Can losing weight really break your metabolism?

homer-simpson-underwear-supermanBy now, you probably know about the media’s gloomy take on a recent study in the journal Obesity regarding how participants of The Biggest Loser have broken metabolisms. If not, here’s the skinny, so to speak.

The Biggest Loser is a reality show in which obese people go on a diet and exercise boot camp to see who experiences the biggest transformation. The study followed fourteen, season eight participants for six years after the show. They discovered that many of them gained the weight back (surprise!), apparently because their resting metabolic rates (RMR) had apparently slowed permanently and their hormones were out of whack. In other words, even six years later, participants had to eat, on average, about 500 calories less than the average bear every day to maintain weight loss—and they were hungrier than the rest of us.

The press jumped on the research, painting a picture of eternal chubby damnation for the obese. The New York Times went to great lengths to imply that weight gain isn’t the gainer’s fault. In addition to the busted metabolism thing, they discuss how The Biggest Loser participants, even six years on, experienced reduced leptin (a hormone that promote satiety) levels and how the brain is wired to make you eat more.

In my mind, both the Times article and an accompanying opinion piece written by a neuroscientist conclude by implying there’s no point in dieting. So we might as well be fat and happy, right?

And if you’re diabetic, you might as well eat cake for lunch and kiss your kidneys, eyes, and feet goodbye. And if you have a heart condition, you might as well buy a freezer full of steaks and get BBQing. If you’re lucky, your ticker will stop in your sleep.

(No, not really.)

Seriously, there’s nothing wrong with having a few extra curves. We’re not all predisposed to looking like waifs or bodybuilders. But if your waistline creeps up past 40 inches for guys/35 inches for gals–or if you’re flat-out obese—the situation needs to be confronted if you want to live a long and healthy life. And, like diabetes and heart issues, it’s something you can positively impact with lifestyle changes. Eating less and exercising more may not be exactly the way you’d prefer to live your life, but that’s how life works. It’s not all lollypops and La-Z-Boys.

But we as a society seems to have collectively forgotten this, probably because we live in a time of absurd abundance and convenience where the media tells us we can have anything we want, whenever we want it. But can we really? Sure! But our bodies pay for it.

Fingering the reason you’re obese isn’t the point here. It happened and that stinks. But now that you’re here, fingering the reason why you’re going to stay obese is self-destructive. The information from the Biggest Loser study shouldn’t be used as an excuse not to fight the good fight. It should be a weapon in the good fight!

And dieting and exercise can be incredibly powerful weapons as well. Case in point, the 500-calorie lower daily RMR thing. It seems like a lot, but the average participant RMR—meaning the amount of calories they burned in a day excluding exercise—was 1,900. So if you add exercise to that, ranging from 250 for a moderate 30 minutes to 800+ for a hard hour, that’s a perfectly reasonable amount of food! Will you be hungrier because you exercised? Maybe psychologically, but studies like this 2013 research suggest that exercise actually helps regulate appetite after about 12 weeks.

As for dieting, I’m not talking about low-ball crash dieting with massive deficits. I’m talking about following a set of guidelines that tell you what to eat. If you want to lose weight, these guidelines can include a slight deficit. If you want to maintain, these guidelines can be done without a deficit. How does this not make sense?

In a perfect world—or even in a pre-industrial world—listening to our bodies to tell us what to eat might have worked. (Sort of.) But today we live in a society saturated with media messages telling us we need a bunch of food that we just don’t. What’s more, our bodies have yet to evolve to the point that they understand the impact of chemical-packed, high-fat and high-sugar processed foods. With this in mind, the moment you open a pack of chips—even organic ones—intuitive eating goes out the window. If your brain doesn’t understand the ingredients in a processed food, how on earth can you expect your body to?

An artificial construct telling you what to eat (i.e. “a diet”) is an ideal way to counter these 21st century problems. It’s not as fun as eating whatever you want—but you get used to it. And it sure beats not being able to see your feet. It also beats dying, for that matter.

This may seem like unsympathetic advice coming from a skinny runt addicted to cycling and fresh fruit, but I wasn’t always that way. I was never obese, but I yoyoed around 60 pounds heavier than I am now for the better part of my teens and twenties. I know how it feels to be a slave to junk food. It gets easier, but even today, I struggle standing in front of a dessert buffet. (My endurance sport habit grants me some leeway, but believe me, I’d get fat really fast if I plowed through the cookie table the way my inner seven-year-old begs me to.)

My heart goes out to people who struggle with their weight, which is partially why I’ve made a career out of helping them, but I can’t help them if they aren’t willing to help themselves. If you’ve transformed your body and you find that transformation isn’t sticking, it’s easy to revert back to your old heavy self, and this research gives you plenty of ammo to do that. But if that’s not your jam—if you’re the same fighter who lost the weight initially—why give up now?

In other words, you got this.