In America, over one-third of adults suffer from obesity, falling subject to a variety of health implications such as hypertension, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. While there are many reasons as to how and why obesity can occur, weight loss is usually the recommended solution for those looking to prevent additional diseases. For the brave who decide to pursue their own weight loss journey, their success is typically met with kudos and compliments from loved ones and acquaintances. But what can seem like the end of a long road is unfortunately many times just the beginning.
The “Biggest Loser” Experiment
Danny Cahill, the winner of Season 8 of NBC’s the “Biggest Loser”, lost an incredible 239 pounds in his seven months on the show. Since the finale aired in December of 2009, though, he’s experienced a regain of more than 100 pounds. Sadly, the majority of Season 8’s sixteen contestants faced similar disappointment, some even surpassing their previous weights post production. When scientist Kevin Hall, a self-proclaimed reality TV junkie, recognized the trend he decided to investigate. He followed the Season 8 “Biggest Loser” contestants for six years following Danny’s win, attempting to understand what happens to people immediately following massive weight loss from intense dieting and exercise. What he found helps explain why so many people struggle to keep off the weight they work so hard to lose.
The Regain Reality: Biology
Unfortunately, just about anyone who loses weight deliberately will have a slower metabolism at the end of their journey. Robert Huizenga, the show’s doctor, says he “expected the contestant’s metabolic rates to fall just after the show, but was hoping for a smaller drop”. He warns that maintaining weight loss is difficult, which is why he advises contestants to exercise a minimum of nine hours a week and monitor their diets to combat regain. The reality is, though, that everybody is different. According to The New York Times, "what obesity research has consistently shown is that dieters are at the mercy of their own bodies, which muster hormones and an altered metabolic rate to pull them back to their old weights, whether that is hundreds of pounds or that extra 10 or 15 that many people are trying to keep off.” In the case of the contestants, their metabolic rates slowed over time making it difficult for their bodies to burn enough calories to maintain. Additionally, many of the contestants in the study showed substantially low levels of leptin in their systems. Leptin is a hormone that controls hunger, and low levels can result in binge eating. For the average person, this combination of constant hunger and a slowed metabolism is a recipe for weight gain.
The results of the “Biggest Loser” study are enlightening, but rest easy knowing that we’re not all doomed by biology. Those who are able to restrain from binge eating and ignore signs of hunger can maintain weight loss by restricting calories and exercising regularly. With Danny Cahill specifically, he now has to eat 800 calories per day less than the average man his size simply to remain at his smaller size. That’s in addition to his regular fitness routine. While it takes a lot of discipline, it can be done.