discouraging. It also emphasized that the dieters, who lost weight through extreme calorie restriction and high levels of exercise, had to eat substantially fewer calories (up to 500 calories less) than other people who hadn’t dieted, to maintain their weight loss. We don’t believe the situation is hopeless, however. There is a significant amount of research that shows that while there is a change in metabolism as people lose weight, the amount varies. These studies generally show that the metabolic penalty is between 20-200 calories and that this penalty decreases modestly in the year following weight loss. On the other hand, a meta-analysis that was published in 2012 found no change in the metabolic rates of dieters.
In our program, most people have been able to lose weight and keep it off—when they’re willing to have periodic booster sessions to keep their cognitive and behavioral skills sharp. There are several key components of our weight loss program that are drastically different from what the contestants on the “The Biggest Loser” do. First and foremost, our clients do not lose as much weight and they do not lose it quickly; usually, the rate is half a pound to two pounds per week.
Along with slower weight loss, our clients also follow diet and exercise plans that fit in with their lives. In terms of exercise, none of our clients devote the nine hours per week that the “Biggest Loser” participants were advised to do once they returned home. Although the article didn’t describe the specific diets participants followed while they were being filmed, it is likely that the diets were quite restrictive, both in terms of number of calories and the types of permitted foods. This, too, is quite contrary to our program. From the start, we work with our clients to incorporate all their favorite foods into their diets in reasonable ways. We work hard to ensure that our clients only make changes in their eating that they can sustain in the long term.
When helping our clients make changes in eating and exercise, the two words that we constantly use are reasonable and maintainable. We have found that when dieters lose weight eating or exercising in a way they can’t maintain, they invariably gain the weight back when they revert to old behaviors. Most of our clients don’t lose as much as they’d like because to do so would require unmaintainable eating and/or exercise plans. But they do get to a place where they feel strong and in control of their eating; their health is better; they have gained most of the advantages of being at a lower weight; they experience far fewer cravings; and they feel confident that they can keep doing what they’re doing. They not only know what to do but also can competently solve problems and address dysfunctional thoughts and beliefs that interfere with maintaining the needed changes in behavior.
As far as we can tell, “The Biggest Loser” is the antithesis of our program. Although we haven’t had our clients track their metabolisms before and after weight loss, we assume that taking a much more measured approach is part of what enables our clients to lose weight and keep it off. While doing it this way is less compelling in the moment, because the pounds fail to drop off at lightning speed, it seems to pay off in the long term, as dieters lose weight by putting behaviors into place, supported by changes in cognition, that they can ultimately maintain.
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