When weight loss is in the news, it inevitably revolves around the idea that it’s impossible to do, or if you do manage to do it, it’s impossible to maintain. This is a popular story because most of us are fat, and by us I mean “all humans” and by “fat” I mean “overweight or obese.” And most of us don’t want to be fat any more, for a variety of reasons. And while most of us know that we just need to eat less and move more to lose weight, most of us find it very hard to do, and it’s honestly comforting to think that it might not be our fault.
In fact, I’ve been fat, and a few years ago I lost about 20% of my total body weight. According to many headlines, including a big recent New York Times article, I am either an incredible outlier or a future failure who might at any moment balloon out, Violet Beauregarde-style.
In the study featured in the New York Times, researchers followed contestants on the reality show The Biggest Loser for 6 years after the show’s finale, finding that they all gained weight back and had done great damage to their metabolism in the process. For instance, Sean Algier originally weighed 444 pounds, got down to 289 on the Biggest Loser, and six years later weighs 450 pounds. He “now burns 458 fewer calories a day than would be expected for a man his size,” which makes weight loss even harder.
That’s a scary finding that probably had a lot of NY Times readers ready to stop counting calories and just embrace their bodies as is. But is it true, and is it applicable to the majority of people who want to lose weight?
You may have guessed by now that my answer is “no” and “no.”
I agree that the study is very interesting, but there are also some pretty big (pardon) issues with it. For a start, I’ll throw out my usual complaint with a lot of studies with incredible results: the sample size is too small. This study involved 14 people. No matter what the results are, a study with only 14 data points needs to be replicated before being given a New York Times spotlight.
And these 14 people are extraordinary! They all lost incredibly dangerous amounts of weight in ridiculously short periods of time under the guidance of professional trainers and specialists. It’s not just that their results aren’t typical -- this would be like studying astronauts who live in space for a year to determine what happens to your body when you go on a looping roller coaster once a summer.
Third, the people profiled haven’t failed to keep weight off. One of them failed. The others have regained some fat, which of course they did! They lost all that weight and then went out into the world with zero support or understanding of how to maintain! But they’ve managed to keep off a huge percentage of their total weight, like Danny Cahill, who is presented in the article as a complete failure but who weighs 130 pounds less than before he went on the show. 130 pounds is an entire person!
Finally, there’s the problem with the researchers’ evaluations of how many fewer calories these people are burning compared to other people of their size. They can’t actually compare the subjects’ metabolism to an average of all people at that weight, since we don’t have that kind of data. So they used a linear algorithm, the simplest equation possible that will fit their data of 14 obese subjects. Depending upon what algorithm you use, you can come up with very different results, including results that are much more in line with previous research on the subject.
Does this mean they chose the wrong algorithm? Absolutely not! All it means is that before we make any conclusions, this study needs to be replicated using all the same techniques but with more data points. Only then can we really talk about what extreme weight loss does to morbidly obese people. And even then, we can’t necessarily extrapolate to people like me, who were overweight and lost enough to reach a healthy weight.
The moral of the story is that if you want to lose weight, your best bet is still to eat less, move more, and don’t believe everything you see on reality television. Or everything you read about reality television.