How to Reset Your Metabolism: Is it Possible?
It’s been hard to miss the success of NBC’s “The Biggest Loser,” in which people underwent dramatic weight loss makeovers to compete for the $250,000 grand prize. But it turns out the short, grueling, extreme pace to weight loss has a price.
A recent NY Times article details how Season 8 contestants have gained back their weight. The winner that season lost 239 pounds in seven months, but since 2009, he has gained more than 100 pounds. A contestant from Season 2 was quoted in the media earlier this year as saying the reason why the show is reluctant to air a reunion is “because we’re all fat again.”
The show may be entertainment, but now researchers are using its real-life examples to show how difficult it is to lose weight – and keep it off. We talked to some experts in the health and wellness field about this phenomenon and how to reset metabolism.
Responding to the article
Dr. Benjamin O’Donnell, assistant professor of endocrinology, diabetes, and metabolism at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, said – possibly tongue-in-cheek – that he had two gut reactions to the NY Times article. He wasn’t surprised about the news because he sees people daily who have yo-yo dieted for years, mainly due to their metabolism slowing.
The second reaction was that this reaffirms the need to prevent obesity in the first place. “We need to continue to focus on efforts to educate people about making more informed choices about food, staying active, and making healthy foods more available in general,” he says.
The article from the NYT covers metabolism and metabolic rate, which are the main factors that contribute to weight maintenance or weight gain, says Dr. Charles Pelitera, assistant professor of kinesiology and coordinator of the Health/Wellness Program at Canisius College in Buffalo, NY. But what the article doesn’t address is the relationship between metabolic rate and lean body mass (muscle tissue) and fat mass. He says the problem with gaining fat mass is that not only do fat cells grow in size, but a person will also create more fat cells, which remain for life. “This is another contributing factor to the health issue that once a person is obese, they have to battle the potential to become obese again for the rest of their lives,” he says.
What happens is that as weight is lost, the person requires fewer calories, says Dr. O’Donnell. Rapid weight loss causes the body to drop the metabolic rate as a defense against further weight loss. “Basically, it’s a survival mechanism,” he says.
Knowing all this, is it possible to subvert the mechanisms that the body uses to slow metabolism? Dr. Pelitera says no. “Permanent weight loss does not happen in a ‘fly by night’ popular TV show,” he says. “Permanent weight loss is a lifetime commitment and a complete and dedicated change in lifestyle.”
After the challenge of losing weight, the real work begins when maintaining it, because the body wants to “protect” its former weight against starvation – which may cause a drop in metabolism for some, says Lisa Diewald, MS, RD, LDN, Program Manager at the Center for Obesity Prevention and education at Villanova University College of Nursing. To keep metabolism working at its best, she says to remember the following:
- In addition to regular physical activity, incorporate resistance training a couple of times a week.
- Don’t skimp on sleep.
- Stay hydrated.
- Eat breakfast daily.
- Eat 1-2 small snacks daily in the form of high protein selections
- Consider using spicy foods more often (the heat you feel might actually give your metabolism a slight kick. Although the impact is temporary and accounts for only about an eight percent rise in metabolism, including spicy foods on a more regular basis may help.).
Maintaining weight loss
Diewald thinks it’s important at the outset to have a reasonable, sustainable weight loss goal. This will make both weight loss and maintenance more realistic. She offers up some other tips:
- Choose an exercise that is more enjoyable than torturous; a physical activity or two that you enjoy enough to do on nearly all days of the week.
- Keep close track of your weight to be on top of any changes.
- Don’t abandon the dietary and lifestyle changes you’ve made, but with careful planning and moderation, you can incorporate favorite foods on occasion, making the plan more sustainable long-term.
- Spice up your routine, like finding new healthy recipes and snacks to try when it comes to meal planning.
- Maintain a self-monitoring system even after you’ve achieved your weight loss goal; this can mean simply keeping a weekly food and/or exercise journal once a month or using a diet app to record intake if weight starts to creep up. Establish a red flag weight that will serve as an indicator when self-monitoring needs to be restarted or ramped up, and determine ahead of time what steps you’ll follow if you reach your red flag weight.
- Take a weekly mental inventory of what’s in your personal food environment – the environment where you spend most of your time (usually home and work). If you notice weight gain, take note of what foods have made their way back into your personal food environment and decide what steps you’ll take to remove them.
- When you’re tempted to reach for a high carb snack like pretzels or cookies, try reaching for some protein instead.
Ultimately, it’s important to be diligent. It takes time and serious commitment to maintain weight loss; it’s a commitment for the rest of your life, says Dr. Pelitera.
Women vs. men
It can be more difficult for women than men to reset and maintain metabolism. Men have greater lean muscle at baseline than women, says Dr. O’Donnell, so initial weight loss and the ability to maintain weight loss through activity is greater.
Other possible explanations for sex differences in energy metabolism include sex steroids, differences in insulin resistance, or metabolic effects of hormones such as leptin and estrogen, says Rebecca Shenkman, MPH, RDN, LDN, who works with Diewald. In general, she says women tend to eat fewer calories than men but are more efficient at conserving energy and storing it as fat during non-exercise periods. “This may explain why women say they have to reduce their food intake by a greater proportion to achieve the same amount of weight loss as men,” she adds.
Women also tend to have lower resting metabolic rates, which means they burn fewer (countable) calories at rest than men, Shenkman says. Women tend to expend fewer calories during activity than men due to the differences in body composition.
A woman’s body has a greater requirement for fat, says Dr. Pelitera, and normal metabolic functions like menstruation and pregnancy require fat. A male only requires 3 percent essential body fat whereas women require 12 percent.
Naturally, all this can be frustrating for women, but it doesn’t mean that weight loss is impossible. “[Women] just shouldn’t try to compare themselves to their male counterparts,” Dr. O’Donnell says.
The lesson in all of this is that weight management is complicated – and that perhaps we shouldn’t measure ourselves against a reality TV show.