The Biggest Loser Revisited

Biggest Loser2


After reviewing the NY Times article, “After ‘The Biggest Loser,’ Their Bodies Fought to Regain Weight” things seemed pretty bleak for anyone who’s ever lost weight and wanted to keep it off.

We learned that many of the contestants regained a substantial amount of the weight they lost, and we learned that it was due to a combination of a few factors:

  • Their metabolism slowed down and did not recover even after 6 years
  • Their metabolisms were much slower than expected for their new size
  • Their hunger cravings worsened
  • Their hormonal milieu was all screwed up

This turned out to be one of the most popular NY Times articles EVER and spawned a couple of response articles.

Here’s one directly from the NY Times: “THE SCIENCE OF FAT: Short Answers to Hard Questions About Weight Loss” which attempts to answer a few of the questions that I had.

I wondered how big a role the rapid rate at which they lost the weight played in their difficulty in keeping it off.

The times article concludes that this likely didn’t play much of a role.  They quote a randomised study published in 2014 which found that:

The rate of weight loss does not affect the proportion of weight regained within 144 weeks. These findings are not consistent with present dietary guidelines which recommend gradual over rapid weight loss, based on the belief that rapid weight loss is more quickly regained.

Hmmmm.  I was surprised when I read this, but then the more I thought about it the more doubtful I became.  It just seems… incomplete.  I mean it doesn’t take into account how sustainable the weight-loss methods are.

Consider two people.

Person 1 goes on The Biggest Loser, exercises 8 hrs a day and basically only consumes air and water with a side of broccoli for meals.  Of course they’d lose a ton of weight.  But then how sustainable is this?

Now contrast this with person 2 who goes paleo/primal, removes all processed foods from their diet, consumes only whole foods, eats to satiation or near-satiation, and only indulges in fruits and 86% dark chocolate to satisfy their sweet tooth.  They manage to develop a healthy relationship with food.

They walk regularly 30-60 min per day and mix in some resistance training and sprints  2-3 days a week.

I’d bet everything I own that this person 2 would do much better than person 1 in the long run.

I also wondered if they were doing any resistance training which would increase their muscle mass and therefor there metabolic rate.

Here is what the times said:

Muscle burns more calories than fat, so it might stand to reason that the more muscle you have the faster you will burn calories. But it turns out that building muscles has almost no effect on resting metabolism, which determines how many calories a person burns when at rest. The reason is that any muscle you add is small compared with the total amount of skeletal muscle on your body. And most of the time that muscle is at rest. (You can’t go around flexing your biceps nonstop.) Muscles have a very low metabolic rate at rest. One researcher calculated that if a man weighing about 175 pounds lifts weights and puts on about 4½ pounds of muscle — a typical amount for men who lift weights for 12 weeks — he will burn an extra 24 calories a day, the amount in a couple of Life Saver candies.

Again, I read this with surprise, which was subsequently followed by doubt the more I thought about it.

Let’s take the hypothetical 175 lb male the researcher conjures up and lets make him 20% body fat, which equates to 140 lbs of lean body mass.  This male then hits the weight room and does a program like Stronglifts 5×5 or even joins a Crossfit box and he loses 4.5 lbs of fat and gains 4.5 lbs of muscle (just to make things tidy).

He now has 144.5 lbs of lean body mass and is 17.5% body fat

Sure he will only burn an extra 24 calories per day as a result of his increased muscle mass, but this is only one aspect of the complex thing we call human metabolism.

What about his hormones?  This change would have probably pushed him from slight insulin resistance to normal insulin sensitivity.  His  will also likely have increased from the increased muscle mass and improved body composition

His improved body composition and increased muscle mass would also improve his testosterone and cortisol while reducing any smoldering systemic inflammation.

With his extra 4.5 lbs of muscle, yes his RMR may have only gone up 24 calories a day, but when he works out, he has an extra 4.5 lbs of muscle burning fuel.  The extra muscle will also allow him to lift more weights so that when he’s working out, he’ll be burning more calories than before.

See where this is going?

I don’t think human metabolism can be reduced to a simple balance sheet which is what our friend the anonymous researcher here seems to be doing.

This is why concepts like calories in vs calories out is so incomplete.  It doesn’t take into account the type of calories or the hormonal milieu the calories are entering.

Response from The Atlantic

This article from The Atlantic: “Doomed to be the Biggest Losers?” brings up an interesting point by referencing the Minnesota Starvation Study:

…which was conducted by the scientist Ancel Keys in the mid-1940s. Toward the end of World War II, millions across Europe and Asia had either starved or were at risk of starvation. Keys sought to understand the mechanisms of famine so that relief groups would know how best to help the hungry. Over the course of six months, he starved his 36 normal-weight subjects until they lost a quarter of their body weights. Their metabolic rates slowed just like those of the Biggest Loser contestants did. But in the Minnesota case, metabolism bounced back during the “refeeding” period. They all ended up at their pre-experiment weights—which, again, were healthy.

Fascinating isn’t it?  Things don’t seem as dire here do they?

Two potential explanations they offer for the differences between this study and the Biggest Loser are:

First, the Minnesotans were all of normal weight to start, compared to the Biggest Loser contestants, who are all morbidly obese. Second, the Minnesota study participants lost less of their body weights—25 percent compared to 40 percent with the Biggest Losers.


I think what I’ll have to do next is look at the actual study the NY Times article referred to just to take a look under the hood…

Stay tuned.

*Image found here.

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