The Broken Regulator


Credit: New York Times


In my wanderings across the Internet yesterday, I came across a very interesting article on the New York Times website. It seems a study was performed for the Obesity Society Research Journal involving the cast of Season 8 of The Biggest Loser to determine long-term effects of “crash” weight loss programs. Perhaps unsurprisingly, each of the contestants, even the winner, suffered from setbacks and weight regain. What is interesting is the apparent reason for these setbacks: in each case, the contestant’s resting metabolism shut way down, so their bodies were no longer burning the same amount of calories to lose weight as before their involvement with the show.

Now, the slowing of metabolism during high-speed weight loss is not a surprise to anyone: it is part of our defense mechanism against starvation. The interesting part is that these metabolisms never “re-regulated.” Their bodies, it seems, were fighting to be returned to what had been their previous maximum weights. The metabolic system never got a grip on the fact that they were no longer “starving”, and never came out of starvation self-defense mode.

Of course, this brought the whiners out of the woodwork across the ‘Net. “Of course, they are broken. They went on Biggest Loser.” was the main one I saw. Another favorite was “There is something wrong with this science. The Amount of Calories required by Body Weight – Amount of Calories Ingested = caloric excess or deficit. It is simple math.” Yes, but the whole point of the study is that the equation is no longer working for these people that have gone through massive weight loss – even years later. And if you want to call these doctors “bad scientists”: here is a link to the paper, published yesterday. Feel free to read it, then email me with whatever problems you found in their premise, methodology or conclusions.

This certainly would explain a phenomenon I have seen for years – I would go on a diet, work out, lose some weight. I would fall into bad habits and regain. But, the next time I tried to diet, reducing my caloric load no longer worked with the previous amount of calories. If I had once reduced to 1800, I now had to reduce to 1500 to see any results. And so on and so on. But, have one bad food day, and I would suddenly gain 5 pounds. It always felt like my body was working against me. According to the premise of this study, it totally was.

Now, buried in the details of the article is the following nugget: those of us who go through bariatric surgery seem to break this cycle – probably due to the radical revisions that take place when undergoing surgery. Here the body is no longer attempting to move the dial “up to 11” on hunger and metabolic function – instead, it is trying to make reduced demands due to the trauma of a large portion of our dietary tract being removed. However, once that healing process ends, it seems we get plugged right back into the same old “losing twice is 4 times as hard” cycle as the rest of the world. Falling back into bad habits post surgery could conceivably result in the ultimate regain of all our lost weight, even with the removal of 80% or more of our stomach. Danger, Will Robinson.

I strongly suggest you take a few minutes and go read the article. It can be a little discouraging, but it highlights one point that is super important to all of us: don’t allow yourself to fall back into bad habits, or revisiting the weight loss mountain will only grow more difficult with each ascent.

I Suppose The Weight Loss Mountain Is Really A “Descent”,

– Hawkwind

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