Dear New York Times: Please Just Stop

I'd like to thank The New York Times for contributing to the malaise and hopelessness currently coupled with obesity.

Why?  Because last Monday the Times published After The Biggest Loser, Their Bodies Fought to Regain the Weight.  A depressing account of what happens to contestants after they leave the show, it is. But good journalism? It is not.

Sadly, this newest article adds to the disagreeable and outdated health advice from the Times, or those found in an Op-Ed.  And full disclosure, I'm far from impartial as The Biggest Loser is among my most hated shows on television. Yet I'm also a religious watcher of The Bachelor, so hey, nobody's perfect.

I don't believe the Times had malicious intent, nor were they purposely trying to paint sustained weight loss as some Sisyphean task.  Instead, my main gripe was that they didn't add anything to the conversation and they failed to propose any solutions.  We've known from study after study that losing weight is the "easy" part, maintaining is the hardest.  And the only answers they did provide were bariatric surgery or accepting hunger as the new normal.

The logic and skepticism of our inner scientist should be wary of accepting the conclusions of a small, self-selected study, but it's hard to overlook such a compelling story.  So in an effort to steer the interwebz back to reality, below are 5 ways in which the article failed to cover the entire story:

1. The article explained - repeatedly - the Biggest Loser contestants all currently had reduced metabolic rates when compared to their peers.  But they never asked "why?"  Could it be that their methods for weight loss were unsustainable and responsible for their decreased metabolism?  I think so.

For starters, the focus on The Biggest Loser is on total weight loss - including lean muscle mass, one of the most metabolically active tissues in the human body.  We also know that the human body is incredibly intelligent.  If we're trying to shed weight as quickly as possible - with a severe caloric deficit and constant cardio - we're going to drop fat, but we're also going to drop tissue that uses calories.

But if we want to lose fat and keep it off, we want to minimize the amount of muscle we lose.  So while the Times may claim that putting on 4 1/2 pounds of muscle will only speed up your metabolism by 2 life savers per day, practice-based evidence for the past few decades tells us quite the opposite.

What can you do?  Focus on strength training, some conditioning, eating the right foods, and integrate all of those changes into slow, sustainable progress.

But that's why I'm not a television producer.



2. All calories are not created equal, a fact that's ignored by this article.  It's naive to think that our bodies are an oven - put in X, do Y, and out comes Z.  In reality, calorie counts can vary dramatically and our bodies differ in the amount of calories it extracts from different foods.  But most importantly, our bodies are constantly adjusting to our lifestyles.

When you attempt to reduce your calories by a certain amount each day, you're probably not going to see prolonged (1+ year) progress.  Cutting out extra snacks or meals might help you lose some weight initially, but your body adjusts your metabolic rate accordingly.  That's why those claims of cutting out someone's daily soda (150 calories) for the entire year never adds up to losing the projected 15.6 pounds based on that decision alone.  Similarly, if you keep yourself on a low calorie diet for a prolonged period of time, your body is going to drastically reduce its outputs to keep homeostasis (and probably stay that way for a long time).

The same thing occurs with exercise.  If you constantly do the same thing every time you workout, your body cuts down the amount of calories it burns.  Unless you're slowly increasing the intensity, volume, or changing the exercise selection, you're getting less from your workout.

So again, what can you do?  Eat high quality proteins, plenty of plants and unsaturated fats which are the most efficient and nutritious foods for our bodies.  It's also why strength training is so key for fat loss - it allows you to increase the efficiency of your workouts (i.e. burn more fat) without the traditional cardio-heavy approach on the show.

3. The article failed to address the psychological drivers of obesity.  Two key quotes exemplify how this large piece of the obesity puzzle remains missing:

"What people don’t understand is that a treat is like a drug,” said Ms. Egbert, who went from 263 pounds to just under 176 on the show, and now weighs between 152 and 157. “Two treats can turn into a binge over a three-day period. That is what I struggle with."

As well as this alarming quote:

His slow metabolism is part of the problem, and so are his food cravings. He opens a bag of chips, thinking he will have just a few. “I’d eat five bites. Then I’d black out and eat the whole bag of chips and say, ‘What did I do?’”

I mean, shouldn't we talk about THAT!?  The fact that someone can "black out" and eat an entire bag of chips, or how a few treats turns into 3 full days of binge eating?  There are psychological elements abound in the fight against obesity. But they chose to ignore these inconvenient truths.

4. We didn't see a true reflection of their current diet, and the parts we did see were based on outdated advice. As taken from the article, one of the contestants recounted their typical breakfast and dinner when trying to drop weight for the finale:

[For breakfast] typically one egg and two egg whites, half a grapefruit and a piece of sprouted grain toast. 
[For dinner] typically a grilled skinless chicken breast, a cup of broccoli and 10 spears of asparagus. 

That's what I like to call a "No Fun Diet!"  It's the exact opposite of what I'd recommend anyone eat if they were trying to lose weight. God forbid we eat any fat or flavor!

We now know that we should be eating an ample amount of fruits and vegetables as they keep us full, healthy, and provide an array of benefits - not limiting them in the name of calorie control!  Further, we know that fat is not the dietary evil we once thought.  Instead, unsaturated fat will help keep us satiated while adding plenty of flavor to our meals.

5. The last red flag was how losing that much weight, that dramatically, is a lot of stress on the human body!  We know stress alters our metabolism, hormones, sleep cycles, appetite, and immune system.  Last time I checked, all of the above are critical for weight loss.

We don't think of losing weight as a stressor because it's something we want.  But from our body's point of view, it wants to maintain homeostasis and we're constantly altering our behaviors and moods based on it.  If we go through an enormous amount of stress in a short period of time, it shouldn't be a surprise that our body may act very differently. That's why crash dieters will often see their weight come back - with vengeance - when they stop their methods.

Sustainable weight loss, small changes, and getting plenty of sleep and relaxation will all help keep your stress levels low and your weight maintained.  Even if the Times disagrees.