Sustainable weight-loss is about how you live your life.
Or at least that’s what I’ve learned. I didn’t become fat because I failed to drink green smoothies, sign up for fitness bootcamps, or routinely try to “hack” my life with gimmicks and fad diets.
The weight wasn’t even the problem. I was. The eighty extra pounds were a side-effect of my lifestyle.
I sat in a computer chair and played video games all night, consumed copious amounts of delivery food and alcohol, and I always snacked. Happy? I celebrated with food. Sad? I ate away the blues. Bored? Pizza made for great company. And those old friends Jim, Jack, and Johnny never let me down until they finally did.
But the weight-loss industry seems to misunderstand this.
Rather than be honest about what weight-gain is, exactly, they promote solutions that neither address the problem nor provide people with the tools to solve it. The result is that we do everything other than what works—ignoring the root cause while employing all sorts of dubious tricks and temporary programs. We fall for pseudo-scientific bullshit that professional quacks package into books and sell by the hundreds of thousands. People like Food Babe and JJ Smith, for example.
But perhaps reality is a tough-pill to swallow. After all, people frequently ignore their own culpability. I sure did. It was easier to believe that I was fine the way I was—that I could just “juice” my way to a slimmer body. Questioning my underlying assumptions about how to live life? Forget about that. Just pass me another green smoothie.
This isn’t about telling a sick person to stop being sick, as I suppose some might assume. Obesity isn’t a bacterial or viral infection—it’s a lifestyle-induced problem. Even if we weren’t playing with a full deck of cards at the time, it’s still the result of our decisions. And our decisions are still the way out of it.
But don’t expect that book to show up on the shelves at Barnes and Noble. The weight-loss industry will probably continue to sell the same rubbish and quackery as usual
Shows like “The Biggest Loser”, for example.
Maybe you’ve heard the recent news that Season 16’s contestants have regained much of their weight. I can’t say I’m surprised. I remember watching an episode where, on the first day, the everyone was subjected to hours of grueling workouts while Jillian Michaels screamed and yelled like a drill sergeant. It was poorly-planned at best, and dangerous at worst. I remember what it was like to suddenly exercise after years of doing nothing. It was hard. The body takes time to adapt. A four-hundred pound man struggling after three hours of exercise isn’t a sign of weakness or lack of willpower. It’s just the way things are.
But I underestimated just how grueling the show was. According to the New York Times:
Sequestered on the “Biggest Loser” ranch with the other contestants, [Danny] Cahill exercised seven hours a day, burning 8,000 to 9,000 calories according to a calorie tracker the show gave him. He took electrolyte tablets to help replace the salts he lost through sweating, consuming many fewer calories than before.
Eventually, he and the others were sent home for four months to try to keep losing weight on their own.
Let’s think about this for a moment.
How is that supposed empower him to take care of himself and live a healthy life? What tools was he provided? How does that teach him to do anything other than torture himself in the pursuit of a slimmer body?
If he slept for eight hours and worked for eight, he’d have to spend every spare minute of every day exercising to keep that up. He’s not in the “reality show bubble” anymore. Not to mention his commute and the time it takes to cook, bathe, dress himself, and go to the store. It’s not practical by any definition of the word.
That’s also why it didn’t work. It wasn’t sustainable.
Mr. Cahill set a goal of a 3,500-caloric deficit per day. The idea was to lose a pound a day. He quit his job as a land surveyor to do it.
His routine went like this: Wake up at 5 a.m. and run on a treadmill for 45 minutes. Have breakfast — typically one egg and two egg whites, half a grapefruit and a piece of sprouted grain toast. Run on the treadmill for another 45 minutes. Rest for 40 minutes; bike ride nine miles to a gym. Work out for two and a half hours. Shower, ride home, eat lunch — typically a grilled skinless chicken breast, a cup of broccoli and 10 spears of asparagus. Rest for an hour. Drive to the gym for another round of exercise.
If he had not burned enough calories to hit his goal, he went back to the gym after dinner to work out some more. At times, he found himself running around his neighborhood in the dark until his calorie-burn indicator reset to zero at midnight.
Do you want to live like that? Could you live like that? His entire day revolved around burning a specific number of calories on an exercise tracker. That sounds miserable.
As expected, Danny Cahill slowly fell out of the routine and regained some weight. He was 191lbs at the show’s finale, but now he’s just shy of 300lbs.
And it’s not entirely his fault. The rapid weight-loss forced upon contestants absolutely destroys their metabolisms.
As Dr. Yoni Freedhoff explained back in 2012:
The term metabolic adaptation is given to the phenomenon whereby when a person loses a certain percentage of weight, their metabolisms slow by greater amounts. This process may be theoretically accelerated with more rapid weight loss as a consequence of the rapidly losing body metabolizing calorie burning muscle along with fat to make up for its massive energy deficit.
And as far as rapid non-surgical weight loss goes, there’s probably no weight loss program more rapid than that of the television show The Biggest Loser, where it’s not uncommon for contestants to lose upwards of 150lbs at an averaged pace of nearly 10lbs a week.
Darcy Johannsen and friends studied the impact 7 months of Biggest Loser weight loss had on the resting and total energy expenditures of 16 participants. They used all the latest gadgets to do so including indirect calorimetry and doubly labeled water. So what happened? By week 6 participants had lost 13% of their body weight and by week 30, 39%. More importantly by week 6 participants metabolisms had slowed by 244 more calories per day than would have been expected simply as a function of their weight loss and by week 30, by 504 more.
That’s basically a meal’s worth of calories a day that Biggest Loser contestants no longer burn as a direct consequence of their involvement. How do you think you’d do at maintaining your weight if you ate an extra meal a day?
That’s horrible! They’ve been set up to fail. As the New York Times mentions:
Mr. Cahill was one of the worst off. As he regained more than 100 pounds, his metabolism slowed so much that, just to maintain his current weight of 295 pounds, he now has to eat 800 calories a day less than a typical man his size. Anything more turns to fat.
I don’t suppose it makes for entertaining television, however, to follow people over three, four, or five years as they make healthy meals, keep a food journal, and rediscover the joy of an active lifestyle. Good luck getting anyone to watch that. It wouldn’t sell many ads either.
Of course the New York Times seems to spin this story as one of long-term weight-loss being a futile endeavor. The tone is resigned—almost as if to say “see, they’ve just been fighting a losing battle this entire time”.
But they’re wrong.
Countless folks managed to do it and many more will. I have, Josh LaJaunie has, and so has David Clark. And what about the many thousands of folks who you never hear about—people who work regular jobs and blend into the crowd. Maybe you have a coworker who looks slim and fit but was a hundred pounds heavier five years go? Go to any local triathlon or road race, and you’ll discover that it’s a common story.
There’s always going to be obstacles—I get it, I really do. Sometimes biology is a bitch. We can’t control our genetics; and if we’re being totally honest, the food industry makes it downright difficult to eat well. If you were to shop on your own without any education, insight, or knowledge about what you’re doing—if you were to eat a “default” diet, in other words—then there’s a good chance that you’d struggle with weight-management.
But this doesn’t mean we’re doomed to failure.
Educate yourself. Take your time and keep it simple—don’t rush. Do as Dr. Yoni Freedhoff often says, and live the healthiest life that you can comfortably enjoy. Never forget that weight-loss begins and ends in the kitchen.
If you don’t know what you enjoy, then try new activities. Get a pass at a rock climbing gym, sign up for a Couch-to-5k program, rent a bicycle and hit the local trails. Give kayaking a try. Pay for a month of yoga classes with a reputable instructor. The worst thing that can happen is you’ll have some cool stories and meet new people. Sounds terrible, right?
Weight-loss doesn’t have to be complicated.
It’s all about how you live your life.
What do you think? Leave a comment and let me know. If you want to help spread the message about long-term, sustainable weight-loss, I always appreciate a share or two on social media!