I read a good article today from the Chicago Tribune, about how to lose weight and keep the weight off. Learn to cook and eat healthily and enjoy exercise as a long term strategy to lose weight and maintain your weight.
Here it is:
Keeping up to keep weight off
It’s not a sprint to the new thin you. It’s outrunning the old overweight you for the rest of your days. Making fundamental shifts in thinking and behavior can keep you out in front.
I’ve lost 50 pounds of fat and put on 20 pounds of muscle. It was quick and easy. Then I was abducted by aliens, and they told me the Loch Ness Monster and Bigfoot are the ones making all those crop circles.
The first sentence above is actually true, but when I went through my fitness transformation it was an endless process of behavior change that took so long it seemed almost criminally unfair. I’ve seen many books promising six packs abs in 12 weeks. For me, it took more than 12 years, and even then I only managed a four-pack.
And yet I’ve bucked the trend of yo-yo dieters, sustaining a substantial weight loss for almost two decades. I’ll share my secret at the end, but first let’s examine why all those magazine covers, Internet ads and Jillian-Michaels-filled infomercials promising quick and easy weight loss are about as realistic as getting stock tips from tea leaves.
The reason is that if weight loss is your goal, your body is going to launch a multipronged assault against you to keep the fat right where it is. Failing that, if you lose weight, your physiology will launch a vicious counterattack to get it back. It becomes an endless war of your mind against the rest of your matter.
Weight loss is about creating caloric deficits. There are 3,500 calories in a pound of fat, so if you cut 500 calories from your intake you’ll burn off a pound of fat each week, right? Wrong, because you’re metabolism starts rapidly downshifting.
“The calorie deficit decreases after the first day because energy expenditure starts to slow down immediately in regards to this restriction,” explains Eric Ravussin, director of the Nutrition Obesity Research Center at Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge. La.. “What is a 500-calorie deficit on day one is less so on day two, and even less on day three, and so on.”
Early on, a significant portion of this is simply due to a reduced thermic effect of food, Ravussin explained, which is the extra calories you burn via digestion. When you eat less, your body burns fewer calories because its digestive system has less work to do. Also, “When you lose weight this is going to lower your resting metabolism during the entire day,” he told me.
And it just keeps compounding. “By the 30th day of calorie restriction,” Ravussin says, “what started off as a 500 calorie per day deficit has dropped to 300 or 250 calories per day.”
In the strictest sense, the math of there being 3,500 calories in a pound of fat still holds true, but in order to sustain that daily level of restricting 500 calories per day below maintenance level requires eating less and less each day to keep up with the drop in metabolism. This is because when you lose weight, “maintenance” keeps shifting downward. But continuing to cut calories more and more isn’t a good idea either.
“If you are doing that,” Ravussin says, “you are going to reach a level where you won’t have all the essential nutrients for health.”
And while this can be combated with exercise, it’s far from a miracle cure. Claude Bouchard — an internationally renowned obesity researcher also at Pennington — led a series of studies in 1997 that provide interesting mathematical insight into caloric deficits.
In one study, seven pairs of male identical twins were kept on “no exercise” maintenance level calories. Then the researchers added in 1,000 calories worth of calorie burning via stationary bicycling nine out of every 10 days for a 93-day period (a lot of exercise, for certain). They estimated the participants created a 58,000 calorie deficit during the experiment, but the average weight loss — which was all from fat stores — represented the equivalent of only 46,000 calories.
The reverse happens too, as the team also experimented with 12 pairs of male twins adding 1,000 calories of food over maintenance level for 100 days, but only 60 percent of these extra calories turned into weight gain. This is because metabolism goes up, but so do, uh, trips to the bathroom.
In regard to the role of exercise, Ravussin sent me a study he co-wrote, published in June in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, which showed that even when vigorous exercise was included as part of a massive weight-loss regimen for the severely obese in order to preserve fat-free mass, this “did not prevent dramatic slowing of resting metabolism.”
“It’s much easier for obese people to cut 500 calories worth of food than burn it off from running,” he says.
Last December, New York Times Well blog editor Tara Parker-Pope lamented the near impossibility of sustainable weight loss for her and the overweight population in general, reporting that the small percentage of people who are successful require constant vigilance regarding caloric intake and exercise. Canadian obesity expert Dr. Yoni Freedhoff responded to Parker-Pope’s post on his own blog stating that a better word than “vigilance” was “thoughtfulness.”
Freedhoff has an answer for why figures for sustainable weight loss are so low: We’re doing it wrong. Many set outrageous weight-loss goals and choose crash diets and downright “all-or-nothing” suffering to get there. He then referenced a study published last year in Obesity showing that when people actually use their brains and, you know, pay some attention to reasonable and healthy food intake and exercise that 42.2 percent kept off almost 18 percent of their starting weight for the full four years of the study.
Once again, tortoise trumps hare.
Sustainable weight loss isn’t about continual pain and deprivation, but changing who you are. You can’t sustain something you hate long term. You can’t view exercise and healthy eating as simply a means to an end. We’re surrounded by 24-hour McDonald’s restaurants and never have to walk anywhere, and to live lean in such an environment requires a massive mental shift.
If you hate exercise, it’s a multiyear process to become someone who loves it instead. If you love fast food, you need to gradually shift your attitudes (and even your work schedule) toward being someone who loves cooking healthy meals. It’s the process that creates the outcome. When you eschew quick fixes and become the process so that regular exercise and healthy eating defines you as a person, then weight eventually comes (and stays) off as a happy byproduct.
Earlier I used the words “war,” “assault” and “attack” to describe physiology versus psychology, but to be successful it’s essential to view fitness as more of a journey than a battle; one that never ends.
Don’t know quite where to begin?
If you’re very overweight, just thinking about exercising can be intimidating. This website from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases can help you wrap your mind around starting small and building good habits. Visit win.niddk.nih.gov/publications/active.htm.
Fell is a certified strength and conditioning specialist.
- 7:44 p.m. CDT, July 11, 2012
I’ve lost 50 pounds of fat and put on 20 pounds of muscle. It was quick and easy. Then I was abducted by aliens, and they told me the Loch Ness Monster and Bigfoot are the ones making all those