Pop quiz: How does someone lose weight? Most people would say it’s a simple formula – exercise, dieting and a good dose of discipline. So, how come most weight loss efforts fail? Diet culture would have you believe that people lack motivation, discipline or the “right” program. But, most dieters become frustrated when their dieting efforts don’t work, even when they’re doing everything right. We’re here to explain why it’s not their fault.
Here’s a story about someone we see in our clinic often – who we’ve renamed Raheem for anonymity purposes.
Raheem had been feeling down about his weight for years. After a New Year’s party where he received comments from his in-laws about his weight, he decided to turn over a new leaf. Raheem started using a calorie-tracking app to limit his calories, and signed up for a bootcamp class at the gym. He was sticking to his new plan for a few weeks, and he started to notice that he was losing some weight. His face was slimmer, his pants were less tight, and he had more energy during the day.
But, after two months, he had plateaued. He started to feel exhausted, and would day-dream about Big Mac trios and ice cream sundaes. He was still sticking to his plan, going to the bootcamp and even adding a spin class twice per week. He was even still using his calorie-tracking app and sticking to his calorie limit. But each time he got on the scale, it showed the same number. After three months, he stopped being able to ignore his hunger and started eating more – and his weight increased. What was happening?
The answer is something called metabolic adaptation.
What is metabolism?
Metabolism is formally defined as the sum of all the biological processes in the body. But, in everyday language, it refers to the basal metabolic rate (BMR). In order to see how many calories a person burns throughout a regular day, we consider the sum of BMR, TEF, NEAT and PA.
Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR)
This is the sum of the calories a body will burn, just by being alive,
Thermic Effect of Food (TEF)
The energy it takes to digest and use food,
Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT)
The energy we expend from moving around, indirectly of intentional exercise (i.e. washing hands, fiddling, walking to your car),
Physical Activity (PA)
The energy we expend from intentional recreational exercise or from exercise included with a job (i.e. construction worker).
Our bodies change how we use energy to be the most efficient when it feels stress – this is called metabolic adaptation.
Stress on the body doesn’t just mean having a busy job or not sleeping enough – it’s also increasing the amount we exercise and reducing the amount we eat.
Raheem’s diet and exercise plan was seen by his body as a stress – like a famine.
So, his body tried to protect him by adapting his metabolism to burn less calories and conserve energy. Raheem’s body triggered hormones that would make him hungrier in an attempt to get more food and restore his weight. His mind would fixate on food so there would be no distraction from the goal.
While Raheem wanted to lose weight – his body didn’t. The reason for this is called the set point theory.
The set point theory dates back to the 1940’s with a famous starvation study that showed participants regain up to 145% of their weight after a low calorie diet. It has since been replicated in many other studies – all showing that the body will protect its “set weight” by reducing how many calories we burn and increasing our appetite hormones.
Our bodies evolved to survive in hard times – and we react to diets in the same way we react to famine. They’re a threat to the survival of our bodies – and when we break the famine (or the diet), our bodies will store more fat in anticipation of future hard times. This is why many people regain more weight after their diets than their initial weight.
Raheem’s diet and exercise plan awakened his body’s defense system – it had nothing to do with his willpower or discipline. He was simply trying to fight evolution.
So, now what?
Raheem’s story is one that can be found in many households, all over the world. And yet, without knowing all the ways their bodies protect them, people will blame themselves for a failed attempt – or be shocked when the weight comes back. (Consider the Biggest Loser contestants who, on average, gained 70% of their weight back or more after 1 year). But this isn’t a question of willpower – the same way you get more tired the less you sleep, you will get more hungry the less you eat!
Developing a stable relationship with food that allows adequate nourishment is a key way to respect your set point weight and reduce the risk of weight cycling and binge eating. Our bodies contain a millennia of wisdom in their signals – it’s time we respect them. If you feel like Raheem’s story spoke to you and feel like you may be struggling with your relationship with food, please reach out to our team to see how we can help. You can contact us at (202) 738-4726 or email@example.com.
By: Elsa Chu, Registered Dietitian
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Sööma is a bilingual company that operates in both English and in French. We will provide blog posts, recipes and articles from various sources that are sometimes written in English and sometimes in French. If you feel unable to access a specific article or topic due to a language barrier, please reach out to us at email@example.com and we will be happy to translate the content for you.
- Sick Enough (pages 12 – 18)
- The set point: weight destiny established before adulthood?
- The defense of body weight – a physiological basis for weight regain after weight loss
- Impact of calorie restriction on energy metabolism in humans
- MacLean, P. S., Higgins, J. A., Giles, E. D., Sherk, V. D., & Jackman, M. R. (2015). The role for adipose tissue in weight regain after weight loss. Obesity reviews : an official journal of the International Association for the Study of Obesity, 16 Suppl 1(Suppl 1), 45–54. https://doi.org/10.1111/obr.12255