Obesity has become one of the most serious and costly epidemics in America. With over a third of the population meeting a diagnosis for obesity — that is, having a BMI of above 30 or being more than 20% overweight — in just one year, the U.S. has sunk more than $147 billion into this health problem.
While the causes for this epidemic can be linked to any number of things — thyroid abnormalities, low socioeconomic status, genetics or cultural influences — most people frantically look for a solution instead of exploring the etiology.
The Biggest Loser is one of those “solutions.” The NBC reality television show just finished its 17th season, hosting over 150 contestants. The goal of the show is to transform a series of obese participants into fit, healthy individuals over the course of several months via a series of nutrition and fitness education programs and challenges.
But what happens after participants lose hundreds of pounds and return to their normal, unstructured lives?
A recent study follows contestants who have finished the show and returned to their previous lives, with stunningly upsetting findings. Almost all of season’s 16 contestants had returned close to their previous weight, with a few even gaining weight.
It turns out the extreme dieting and exercise regimen utilized in the show was insidiously slowing the body’s metabolism.
What exactly is metabolism? Metabolism is a catchall term for the numerous chemical reactions occurring in our body that are responsible for breaking down molecules in the body to convert into energy.
Basically, the individuals who lost half of their body weight on The Biggest Loser now were burning way fewer calories than a normal person their size. It was their body’s way of trying to get back to its original weight and undermine the rapid change.
What this tells us is that not only is obesity a problem in its prevalence, but also a problem in its immutability. Even those who are successful in shedding the weight have trouble keeping the weight off, and not because they don’t have the willpower or self-control, but because biologically the “starved” body craves more.
We already know that food, especially food high in fat and sugar, triggers a reward circuit in the brain, similar to the way drugs spur addiction. On top of this neural component, there are biological mechanisms that prevent the pounds from staying off. We already talked about how the metabolism slows, but other hormones such as leptin, ghrelin and insulin play an integral role as well.
This study helped reiterate the idea that obesity is more than just a problem of losing weight. It’s mainly a problem of maintaining that weight loss. This may help spur discussion and increased fervency in looking for treatments of obesity that target more than just lifestyle changes.