I’ve been thinking a lot about the new research about The Biggest Loser contestants gaining weight back. If you haven’t heard about this study, or even if you have and want to read an interesting perspective on it, head over to Jessica’s blog A Little More Each Day. Her post includes a summary of the research, links, and her thoughts.
When I read Jessica’s post, I immediately thought about the study that came out in 2012, highlighted in the New York Times article The Fat Trap. While The Biggest Loser study concluded that a jacked-up metabolism caused the contestants to regain weight, the study highlighted in The Fat Trap showed that a hunger hormone was present in those who’d lost weight, causing their bodies to fight hard to gain weight back. In both studies, the consensus seemed to be that it’s impossible to keep weight loss off permanently. The underlying message: Why bother? Here’s a quote from The Fat Trap:
For years, the advice to the overweight and obese has been that we simply need to eat less and exercise more. While there is truth to this guidance, it fails to take into account that the human body continues to fight against weight loss long after dieting has stopped. This translates into a sobering reality: once we become fat, most of us, despite our best efforts, will probably stay fat.
Like Jessica, I got extremely irritated with the Why bother? message. Jessica pointed out that there are many other benefits to eating healthy and exercising that go beyond the scale. I completely agree.
I’m also irritated because I just don’t think it’s true that weight loss can’t be permanent. That caused me to think about my own weight loss journey and why I’ve been successful.
A big disclaimer is that my weight loss has been only 35-40 pounds (I never weighed myself at my heaviest, so this is a bit of a guess), as opposed to the 100+ pound loss that most of these long-term weight loss studies profile. Maybe that’s the difference? Maybe the less you lose, the easier it is to keep off? I don’t know, but in any case I thought it worthwhile to see what’s worked for me. [Note: In re-reading The Fat Trap, the participants in the study lost an average of 30 pounds.]
Making Exercise a Habit
My journey started shortly after college, when I was at my heaviest, living with my mom, and commuting an hour by bus to my first job. I’d read Make the Connection by Bob Greene, Oprah’s trainer. The premise was as basic as it gets–exercise at least 5 days a week vigorously and eat sensibly. I bought a treadmill and put it in my bedroom. Because of my work commute, the only time I’d be able to walk on the treadmill was at 4 a.m. When I told a friend I planned on doing that, she laughed and said, “Yeah, right. Like you’re going to get up at 4 in the morning and exercise.” But I did. Five days a week, whether I felt like it or not, I hauled myself out of bed and walked on the treadmill. The weight came off quickly and easily.
When I got my first apartment with a job at a university and free access to the gym, my morning exercise routine continued. In fact, for the past 20 years, I’ve consistently exercised first thing in the morning. Now when I’m training for a race, I’m usually up at 4 a.m. (So take that, doubting old friend!) It’s a habit as much as brushing my teeth and getting dressed for the day are.
So is developing a habit of exercising and keeping that habit for life the answer to permanent weight loss? I’d say that it has a lot to do with it, yes, but it’s not the whole story.
Adopting a Healthy Diet
The other part of the equation is, of course, diet. When I’ve gained weight, it was because of my diet. Portion control and emotional eating have wreaked havoc on me, but probably the biggest problem I had was when I became vegetarian. At that time I was so focused on not eating meat that I didn’t focus on eating healthy, and my diet was mostly cheese and bread. Over about six years, my weight went up and up until I reached my heaviest of around 185 pounds.
I adopted a plant-based diet for ethical reasons in 2010, and losing weight was a very happy byproduct. Switching my focus to eating more fruits, vegetables, and whole foods, plus managing my portions through Weight Watchers, enabled me to get down to my lowest weight of 141 pounds in January 2011, which was below the goal weight of 145 pounds I’d originally set.
I very quickly realized 141 pounds was not a good weight for me. I would have had to eat next to nothing to maintain that weight, and I refused to do that. Plus, size smalls were too big for me, but extra small sizes don’t work on a bigger frame like mine. I can’t do anything about how wide my shoulders and hips are! Over the past five years, I’ve experimented with the best weight for me that’s easy to maintain and one that makes me feel good. It’s still an evolution, but I’ve reached a point where my ideal weight is more about how I feel and what makes my body happy and not a specific number on the scale. That’s a whole other topic for another post, but my point is that over the past five years I never came close to gaining all my weight back. If we’re looking strictly at the numbers, the most I’ve ever weighed in the past five years is 156 pounds, which is still about 30 pounds less than when I started. So, I consider myself to be successful with maintaining my weight loss.
How I Successfully Maintained My Weight Loss
Exercise and a healthy diet. It’s pretty simple. It’s not easy, but I’ve seen that it works despite the studies above that show that metabolism and hormones make it impossible to maintain a weight loss. But if it works, why don’t more people do it? I think there’s a deeper level to it.
From Exercise to Lifestyle
As I’ve said, a regular morning exercise routine has been part of my life for the past 20 years, so I think making exercise a habit is a part of it. But another big part is making exercise something I enjoy. I’ve tried and liked a lot of different types of exercise, from walking, the elliptical, strength training, spinning, Zumba, yoga, pilates, and fitness classes.
Running is something completely different from anything else I’ve tried though. For me–and most of us runners–running is so much more about personal gratification than it is about exercise. Strength training is something I do to stay in shape, but I run because it makes me a better person and a happy person. There’s no doubt that it keeps me in shape. My body has changed a lot for the better since I’ve started running, which is part of the reason why I’m not so focused on the scale anymore. And yeah, I burn a crazy amount of calories during a two-hour run. But that’s not why I run.
Would I have continued an exercise routine if I hadn’t found running? Probably, if history is any indicator. But having a hobby with a hidden benefit of also being exercise has definitely helped me achieve a fit lifestyle without even trying.
I’m 1,000% sure that if I tried to eat vegan to lose weight, I would have failed. Research has proven again and again that restrictive diets don’t work in the long term. Most of us who have healthy diets believe that everything is okay in moderation. Some of us restrict our diets because certain foods make us feel crappy, and some of us don’t want to eat certain foods because of ethical, environmental, or other reasons. There’s a common thread there–we’re restricting foods because we don’t want to eat those foods, not because we do want to eat them but know we shouldn’t.
The Key–Motivations Beyond Weight Loss
Actually, there’s a common thread in both running and a plant-based diet for me. Both have helped me maintain my weight loss, but I don’t do either for weight loss. Both are extremely important to me, but not because they help me maintain my weight loss. Is that the key? Is it simply being motivated by factors other than weight loss? I’d love to see a study exploring motivation in maintaining weight loss.
In the meantime, I’m proof that weight loss can be successfully maintained. I also know that there are huge benefits to eating healthy and exercising outside of weight loss. So, yeah, the media’s Why bother? message makes me very sad.
What do you think about all this?