Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Stupid, Stupid, Bad, Stupid NY Times Article on Weight Loss

There was a report in Monday's NY Times about a study done on contestants from the "The Biggest Loser" TV series. The study puts forward the unsupported conclusion that massive weight loss is often followed by a massive decline in metabolic activity, assuring regain of the lost weight.

There's a germ of truth to this, but the article is a report of a crappy study by crappy scientists, using, as a data set, poor schlubs subjected to extreme, inhuman, and unscientific weight loss regimens for a crappy TV show. This is bad, bad, bad.

These contestants are made to exercise upwards of 7 hours daily, put on starvation diets, and expected to lose circa 10 lbs per week. If this extreme regimen didn't wreck their health and unbalance their metabolisms, I'd be amazed. It's incredibly stupid, and it's distorting everyone's notions of weight-loss.

I wrote about weight loss a few years ago in a series of articles (indexed here). I drew from the single best source of weight loss know-how: the thousands of body builders who've perfected the art of "cutting" (periodically shedding body weight after a cycle of "bulking", or packing on muscle). What the rest of us consider a monumental challenge is, for them, an everyday thing, totally worked out.

The Times article describes how hunger drives people who've lost weight to binge eat. That's because they're doing it wrong! Body builders know that starvation is the entirely wrong approach to weight loss. They eat many small meals which carefully balance clean protein (no fatty/cheesy), high fiber, complex carbs (no simple carbs) and good oils (no saturated), and they reduce their calories just slightly - just enough to create a deficit. They don't starve themselves, so their body never retracts into starvation mode, and they never ever feel hungry. Two reasons for the non-hunger:

1. Eating per above (nothing like what that TV show's contestants are subjected to), it's really hard to consume 1800-2200 calories per day. Not only will you not be hungry, you'll feel like you're over-eating!

2. If you eat that healthful diet, with no simple carbs and great care taken to balance out carbs/fats/protein in every single meal, and you eat small frequent meals rather than giant infrequent ones, you won't experience glycemic swings or other ripple effects giving rise to cravings. It's like magic. You feel great, not deprived.

So there's no hunger. And if there's no hunger, there's no weight regain (plus, hunger in and of itself launches under-the-hood processes unfavorable for weight loss, as your body hunkers down amid the perceived conditions of deprivation and starvation).

Then there's the exercise regimen.

Drudging on a treadmill for 4 hours per day (as these contestants do) is the 1978 solution. Athletes do not train this way. They do sprints, and interval training (run/swim/whatever as hard as you possibly can for a limited amount of time, rest, repeat). Endurance runners look gaunt and haggard. Sprinters are ripped and dynamic. It doesn't take a genius to recognize the preferred route.

4 hours or exercise/day is counter-productive. 15 minutes three or four times per week of interval training, plus weight lifting most days (increased muscle mass raises resting metabolism) is all that's necessary. Otherwise, you're just grinding your body into bearing down in adversity, as the metabolism stalls in starvation mode. Not helpful, and certainly not fun. And definitely not sustainable.

Accommodating your body to extreme diet and exercise brings you to abnormal "new normals". It's unsustainable. No one can continue that regimen and diet after the weight loss. How could you possibly not regain the weight?

The way you lose weight is:

1. Lift weights, plus schedule short, infrequent bursts of very intense aerobic exercise followed by ample rest (only if you've had a stress test!!!).

2. Eat more! Many small, perfectly-balanced meals with no simple carbs or fatty junk, never skip meals, and ensure you get just below the calories you'd need to maintain weight. Never let yourself be hungry. If you're hungry, you're probably burning muscle. If you burn muscle, you lose muscle mass, and your metabolism slows. No deprivation (unless not eating pecan pie constitutes deprivation)!

3. Aim to lose a pound or so per week. Any more means you're dehydrating (dangerous!), or else doing something so extreme as to make your behavior unsustainable.

Most of all, you need to unify your diet (i.e. your weight loss regimen) with your diet (the way you eat every day). Once slow, gradual weight loss is complete, the only adjustment to make is to replace those couple hundred marginal daily calories (don't do so via fatty crap or simple carbs!). Keep all other activities intact. Change nothing! Just delicately slide in a few more calories (difficult, given that you're already gorging on healthful food all day long).

Again, it's a 1978 concept that you need to work to expunge your fat via special, extreme, unsustainable regimens. Instead, adapt a healthful, non-extreme lifestyle and let the body come into harmony...which is what it's been trying to do all along. Then just keep doing that (it feels great!).

The extreme exercise, extremely low calorie diet, and ridiculously accelerated weight loss of that stupid show dooms participants to failure. That should be obvious to anyone with a brain, much less distinguished researchers, who certainly shouldn't be using these poor shlubs as data sources.

I'm ashamed of the Times, the reporter, the scientists, and the producers of the stupid show, who've all worked to set back the public's conception of weight loss by a half century. Don't listen to them. Listen to the body-builders.


Unknown said...

Your index link to your articles goes to the NYT.

Jim Leff said...

Thanks! Link above is now correct, or else just go here:

Richard Stanford said...

There was an interesting study I saw a couple of months ago that pointed out that basically any "specific meal diet" would help you to lose weight - whether balancing nutrients in this case, going true no-carb, nothing-but-tacos, whatever. Their point was that it made you aware of what you were eating (which helps - people who log their food but make no other overt changes tend to lose weight) and significantly reduces your options for impulse-eating when you're at a restaurant.

Of course it does nothing to teach you long term habits, but for someone who's successfully maintaining long term I could see the "anything that's limiting" approach as a completely viable way to do a one-time loss and then go back to maintenance.

Jim Leff said...

The part about paying attention makes perfect sense, Richard. Undoubtedly true. There must be attention, yes, but we need to stop putting emphasis on the loss end of the equation (even though that's the most obvious goal). The problem isn't obesity, and the solution isn't weight loss.

Obesity is a symptom of unhealthful habits, and weight loss is a symptom of the correction of those habits. We are ass-backwards in our thinking and our approach, and that's why it's not working. The article describes an extreme example of an effect that does, to some extent, impact most dieters....but, curiously, not body-builders, who are smart enough to make more holistic and systemic changes. Extreme shit DOES lose weight. But it wrecks your health and leaves you vulnerable to rebounding. If your goal wasn't to lose weight, but to get healthy (and thus shed pounds), then this DOESN'T HAPPEN. That's my whole point!

At some point in the future it's going to become conventional wisdom that weight-loss is most successful when post weight loss behavior is brought closest to dieting behavior. Same (sustainable) diet, same (sustainable) exercise.....just add an extra 200 calories to switch to maintenance rather than deficit.

For decades, we've been laser-focused on that deficit. But that's not the important change! The important change is healthfulness (no meal skipping, no giant meals, correct balancing - i.e. no dirty protein, simple carbs, or saturated fat - no extreme sloth or extreme aerobics or extreme anything, etc). That change must be permanent....and the deficit is just an off-handed minor flip to be turned on at the beginning and off at the end. That's the simple answer, and, again, body-builders have known this for years, and play it like it's nothing.

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