Food for thought: Better ways to win

Biggest Loser dieting is a losing proposition

The allure of rapid-weight-loss diets is hard to resist. What struggling dieter wouldn’t want to drop 50 to 100 pounds in a few months? “The Biggest Loser” promoted that possibility in the biggest way, showcasing real people losing massive amounts of weight on a grueling regimen of extreme calorie restriction and exertion. Like the show itself, however, the results didn’t last. Most contestants regained much or all of their weight. Worse, they suffered lasting metabolic and hormonal changes that made it even harder for them to keep pounds off moving forward.

Better ways to win

The Biggest Loser was canceled last year under a cloud of controversy and charges of pushing unhealthy weight loss. But similar diets persist. The problem with all of them is that when the body detects rapid weight loss, it kicks into protective gear to keep you from starving. It rallies hunger hormones to increase cravings and lowers your metabolic rate — that is, how fast you burn calories — to hang onto every calorie. Maintaining weight loss under those conditions is nearly impossible.

Harvard obesity expert David Ludwig, MD, PhD, advises aiming for more reasonable weight loss of one to two pounds per week. That gives your body time to adjust without sounding biological alarms. It may be less exciting in the short run, but it’s easier, healthier and more sustainable in the long run. His science-backed strategies:

  • Cut back on refined carbs, including chips, cookies, pasta and breads
  • Eat more foods rich in healthy fats, such as avocados, olive oil, nuts and nut butters, to keep hunger at bay
  • Load up on fruits, nonstarchy vegetables, fish, lean meat and beans
  • Gradually add back small amounts of starchy vegetables and whole grains, aiming for a Mediterranean-style diet
  • Include short bursts of high-intensity activity in your exercise, such as short sprints during your walks

Learn from long-term winners

The National Weight Control Registry tracks more than 10,000 people who have lost an average of 66 pounds each and kept it off for more than five years. In addition to modifying their diets and exercising more, most of them practice these healthy habits:

  • Eat breakfast every morning
  • Weigh yourself at least weekly
  • Spend less than 10 hours a week watching TV
  • Find motivation beyond your waistline, such as the desire to have more energy and live a longer life

Motivation is key, because different things work for different people. Folks in the registry say they kept trying things until they found the right combination of small, sustainable changes that worked — and continue to work — for them.