You probably heard abou the New York Times article that did a follow up on 14 contestants from The Biggest Loser TV show, revealing how they had regained almost all of the hundreds of pounds they lost on the show 6 years earlier. The article did a great job describing the intense struggle it takes to achieve significant fat loss and the heart breaking reality of what it means to gain it all back.
The article also highlights the devastating fact that humans undergo a significant metabolic adaptation when they lose weight. Their bodies burn substantially fewer calories at rest once the diet ends, which makes sustaining weight loss difficult, especially if they return to their old pre-diet eating habits.
What’s most surprising about the article is not that the Biggest Loser contestants have regained the weight (after all less than 20 percent of dieters maintain just 10 percent of the weight lost during longer term interventions). Nor is it that contestants experienced a metabolic adaptation since this is a well known effect of weight loss.
Rather, what’s most surprising is that the article doesn’t once mention the interconnected role that lifestyle and dietary habits play in managing body composition and avoiding weight gain.
Research shows that it’s these everyday, often mundane actions that make all the difference in whether you will be able to keep the fat off for good.
This is good because it means you don’t have to live a life of hunger and deprivation. On the other hand, you do have to put in the effort to develop habits that make fat loss sustainable. Once these behaviors become part of who you are, maintaining a healthy body composition may not be effortless, but it is completely doable. This article will give you five ways to avoid the Biggest Loser fat trap and keep the fat off.
#1: Learn To Train The Right Way
One of the biggest pitfalls of the Biggest Loser is that it encourages excessive exercise and doesn’t teach people how to train without Jillian Michaels hurling insults at them.
The first step to overcome this is to favor weights over cardio exercise in order preserve lean muscle. By preserving your lean mass, your metabolism won’t drop as drastically as it would otherwise. For example, one study done on Biggest Loser contestants found that they lost an average of 25 pounds of lean mass over the course of the 30-week competition.
Not only will their body’s burn substantially fewer calories daily, research shows that when people lose muscle, they tend to get lazier, partly because the brain downregulates neurotransmitters involved in activity and partly because their movement economy is worse.
One method to avoid this is to adopt a program that will build strength. For example, a recent study found that when women completed a training program and diet to lose 25 pounds, those that lifted weights had better mobility and walking economy by the end of the study. They also improved how they felt about their bodies, which allowed them to be more active in spontaneous activity.
In contrast, women who just dieted and didn’t train had worse movement economy, even though they now weighed less. Despite being leaner, they became more sedentary than before losing weight and their daily energy expenditure dropped by 260 calories a day—a situation that would make it virtually impossible to avoid fat regain in the future.
The ideal training program will be unique to the individual, but you can bet it will never include exercising for 4 to 6 hours a day, as is common on the Biggest Loser. Most people will optimize body composition results from training with weights 4 days a week for about an hour.
Also be sure to consciously focus on being as active as possible in daily life to boost your total energy expenditure. Most important—avoid sitting for long periods of time. Try to get up at least every hour, shooting for some movement every 15 to 30 minutes.
#2: Take Control Of What You Put In Your Mouth
A huge pitfall of the Biggest Loser and most diet programs is that they don’t teach how to make informed choices about what and how you eat. By taking control of what you put in your mouth, you avoid the pitfalls of emotional eating and can be empowered by your decisions.
What does this look like in real life?
The first step is to plan your meals in advance and eat at the same time each day. Instead of thinking about nutrition as an afterthought in which you eat whatever you want, whenever you want, contain your eating to a 12-hour window, eating 3 to 6 meals that are evenly spaced apart. This will allow you to avoid low blood sugar and uncontrollable hunger and cravings, while improving energy levels and metabolic rate.
Second, it’s recommended that you prepare meals in advance, but if this is simply not an option, you can never go wrong if you make sure you eat a high-quality protein, such as fish, eggs, poultry, or meat, and pair it with a low-carb vegetable such, as salad or sautéed leafy greens, cauliflower, or asparagus. Then add some healthy fat—olive oil, nuts, or seeds—and you’re all set.
#3: Eat Real Food
One of the unfortunate things that many people have to reconcile is the fact that the refined foods they’ve come to love and rely on are scientifically engineered to trigger food intake and make them eat more calories. We get it: You love bread, pizza, chips, pasta, crackers, and fast food.
Here’s the thing: Refined foods have been shown to literally change the architecture of your brain, leading to food addiction, depression, and fatigue. Naturally, this combination significantly increases risk of obesity and makes maintaining weight loss impossible.
Another major pitfall of processed foods is that they have a lower thermic effect than whole foods, meaning that if you eat a processed meat sandwich with white bread, your body will burn fewer calories during digestion than if you ate the same amount of calories from chicken breast, rice, and sweet potatoes.
Although the Biggest Loser encourages healthy eating, it doesn’t help people to figure out a way to enjoy healthy food. For long-term leanness, this is a deal breaker—you’ll never be able to keep fat gain at bay if your diet revolves around refined foods.
The good news is that a lot of people find that when they stop eating the hyperpalatable scientifically-engineered food and replace them with vegetables, steak, salmon, nuts, seeds, fruit, etc., they literally retrain their taste buds to enjoy REAL food.
And when you remember that whole foods can include a lot of food that is often considered unhealthy by the mainstream, such as meat, eggs, whole-fat dairy, butter, coconut oil, coffee, and so on, you realize that it’s completely possible to enjoy a real food lifestyle.
#4: Address Hormonal Imbalances
Hormones play a principal role in body composition, regulating both metabolic rate and food intake. Most people naturally have hormonal imbalances due to obesity, lifestyle, stress, dietary deficiencies, or medical issues.
Cortisol may be elevated due to stress or meal skipping. Insulin may be high due to lack of physical activity and excess calories. Hunger hormones may be altered due to a high-fat, high-carb diet. Testosterone and estrogen may be out of whack due to excess body fat or a poor diet.
Additionally, weight loss causes significant changes in all of these hormones as the body does everything it can to hold on to its fat stores and prevent fat loss. Unfortunately, the Biggest Loser not only doesn’t address hormonal imbalances that contestants may have, but many of the practices employed on the program, such as excessive exercise exacerbate hormone issues.
For example, one participant set the goal of a daily 3,500-calorie deficit by engaging in 4 to 6 hours of exercise a day. To most coaches, such a program is laughable since it would negatively affect the stress hormone cortisol, while surely having as of yet undetermined detrimental affects to other hormones that regulate energy levels and hunger.
Case in point, by the end of the Biggest Loser season, research showed that levels of leptin, the hormone that tamps down appetite and keeps you satisfied, went from normal levels at the start to being almost nonexistent (it dropped from an average of 41.14 to 2.56 by the end of 30 weeks of competition).
The take away is that for sustainable weight loss, you need to address existing hormonal imbalances and use a program that will help you create the right metabolic environment to minimize hunger and boost metabolism. A few strategies that will help the vast majority of people to achieve better hormone balance are as follows:
Eat a higher protein diet to increase the release of hormones that decrease appetite and minimize hunger.
Avoid simple and refined carbs, which wreak havoc on blood sugar and insulin and stimulate hunger.
Cope with your stress. Focus on getting adequate sleep and including rejuvenating, cortisol-lowering activities throughout your day.
Reduce chemical exposure for better androgen balance: Avoid plastic food and water containers and use natural personal care and cleaning products.
#5: Do The Little Things
None of the habits listed below are exciting or sexy enough to hold the attention of a prime time viewing audience like that of the Biggest Loser, but they can make a huge difference in how much we eat.
One research group from Cornell University led by Brian Wansink shows that it’s much easier to tweak your eating environment than to become more mindful regarding food. Wansink believes our lives are just too crazy and our willpower too slim to make mindful eating work. Instead he recommends adopting these behaviors that have been shown to allow people to substantially lower calorie intake without even noticing:
Do A Food Journal: Food journals work because they identify weak spots in your diet. They give you raw data to overcome bad eating habits. For example, are you skipping meals? Or do your food choices deteriorate when you eat out with friends?
Chew Thoroughly: Studies show people who chew their food more times fill up faster and have a greater increase in satiety hormones so that they eat fewer calories overall.
Eat Protein For Breakfast: Studies consistently show that high-protein breakfasts suppress appetite and reduce subsequent eating throughout the day. Choose eggs over waffles or steak over cereal.
Use Smaller Plates & Glasses: Using smaller plates and filling them up sends a signal to your brain you’re eating a full meal. It’s a proven way to eat less without even noticing.
Eat At The Table, Not In Front of The TV: In one study, eating in front of the TV was the second biggest predictor of significant weight gain (10 pounds) over a 3 year period, immediately after not planning how much to eat before sitting down.
Use The First Bites Rule: Research shows that whatever food you put in our mouth first is the food you’ll eat the most of. Use it to your advantage by always starting meals with vegetables, salad, or protein. Save energy dense, higher carb foods for the end of the meal.
Keep Snacks Out of Sight or Out of The House: People eat a lot more when food is visible rather than put away where it can’t be seen, even if they know it’s there. Never buying unhealthy foods is the best bet, but if you have to have them in the house keep them hidden away in a cupboard. On the flip side, keep healthy foods like a fruit bowl prominently displayed.