Slow And Steady Weight Loss: The Best Way?
I’ll admit it – I like to watch the reality show The Biggest Loser. I find it interesting to see people push themselves to their very limits in pursuit of weight loss and “good health”. But the entire premise of the show promotes drastic changes that would seemingly be impossible to maintain for any length of time, right?
Take a look at Eric Chopin, former Biggest Loser champ (2006) who went on to star in another show called Confessions of a Reality Show Loser:
Eric (and other former contestants) weren’t able to keep the weight off. Why not? Does the same apply to you?
Two Women Try to Lose 15lbs
Stacey jumps in with both feet. She completely overhauls her diet and begins exercising multiple times per week. She is ecstatic to see that she’s lost all 15lbs just a few weeks later.
Glenda takes a more gradual approach. She starts going for walks a couple times per week and reduces her meal portion sizes. She is also conscious about how many desserts she eats each week (she has a real sweet tooth). It takes her longer, but after several months she has lost 15lbs as well.
Question: If we checked in with Stacey and Glenda 3 years later, who do you think would have kept more weight off?
Is Slow and Steady Weight Loss Really the Best?
A couple of weeks ago I shared this really interesting article on Twitter that studied “Stacey and Glenda” to find out if it’s more effective to lose weight slowly or quickly. Here’s how the research was done:
Two hundred obese participants were divided into two groups. Both groups had the goal of losing 12.5% of their body weight. The “Fast Losers” were put on a VERY calorie-restricted diet (just 450-800 calories per day!) whereas the “Slow Losers” had their calorie intake simply reduced by about 500 calories per day.
The initial results were pretty shocking…
Eighty-one percent of the Fast Losers reached their weight-loss goal and it took them just 12 weeks.
Compare this to the Slow Losers group, in which only 50% of the participants reached their goal AND it took them 36 weeks to do it.
What About the Long-Term Results?
Any participant who reached their goal was invited to continue with the study over the next 3 years to see how well they were able to maintain their weight-loss. Now what do you think happened?
Well, both the Fast and Slow Losers gained back about 71% of the weight they had lost. It didn’t matter at all which group they were originally in (that was sort of anti-climactic!)
It’s easy to hear those research results and think A) Losing weight more quickly is better and B) It actually doesn’t matter because the weight is going to come back on anyway! However, there might be some more helpful insights to remember…
1. Losing Weight Too Quickly Is Dangerous
While The Biggest Loser is entertaining, it is not a good fitness template for most people to follow. Just because a 400-lb participant on the show can lose 10 or even 15 pounds in a single week does not mean that people at home can or even should do the same.
The researchers who conducted the study we just looked at were very quick to note that the Fast Losers were under doctor supervision and that nobody should attempt such radical weight loss methods on their own.
Our bodies are not meant to drop large amounts of weight in short periods of time. In fact, they are designed for homeostasis – not changing! Ethan Lazarus, a doctor who specializes in obesity medicine says,
Rapid weight loss increases the risk of heart arrhythmias, dehydration, and electrolyte disturbances along with many other complications that can compromise one’s health.
Any abrupt change in one’s lifestyle such as diet, exercise, sleep, etc. can be dangerous. Even seemingly healthy fat-loss attempts (such as exercise) can pose a risk for health complications if not done properly.
2. A Multifaceted Approach Is Necessary
Simple calorie-restriction diets don’t work. Again we go back to the fact that the body is built to survive (i.e. it wants homeostasis). A massive reduction in caloric intake can actually trigger your body’s fat-storage mechanism! Your body will store fat while high calorie-burning muscle is shed in an attempt to reduce your metabolic rate.
While your weight may drop, it’s very likely to bounce back (and usually then some) because your metabolism has turned off. This is often how people fall into yo-yo dieting – They “have to” keep dieting because as soon as they stop the weight piles back on.
To have any chance at sustained weight loss, your approach must be broader than not eating as much at meals.
3. Your Plan Is Different Than My Plan
The basic principles of healthy living do apply to everyone: Eat well, drink water, exercise, get plenty of rest, de-stress, etc. But, how those principles are applied will vary from person to person. The researchers from our study emphasized that your body size and shape is heavily influenced by genetic factors, therefore saying there is “one best way” for everyone to be healthy is definitely misguided.
The Biggest Loser contestants benefit from having a team of professionals plan most aspects of their life while on the show. But back at home it’s up to them to find a schedule and plan that fits with regular life (which is perhaps the reason many of them relapse so quickly).
The same goes for you. If I tell you what I eat and how I exercise you may love the plan OR you may think I’m crazy! Losing weight long-term requires you to find a healthy living plan that is doable for you.
4. No Man Is An Island
During the 3-year weight-loss maintenance phase of the research study, participants saw a dietician every 12 weeks. This isn’t enough. The researchers pointed out that much greater support and accountability is needed for most people to stick with their plan of action.