Realistic Weight Loss: Defining a New “Normal”
In my practice, a large portion of my patients come in with weight loss goals. Often, their idea of how much they should loose in a given time frame isn’t very realistic. How many times have you heard someone say (or said yourself) “I need to lose 10 lbs in 2 weeks for (insert the name) event.” For years, we have lived in a society obsessed with weight loss and instant gratification. We want what we want and we want it now. Much of these unrealistic expectations derive from T.V. shows like The Biggest Loser which showcase contestants who lose up to 10 lbs per week, week after week. We watch celebrities transform their bodies for movie roles and think that there is something wrong with us if we don’t achieve the same results.
How is this weight loss healthy?—It’s not.
Recently there has been a wave of women stepping up to the plate to destroy this unrealistic standard of health. You might have seen photos on instagram posted showing cellulite, stretch marks, etc on normal, healthy individuals. Making these images mainstream helps to re-shape our perception of normal. Thank God this is finally happening! Hunger Games actress, Jennifer Lawrence, told Harper’s Bazaar, “I would like us to make a new normal-body type. Everybody says, ‘We love that there is somebody with a normal body!’ And I’m like, ‘I don’t feel like I have a normal body.’ I do Pilates every day. I eat, but I work out a lot more than a normal person.” Jennifer’s comment is exactly what people need to realize. Celebrities dedicate hours to exercise and have the resources to hire trainers, chefs, etc. They go on cleanses, fasts, you name it, because their careers are dependent on appearance. We see the air-brushed versions of these glamorous people and want the same. What we don’t know is that they might be experiencing brain fog, adrenal insufficiency, constant hunger, and other metabolic issues due to lack of proper fuel.
Just yesterday I read an article expressing the damage…yes…damage that past Biggest Loser contestants experienced as a result of the drastic measures they undertook to lose weight. Don’t get me wrong, weight loss is important. As a Dietitian, I encourage all of my patients to reach and maintain a healthy weight. Risk of chronic disease greatly increases with excess weight. Worldwide, the prevalence of overweight and obesity has increased at disturbing rates. The State of Obesity website reported that as of 2012, 1.5 billion adults overweight worldwide. The growing prevalence of overweight in obesity in developing countries has led to an upsurge in chronic, non-communicable diseases including diabetes and hypertension. In the U.S. alone, more than two-thirds of adults were overweight or obese (68.6 percent). Approximately 31.8 percent of children and teenagers (ages 2 to 19) were either overweight or obese. Imagine how much these numbers have increased in the past four years.
Ok, so we know that weight loss is important. Many want to lose weight. Wouldn’t faster be better?
Let me explain why celebrity transformations and those seen on The Biggest Loser aren’t realistic or healthy. These drastic measures don’t end in long term weight loss. The New York Times published an article shedding light on the success (or lack thereof) of past contestants. The article specifically follows Season 8 contestants. Kevin Hall, a scientist at a federal research center decided to follow the Biggest Loser contestants for six years after their time on the show. His findings were published in the journal Obesity. This was the first time that subjects who had undergone such drastic weight loss and exercise measures had been studied long term and showcased in the media, but the data it supplied wasn’t “new news.”
In the years following the weight loss of up to 100lbs, 13 of the 14 studied regained all the weight they’d lost. Four are heavier than they were before the show started.
Why did this happen? Didn’t they learn how to exercise and eat right?
Registered Dietitian and instructor at Michigan State University’s College of Osteopathic Medicine, Sarah Weitz, points out that life on the show isn’t maintainable in the real word. Contestants on the Biggest Loser ranch workout for 3-4 hours per day and eat starvation-level calorie-restricted diets prepared by chefs to get their weight down. Additionally, the loss of 10 to 20 pounds a week, shocks their bodies into conservation mode. Our bodies are perfectly designed machines. We need a certain amount of energy (in the form of calories) to fuel our basic functions such as breathing, walking, cognitive ability, etc. When we severely restrict caloric intake, our bodies will compensate by slowing metabolism so that it has enough energy to sustain our basic needs. Twenty percent of those calories are needed to fuel your brain. That would explain why people often feel “foggy-brained” when dieting.
Slowed metabolisms weren’t the only reason they gained back the weight. Do you remember when I mentioned the hormone, leptin? Leptin helps regulate hunger and lets our brain know when we’ve had enough to eat. It signals satiety/fullness. It’s extremely difficult to stick to a strict eating regimen when you’re body is telling you it needs food. While on the show, contestants reported feeling hungry all the time, which scientists discovered was due to lower levels of leptin. Leptin levels decrease with drastic weight loss. The past contestants found that as they regained weight, their leptin levels only increased to about half of what it was before. They were still constantly hungry.Moreover, when we put our bodies under such stressful conditions (hours of intense exercise and under-fueling) this can lead to adrenal dysfunction, impaired thyroid function (our thyroid powers our metabolism), and sex hormone imbalances, just to name a few complications.
Great. Being overweight is unhealthy but if I lose the weight, I can’t maintain it….
Don’t worry. I didn’t convey this information to discourage you but rather for the exact opposite reason! Weight loss efforts take a long time. Think about how long it takes to put on weight. I tell you this so that you don’t get frustrated and wonder what’s wrong when you don’t see the same results as showcased in the media. The reason is because biologically, it isn’t meant to happen. Remember that what they haven’t showcased in the media (until now) is the subsequent weight gain.
Have patience. Give yourself grace, and start making small changes that you can maintain!
Rather than trying to drastically reduce intake, focus on replacing unhealthy options with healthy ones. For example, ditch the bag of chips for a handful of nuts. Instead of sour cream on your baked potato, choose plain Greek yogurt. Swap out the mayo on your sandwich for mashed avocado. Chose natural over processed/packaged foods and aim to increase your vegetable intake by 1 cup per day until you reach the recommended amount of 7-9 servings per day (this might take time—and that’s okay ☺ ) Also, aim to be active for at least 30 minutes per day. One hour is the recommended amount for weight loss. Dance, jog, do online workout videos, play soccer— find something that you love so that you can stick with it. Get used to the new standard of “normal.” ☺
PRB: “Increased Overweight Prevalence and Chronic Disease Risk Among the Poor in Developing Countries”