How to Avoid the Biggest Loser Phenomenon

As contestants on the Biggest Loser have learned the hard way, extreme weight loss can wreck your metabolism. Nutrition Diva offers strategies for preventing and restoring the damage.

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS
4-minute read
Episode #381

The big story in nutrition last week was the publication of the so-called “Biggest Loser” study, described in detail in a New York Times article that about 300 of you forwarded to me for my comment. The study tracked the progress of 14 contestants on the Biggest Loser reality show, each of whom lost a massive amount of weight over the course of several months on the show.

Six years later, all but one of the contestants has regained a significant amount of weight. Four are now heavier than before the show began. However, as the study demonstrated, this was not simply a failure of will power. It was in large part due to the fact that the contestants' metabolisms are now dramatically slower than they were before they lost the weight. Even when they stick to the number of calories that “should” allow them to maintain a lower weight, they gain weight anyway.

As I read the article, I had a strong sense of deja-vu. This is essentially the same finding that different researchers published in the New England Journal of Medicine five years ago, which also led to a New York Times article, which was also forwarded to me by about 300 listeners. What I wrote in response back then applies equally to this latest study: This research really shows is that dieting is counter-productive—and that extreme dieting is extremely counter-productive. 

Dieting is counter-productive—and extreme dieting is extremely counter-productive.

As the Biggest Loser contestants have learned the hard way, when you lose a lot of weight in a short period of time, it can do serious and lasting damage to your metabolism. And although the composition of your diet (that is, how much protein, fat, and carbohydrate you eat) can also affect your metabolic rate, those relatively modest effects are dwarfed by the impact of rapid weight loss on metabolism.

See also: Carbs and weight gain

But this doesn’t mean that there is no hope for those who want or need to lose weight. I have 4 tips for minimizing the so-called “metabolic compensation” to weight loss. To my knowledge none of these have been tested in any sort of serious controlled research. (Hello? Researchers?) But given our current understanding, the following strategies may help prevent the worst of the damage and may even help restore metabolisms that have already damaged by rapid weight loss.

How to Avoid the Biggest Loser Syndrome

1. Lose weight slowly. I know this isn’t going to be popular advice because most people want to lose weight as quickly as possible. But as this latest study reminds us, rapid weight loss creates long-term hormonal and metabolic changes in your body that make it extremely difficult for you to maintain that hard-won weight loss.

The approach I outline in my episode How to Lose Weight without Dieting is my best advice on how to permanently lower your body weight. It’s what my friend Frank recently described as my “See Your Future; Be Your Future” approach. It may be in fact be the slowest "diet" you’ve ever been on, but it’s sustainable.

One reason it’s sustainable is that slow weight loss is less likely to trigger the sort of catastrophic metabolic collapse that we see in the Biggest Losers. The other reason is that this approach focuses on permanent shifts in behaviors and habits rather than short term dieting tricks.

2. Rethink your goal. If you are very overweight, your “ideal” weight might be higher than the “ideal” weight for someone who has never been overweight. Remember that losing even a modest amount of weight—say, 5 to 10% of your body weight—can deliver enormous benefits in terms of improving your health and reducing your disease risks, even if you remain significantly overweight.

Losing a small amount of weight and keeping it off will do far more good (and far less metabolic damage) than losing a large amount and gaining it back.

3. Consider calorie cycling. I talked about this approach, in which you alternate between higher and lower calorie days, in my episode on How to break a weight loss plateau. I think it also has the potential to prevent or even help restore a damaged metabolism. There are pros and cons to this approach that you’ll want to consider. See also: Calorie Cycling for Weight Loss

4. Try weight loss intervals. I’m sure you’ve heard about interval training—especially if you listen to my colleague Get-Fit Guy.  It’s one of the most effective ways to exercise and it involves alternating short bursts of intense effort with longer “recovery” intervals. I’d like to propose something similar: Weight loss intervals. 

Let’s say you have 40 pounds to lose. Instead of trying to lose all 40 pounds in a single sustained effort, try losing just 5. Then, give yourself a one-month recovery interval, where you focus simply on maintaining your new lower weight. Then, start your next weight loss interval. Yes, this will take a bit longer than other methods. (Are you beginning to see a pattern here?) 

In my episode on Weight Loss Myths, I described an experiment in which dieters who practiced weight maintenance strategies before starting their weight loss program were far more successful in keeping the weight off.  One thing I like about the concept of weight loss intervals is that it gives you lots of practice at weight maintenance…something that is so often missing from our weight loss strategies.   With any luck, it’ll also keep your metabolism from freaking out.

I hope these strategies offer a glimmer of hope for any of you who are trying to lose weight (and to all those poor contestants). Let me know your thoughts below or on the Nutrition Diva Facebook page.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

About the Author

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS

Monica Reinagel is a board-certified licensed nutritionist, author, and the creator of one of iTunes' most highly ranked health and fitness podcasts. Her advice is regularly featured on the TODAY show, Dr. Oz, NPR, and in the nation's leading newspapers, magazines, and websites. Do you have a nutrition question? Call the Nutrition Diva listener line at 443-961-6206. Your question could be featured on the show.