The Biggest Loser: More Proof Dieting & Weight Loss Plans Don’t Work 


I imagine you saw the headlines a few weeks ago about the dismal weight loss results experienced by many contestants on the television show The Biggest Loser.

13 of 14 Biggest Losers (BL) studied over six years not only did not keep their lost weight off, but four gained back more than they started with.

No news there. Research clearly shows that the majority of people gain back weight lost through dieting, and many of those gain more back than they lost.

What surprised researchers, though, was the continuing drop in resting metabolic rate (RMR), the rate at which your body burns calories when at rest.

Why Did Resting Metabolic Rate Continue to Drop?

It’s well known that RMR drops when we chronically eat less than we need, such as with repeated dieting.

 This protective response to a sustained inadequate intake is about survival.

It evolved to help us make it through famines and the like. And it’s thought to be at the root of some of the weight regain most people see after dieting.

But contrary to what researchers expected, the Biggest Losers’ RMR continued to drop even after they finished their stint on the show. It was thought that after they stopped dieting their RMR would go back up.

The problem with this is that it means even greater vigilance in eating and exercise is required to maintain weight loss. As we all know, that doesn’t predict long-term success. Who can stay on a diet forever?

And that’s just what might have happened to these people.

Did They Stop Dieting?

In discussing this in a professional group, what made the most sense about why the continued drop in RMR is that the BLs may have continued to try to restrict their eating much like they did while on the show.

Why? One reason is that may be all they know. I don’t know the dieting history of these folks but if they are like many larger-bodied people, that’s what they’ve been told forever: Eat less and exercise more. And that’s certainly what they learned on the show.

If they weren’t dieting or hadn’t developed disordered eating because of dieting (a real possibility), they would likely have begun eating normally.

They would have generally eaten when they’re hungry (as long as they had access to food) and stopped when they were satisfied.

In other words, they would have begun eating mindfully.

But that may not have happened for one big reason:  Dieters often don’t know how to eat mindfully. 

They’ve lost touch with their internal guidance system that was designed to effectively tell them what, when and how much to eat. Instead, they follow diet rules that restrict their eating and ultimately drive overeating.

So their approach to eating after the show may have remained very similar to their approach to losing weight.

That means that in order to try to maintain the weight they achieved by undereating, they may have continued to frequently undereat.

And that could have kept their bodies in survival mode. Hence the further reduction in RMR.

But why all the weight gain if they were continuing to restrict according to what they learned on BL?

 One thing we do know is that the body goes through a number of hormonal shifts with intentional weight loss (i.e. when someone diets).

Among those shifts is a drop in leptin, the hormone that signals when we’ve had enough to eat. The theory is that if leptin levels stay low, we’re continually hungry and driven to eat, even when we are eating enough to meet our body’s calorie needs.

It may be part of the body’s drive to return to its natural, healthy weight range when weight drops too low.

So even though we may try to continue to eat to maintain weight loss, willpower gives way in the face of powerful physiological drives.

That’s a popular theory making the rounds right now to explain these BLs’ regain.

But I think of another one that often gets ignored by researchers who explore what’s going on in the bodies of larger people, such as when they are investigating the concept of food addiction.

And that’s the restrict-overeat cycle, the trap that so many people who diet get caught in and which often leads to emotional or binge eating. It’s more than just eating because leptin levels drive us to. It also involves guilt and shame.

The Restrict-Overeat Cycle

The restrict-overeat cycle is well-known by professionals and the public alike. It’s when we follow diet rules in an attempt to lose weight or avoid weight gain.

Restricting our eating in the name of weight sets up all kinds of psychological as well as physiological drives to eat. Drives that often lead to overeating when we just can’t follow the rules any more.

That can be a big reason for weight regain after dieting.

Does Anything Work for Weight Loss?

 Again, I don’t know the personal stories of the people who were part of this most recent study so have no idea if my speculations are correct. But my questions are based on what I have seen occur in my over three decades of working with women who struggle with their eating and weight.

So what can you do instead of dieting?

It’s what Green Mountain has been about for the last four decades – stop dieting and start to truly take care of yourself.

If you’ve developed a problem with emotional or binge eating, get professional help. There is a way out.

Focus on Feeling Good Instead

Feeling good brings pleasure into the equation and that makes self-care that much easier.

You may lose weight; you may not. It depends on what is healthy for your body.

But one thing you can count on: giving up dieting and starting to take care of yourself through mindful eating, moving and living offers a much more pleasant journey that holds great promise for health and well-being.

There’s good research that supports that, too.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

About the Author

Marsha Hudnall, MS, RDN, CD

If you’re looking for an embodiment of dedication disguised as obsession, look no further. Marsha is a registered dietitian who has spent the last four decades working to help women give up dieting rules and understand how to truly take care of themselves. Her mission in life is to help women learn to enjoy eating and living well, without worries about their weight. She encourages women to embrace their love of food, which you might call being a foodie. If so, it’s appropriate because being a foodie means you pay attention when you eat. That’s a recipe made in heaven for eating well. Marsha is the President and Co-Owner of Green Mountain at Fox Run.

View Author Page