Lessons from The Biggest Loser: Can you keep lost pounds from creeping back?


Contestants on the hit show “The Biggest Loser” are known for their remarkable transformations. Some of the program’s stars have lost over 200 pounds with intensive dieting and exercise. But new research from scientists at the National Institutes of Health suggests that those remarkable body makeovers are incredibly tough to maintain.

Biggest losers are big re-gainers
The researchers followed 14 contestants for six years after they lost huge amounts of weight on the hit reality show. All but one regained much of the weight they initially lost, and the reason why was pretty surprising: The former contestants burned fewer calories than normal for a person of their size in the years after their dramatic weight loss. Meanwhile, their levels of a hunger-controlling hormone called leptin also fell, making them feel even hungrier.

The discovery is discouraging for anyone who wants to lose weight and keep it off. But does it mean we should all just give up? Not necessarily.

Success stories
Plenty of people do manage to keep off the pounds they lose. The National Weight Control Registry collects data on more than 4,000 people who have lost at least 10 percent of their body weight and kept it off for at least one year.

Researchers have found people on the registry tend to share some healthy habits, including:

  • Having breakfast regularly
  • Eating low-calorie, low-fat diets
  • Stepping on the scale regularly to monitor weight
  • Getting about one hour of physical activity every day
  • Maintaining consistent eating habits on weekdays and the weekend

Healthy habits to maintain weight loss
Researchers still have a lot to learn about the science of maintaining weight loss. But science has uncovered some clues about what works. As you might expect, a healthy diet (rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fiber and lean protein) is linked to keeping the pounds at bay. So is regular exercise. But there are some other strategies you might not have considered:

  • Avoid staying up late at night
  • Cut out or reduce sugar-sweetened beverages, such as soda
  • Keep food and activity diaries to keep tabs on your healthy habits

More good news from the National Weight Control Registry: Over time, it gets easier to keep lost pounds from creeping back on. Findings from the registry show that people who were able to maintain their weight loss for two to five years had a greater chance of keeping the weight off long-term. Healthy choices become healthy habits.

It takes some planning to make healthy lifestyle changes, but people learn to do it every day. If you need help getting on the right track, learn more about the Medical Weight Loss Program at UCLA’s Center for Obesity and Metabolic Health.

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