Home It's All Mental Why The Biggest Loser Metabolism Research Doesn’t Surprise Me

Why The Biggest Loser Metabolism Research Doesn’t Surprise Me

by Erika Nicole Kendall

I believe I said, years ago, one more link for good measure, that the onslaught of reality tv show weight loss porn aggravated me to no end. I stated, very plainly, that these shows are little more than fat people publicly paying penance for being fat. As someone who’s lost a three-digit amount of pounds, I knew how emotional and vulnerable one can be when they’ve got that much weight to lose. I didn’t—and still don’t—believe this is a process that should be controlled by producers who have incentive to exploit and manipulate it.

I’ve also shared my struggles with my metabolism, and why I’ve made some of the choices I’ve made with regard to my body. I chose to stop losing weight and start gaining it—muscle, specifically—because my metabolism was shrinking to a point where I’d have to eat an amount of food smaller than I’d ever been used to in order to maintain my success.

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All this being said, when I saw the New York Times’ report on research done regarding the inability of a few of the Biggest Loser contestants to maintain the weight they lost post-show, I wasn’t surprised. Not. Even. A. Little. Bit.

“Researchers knew that just about anyone who deliberately loses weight — even if they start at a normal weight or even underweight — will have a slower metabolism when the diet ends. So they were not surprised to see that “The Biggest Loser” contestants had slow metabolisms when the show ended.

What shocked the researchers was what happened next: As the years went by and the numbers on the scale climbed, the contestants’ metabolisms did not recover. They became even slower, and the pounds kept piling on. It was as if their bodies were intensifying their effort to pull the contestants back to their original weight.” [source]

In the fourth segment of HBO’s Weight of the Nation from a while back, viewers were told basically the same thing. Several years ago.

Individuals losing weight are not metabolically the same as they were before they lost weight. Consider two individuals, same gender, same age, exactly the same body weight, one of those individuals is at that weight as a result of a ten- to fifteen-per cent weight reduction. The other has been at that weight their entire adult life. The weight reduced individual will be requiring about 20% less calories per day, relative to what somebody of that weight whose never lost weight would eat, or, would eat ten percent less and increase their physical activity in order to keep at that body weight.

If that reduced individual goes out to lunch with her friend, and they both order the same meal, that will represent a 20% overeating for the weight  reduced individual, yet normal eating for the person who is not in that [reduced] state.

20% may sound like a little, but 20% excess caloric intake a year, will account for the inexorable weight gain. As far as we know, this phenomenon does not go away, so being successful for a year or two doesn’t mean that you’re going to be able to go back to eating at the rate that would be appropriate for a person who’d never lost weight.”

Excerpted from The Anatomy of Extreme Weight Loss, and the Hardest Decision I’ve Had to Make in My Journey | A Black Girl’s Guide To Weight Loss

In response to this, I shared the following:

“It’s super important that you understand what this is saying – someone who loses weight and reaches a weight that someone else has maintained their entire life will still have to eat even less than the maintainer, in comparison, in order to maintain their reduced weight. This is essential. It not only explains weight gain and rebounding, but it also offers a potential explanation for weight loss plateaus, as well… especially for someone who originally started out cutting far too many calories in order to lose in the first place.


Think about the degrees to which many people cut their calories, sometimes eating anywhere from 800 to 1200 calories when their body naturally burns upwards of 3,000. Think of that, on top of a punishing cardio routine. A 2,000+ calorie-a-day deficit might sound like an ideal way of losing weight, but the toll it takes on the muscular system (and possibly even more) is surreal. Layne Norton has been talking about this for months, referring to components of this as “metabolic adaptation” – it’s serious shit. (And you know it’s serious, because I swore. I never swear.)

As I shared once – okay, maybe a few times – before, muscle development is essential. A pound of muscle burns anywhere from two to three times the calories that a pound of fat burns per hour. If you’re constantly depriving your body of the things that muscle needs to thrive, let alone grow, you’re decreasing your ability to burn calories. What’s more, a yo-yo dieter who takes on a brutal cardio program and an ultra-restrictive low-carb, low-protein-for-their-body-type diet is most likely to lose much of the little muscle their body has been fighting to put on and keep on in the first place.

Contrast that with the person who has maintained a “healthy weight” over the course of their adult life, who not only has likely accumulated muscle over time in a natural, non-workout-related way but also likely has a healthy case of ‘fidgeting’ syndrome, which is a natural way that the body burns excess energy, something many non-maintainers don’t know or have.

In short, I think the thing that negatively affects a weight reduced person’s ability to eat and live like a maintainer, is muscle development. Body fat percentage.

Excerpted from The Anatomy of Extreme Weight Loss, and the Hardest Decision I’ve Had to Make in My Journey | A Black Girl’s Guide To Weight Loss

One of the most important things I learned early on in my journey was that each pound has a metabolic value. Meaning that, for every pound you weigh, there is a metabolic value associated. This is why* larger people tend to have higher metabolisms than smaller ones. A larger person who has been large for years, loses a ton of weight in an extreme fashion will already be at a disadvantage because of the muscle loss. But if they gain weight again? It’s likely to be body fat. If they gain back 100% of what they lost? Chances are high they wouldn’t have the same amount of muscle as they had before the extreme weight loss. This explains losing so much in metabolism even though you’re back at your original weight.

That being said, one of the most glaring flaws in this research is the way metabolism is presented. There is no finite number with regard to what each person’s metabolism should be. Your metabolism is supposed to shift as your weight shifts—the claim that your body “fights” to put you back at your original weight has less to do with metabolism and more to do with the evolutionary connection between the way your brain processes eating and satiety. This is something that a show like Biggest Loser could not and, because it is not sexy, would not bother to address.

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Eating is about more than nutrition. It impacts your mood, it impacts the way your body performs, it affects your brain chemistry, and it’s all by design. The varying states of hunger and satiety (that’s your “leptin” and your “ghrelin”) are linked to the same brain chemistry that leads you to feelings of both pleasure and satisfaction, and that portion of the brain—also known as the reward center, responsible for dopamine—is where habits are built and codified and, furthermore, solidified.

This is why it’s so hard to change what you eat and how much of it you eat. Your brain is used to seeing your plate full to a certain degree, spending a certain amount of time chewing, tasting a certain flavor a certain amount of times, feeling your belly extend a certain amount. You’re used to a certain amount of food to feel full, and used to feeling full. Used to a certain kind of sugar rush. And, without experiencing all of the levels necessary to fulfill those components of what it means to satisfy you, you won’t be satisfied.

Shows like Biggest Loser don’t address that. Habits are complex. Habits also aren’t as easy as “If you don’t want to do something, just do something else.” Habits are habits because they operate without your conscious effort. The ability to develop habits—things we do without active decision-making—is what allows us to walk and chew gum at the same time. Habits protect us from being singularly-minded. They also leave us susceptible to making choices without actively making them, hence why so many people believe they eat so much less than they actually do.

Now, consider what it’s like when you use food as a salve for whatever hurts. Feeling lonely? Eat something. Feeling disappointed? Eat something. This isn’t a moral failing—this is an encouraged business plan. Marketing teaches us that food is for healing and, if it were your mom’s pot of chicken noodle soup or your aunt’s pot of greens, it might be. But it’s a bottle of coke, telling you to pop the top and “open happiness.” It’s a pint of ice cream, beckoning you to use it to heal after a painful breakup. It’s sugar-laden stuff that exploits what’s supposed to be a survival mechanism for the human species, inadvertently causing weight gain as well as myriad other health conditions.

And yes, it certainly is a survival mechanism—you engage in things that feel good repeatedly because you know they are sources of happiness, even if it is bad for you. When we retreat from reality, however, and instead of solving problems that stress us out or developing coping mechanisms for handling problems with no solution, we dive into sweets or other foods that are harmful in excess…out of control weight gain can happen. But when we retreat from reality often enough, a habit is born.

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And I’m not judging—I’m speaking from experience. I’ll always be a recovering emotional eater, a food addict, and this will always be my reality. No one knows how hard it can be more than me. And no one realizes the pain and desperation in the voices of people who are eager to lose the weight they believe is separating them from their happiest lives and their best selves than me.

Combine the innate habit of doing things that make you happy when you’re perpetually unhappy with the depletion of muscle mass often associated with extreme dieting and dramatic weight loss. This is where the weight gain comes from, and why so many people experience yo-yo dieting. This is also why I discourage drastic weight loss. It has to be a lifestyle change.

Your metabolism has to change, and it takes time to get used to that. It’s not your body “fighting to keep you at a certain size.” If anything, it’s your brain telling you that consuming less than you usually do, often of the same foods you’ve always eaten, is leading you towards a path of starvation and your body fights to make you eat. The weight gain isn’t as consequential as the satiety, something very few people achieve while consuming processed foods or foods high in simple carbs. (Foods, unsurprisingly, that are pushed on and during The Biggest Loser as paid product placement or commercials. Multi-billion dollar corporations gotta pay the bills too, y’all.)

Can you lose weight while still figuring all this out? Of course you can, and TBL proves as much. But, what it also proves is that weight loss is so much more mental, that you will find yourself right back where you started without even realizing it and won’t make the necessary changes because the “bad” habit feels better than the realization that something has to change. Engaging in the “bad” habit feels better than accepting that you’ve slipped and need help. Engaging in the bad habit is not only satisfying, it’s comforting. Mentally, it’s home.

Again, that’s okay. Realizing that our bad habits are home is the first step to creating a new home just a comfy, just as cozy, and just as structured for your well-being and happiness.

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Take this excerpt, for example:

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.

[…]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?’” [source]

This proves my point. Anyone could successfully lose weight when extracted from the environment that causes the gain. What happens when you return home? What did you learn about how to cope? How to handle stress? How to be a problem solver? What did you learn about the way you interact with your environment? How have you changed your responses? How have you grown? How have you changed the way you eat and respond to hunger? Did you learn that there will be some foods that you just can’t eat anymore?

This is why I say that weight loss is all mental. You have to figure out a path for you that makes you happy in a way that counterproductive choices cannot. One of the former contestants is quoted as saying, “It opened my eyes to the fact that obesity is not simply a food addiction.” He’s right—it’s more than that. It requires a thorough understanding of what you’re getting yourself into, a readiness and willingness to explore every variable to figure out which part of your life are most counterproductive to your goal, the ability to put into it the time and energy and money to get it done, and—yes—a clear understanding of how food addiction works, what it means to heal from it, and how to approach healing as a lifelong process instead of a finite one.

I despise Biggest Loser, but I empathize with the cast. We all want the same thing. But I ache for them even more, knowing how ill-prepared the experience left them. May we all be as supportive and encouraging to them as we’d like for ourselves. That’s the most helpful thing we could do for them, anyway.

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More on metabolism:

*I put an asterisk beside this because I want to make clear that I know the ways in which hormone therapies, prescription medications, disordered eating patterns, and other similarly-situated challenges impact metabolism and weight gain. These situations are exceptions to the understood, but they are becoming increasingly more common and must be considered.

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Katie May 4, 2016 - 10:32 AM

Thank you for this. I started Weight Watchers a few weeks ago and couldn’t figure out why the cookie jar seemed to develop a magnetic pull over night. I am good and figuring things out and dissecting problems so I can make a new choice but am just now starting to understand the mental mastery needed to lose weight and maintain weight loss over time. I am ankle deep but ready to dive in to your whole website! Thank you for you.

jb May 8, 2016 - 1:44 PM

Good post!

S.S.Kimbrel May 8, 2016 - 3:07 PM

This article is awesome! Between the threat of severe loose skin and extreme muscle loss I have decided to take a very slow “muscle retaining/building” approach to weight loss. I can’t afford to loose the muscle I have and certainly don’t want to replace that muscle with fat. Eventually I want to loose 175lbs. But I’m ok loosing 30-50 a year for the next 4 to 5 years. I given this a lot of thought and research and what your saying in this article confirms it! Keep up the excellent work.

Twanna Anderson May 8, 2016 - 10:01 PM

Thank you for all that you do for us through your blog. I have dieted successfully all of my life. I’m good at listing weight… and gaining it back. When 2015 started, I was 260 pounds. The first thing I thought was “I’m overweight enough to be on the biggest loser!” which was devastating for me.

I’m a retired for fighter who understands what it takes to be in good shape but I didn’t keep it up. I first had to learn to be happy with the body I had, flaws and all. After all, I wasn’t sick. I could walk. Everything worked the way it should. It was time to be thankful for that because there are so many folks who aren’t that blessed. Then I had to give up dieting and learn exactly what food meant to my well being. Learn how the food I ate fueled my body, and not. Then I got rid of the timelines and calorie deficit habits. I eat what I want. The difference is now it’s the foods that my body needs to function efficiently.

Last year I lost 50 pounds, half my goal. But then it stopped. However, I didn’t go back to my old habits like I used to do. Still no fast food, I cook what I eat, no Chinese food (big weakness!). That alone mad me so proud of myself you could imagine. Now, I’m working with a personal trainer and the pounds are rolling off… by lifting weights. I still get my cardio on but now I’m working on my muscles and it’s amazing! I don’t track my food like I used to, I take a picture and send it to my trainer. I’m not counting calories but I’m mindful of the fuel I feed my body.

It’s truly amazing and I really have you to thank. It was you who told me that it was OK to incorporate weight training early on in the process, it just took someone to hit me upside my head to get me going!

Sada May 15, 2016 - 4:56 PM

I was on your site a few years ago when you wrote that diatribe about TBL amounting it to ‘weight loss porn’, with which I agreed. When this study hit the media, Iimmediately thought of your blog.

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