Karen's Blogs

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Why the Biggest Loser Participants Are Now Big Gainers

I never watch “The Biggest Loser,” the hit TV show. It has always made me cringe and want to cry. Why? Because eating and weight is my field, I’ve known for decades that diets don’t work long term and can actually make you fatter. In fact, it may surprise you to learn that science knew about the dangers of dieting since long before I began my clinical practice 30-plus years ago. Research on the subject started during World War II!

Science writer Gina Kolata and researcher Tracy Mann wrote about the failure of diets in their respective books Rethinking Thin in 2007 and Secrets from the Eating Lab in 2015. My guess is that neither book did as well as whatever bestselling diet books came out in those years. There have been journal, newspaper, and magazine articles written for decades about the disappointing results of dieting and here we are, again, with Kolata’s just published article, “After ‘The Biggest Loser,’ Their Bodies Fought to Regain Weight” (http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/02/health/biggest-loser-weight-loss.html?smprod=nytcore-iphone&smid=nytcore-iphone-share&_r=0).

Hats off to Kolata! I heartily encourage you to read her article and will give you the bottom line: Talking about the show’s contestant success rate, she reports that “13 of the 14 contestants studied regained weight in the six years after the competition. Four contestants are heavier now than before the competition.”

Believe me, I take no joy in sharing these results—they’re exactly what any eating disorders therapist would have predicted—because this news is exactly what people with weight concerns don’t want to hear. The best part of this news is that dieters and folks with high weights no longer need believe they’re at fault for weight gain or lack of weight loss, that they must be doing something wrong, or that they’re lazy and uncaring about their bodies. The worst part is that, though they’re not to blame, because they can’t lower their weight easily by eating less, they’re heart-broken and ready to give up.

Here’s what happens when you try to diet off weight. The result of caloric restriction is a markedly slow-downed metabolism. People who diet to get down to a lower weight must eat far fewer calories to maintain it than people who’ve arrived at this weight naturally. The dieters must eat so much less that they’re hungry much of the time which stimulates their cravings and eventually drives them to eat. They feel they can’t win: they’re miserable if they starve themselves to keep pounds off and miserable if they eat to stave off hunger because then the pounds come creeping back on.

There’s only one way to view the article’s conclusions and stay sane and still feel hopeful for change: Stop focusing on weight and start focusing, instead, on eating in a body-attuned manner and set goals for health and fitness. Even if your weight remains the same, if you’re eating with more attunement to hunger and satiation signals, you’re bound to feel better about yourself. You’ll trust yourself more and have a better relationship with food and your body. With more of an eye toward nutrition and moving your body, you’re likely to have better cholesterol and triglycerides numbers. Moreover, you’re going to be taking care of your body in the best way possible to promote health and well-being and prevent disease. And you’ll be doing whatever you can to enhance longevity.

You’ll be more successful and feel more successful. You can choose either to feel bummed out about the failures of the “The Biggest Loser” or you can use them to make a major shift in taking care of yourself for the better.

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