Does ‘The Biggest Loser’ Study Prove That Long-term Weight Loss is Impossible?

by | May 6, 2016

wow scale

Instead of our regularly scheduled Friday link love, today I’m going to discuss just one story that made a huge splash in the weight loss community.

On Monday the New York Times published an article titled “After ‘The Biggest Loser,’ Their Bodies Fought to Regain Weight” and about a million of you sent it to me asking for my opinion.

The new study (you can read the real thing here) is very interesting and also a little frustrating. In case you live on Mars, ‘The Biggest Loser’ is a reality TV show that takes a group of people with Class III obesity and subjects them to extreme exercise and caloric restriction, with the result of rapid and dramatic weight loss often close to 50% of body weight.

I’ve never been a fan. Not only does the show double down on the torturous methods of weight loss perpetuated by the dieting industry, but (as expected) virtually everyone who participates in the show gains the majority of the weight back.

I doubt many of us can fathom how devastating this must be to the contestants psychologically––to go through months of hell and achieve what seems like an impossible level of “success,” then have those hard earned victories evaporate over the following years, all under the public eye. It’s amazing to me that this level of cruelty is even legal in the US. There’s probably a joke about The Hunger Games in there somewhere, but I don’t have the heart to make it.

Thanks to this latest research, however, we now have a pretty clear understanding of how physically devastating it is to participate in ‘The Biggest Loser.’

I’ll start by applauding the scientists for actually taking a long-term view of health and weight control. There’s an unspoken assumption behind the show’s philosophy that if you’re able to lose 100+ lbs (by any means) that your life will permanently be changed for the better. That if dietitians and personal trainers can force you to lose the weight this one time, then the hard part will be over and it’s all just clear sailing. Once you’ve made it this far you’ll never go back to how it was before.

People watch the show and are actually happy for the contestants because of this faulty belief. Worse yet, the contestants themselves believe and welcome it.

Obesity researchers are more skeptical. Maintaining dramatic weight loss is notoriously difficult, with the majority of people gaining all the lost weight back within a few years. One of the many theories about why this is the case is that weight loss causes your metabolism to “slow.” Indeed, the rate at which your body uses energy is typically proportional to body size, meaning that smaller people burn fewer calories than larger people. As a person goes from larger to smaller then you would expect fewer calories are needed to maintain weight.

In the new study researchers measured the Resting Metabolic Rate (the number of calories your body uses when not moving) before the show, after the 30 week show, and six years later. RMR dropped for all of the contestants over the course of the show as they lost weight, although nearly 300 calories more than would be predicted for their new body size. Even more surprising was that the RMR did not rise as expected as body weight increased in the six years that followed. On average* the contestants were burning 500 fewer calories per day six years after participating on the show than they were before the show began.

In addition to a slower RMR, participating in the show caused the blood concentrations of a satiety hormone called leptin to plummet in the contestants. After six years leptin levels recovered somewhat, but were only half of their original levels from before the show. Low leptin signals to your brain that you’re hungry, and many of the contestants reported experiencing intense hunger, cravings and binges well after the show was over.

In other words, being on ‘The Biggest Loser’ caused the participants to burn fewer calories while feeling constantly hungry, even after the majority of the weight was regained.

To me this is a fairly strong argument that participating in the show does more harm than good for someone’s long-term health and weight loss efforts, and I strongly hope that the show and any other weight loss programs using similar methods stop their practices immediately.

That said, I find it unfortunate that most people seem to have generalized ‘The Biggest Loser’ findings to all weight loss. The message in the media seems to be that the body’s metabolism simply won’t allow significant long-term weight reduction.

Given the extreme methods used by the show this conclusion seems premature, as many people in the NY Times comments section have pointed out.

During the show the participants are forced to exercise 7 hours a day (burning 8,000-9,000 calories) on less than 1,500 calories of food. Later in the show the contestants take these methods home and try to lose even more weight. The NY Times describes how one contestant (season 8 winner) approached it:

Mr. Cahill set a goal of a 3,500-caloric deficit per day. The idea was to lose a pound a day. He quit his job as a land surveyor to do it.

His routine went like this: Wake up at 5 a.m. and run on a treadmill for 45 minutes. Have breakfast — typically one egg and two egg whites, half a grapefruit and a piece of sprouted grain toast. Run on the treadmill for another 45 minutes. Rest for 40 minutes; bike ride nine miles to a gym. Work out for two and a half hours. Shower, ride home, eat lunch — typically a grilled skinless chicken breast, a cup of broccoli and 10 spears of asparagus. Rest for an hour. Drive to the gym for another round of exercise.

If he had not burned enough calories to hit his goal, he went back to the gym after dinner to work out some more. At times, he found himself running around his neighborhood in the dark until his calorie-burn indicator reset to zero at midnight.

Any weight loss method that requires you to quit your job and burn 3,500 more calories than you consume in a day is insane. Is it that surprising that anyone subjecting themselves to months of intense exertion and starvation would have a metabolic meltdown?

Why should we conclude that weight loss permanently ruins your metabolism instead of asking if there is a better, more sustainable way to lose weight in the first place?

Interestingly, in the discussion section of the original study the authors note that a matched group of patients who underwent bariatric surgery were able to sustain and continue weight loss without the same degree of metabolic disruption experienced by ‘The Biggest Loser’ contestants: “It is intriguing to speculate that the lack of long-term metabolic adaptation following bariatric surgery may reflect a permanent resetting of the body weight set-point.”

I agree, and think this point should have received much more attention.

I’ve also personally spoken with people who have lost amounts of weight similar to those on the show without regain, unexpected metabolic slow down, or extreme hunger, by using a more gentle and long-term approach.

Instead of postulating that weight loss must be impossible, it seems far more logical to conclude that the weight loss method you choose is an important factor in long-term success. I’d even argue that this is good news, because several months of torture and starvation is a pretty shitty option if you’re already obese.

‘The Biggest Loser’ study underscores how important it is that we change the way we think about weight loss, and puts yet another nail in the coffin of the overly simplistic calories-in vs calories-out model. At the very least we should stop glorifying “no pain, no gain” as the best method to reach our health goals.

I don’t, however, think that it implies that long-term weight loss is impossible for everyone. While there may be certain genetic or metabolic conditions which make significant long-term weight loss an unrealistic goal for some people, I’d be surprised if many (if not most) people couldn’t achieve it if they used a more realistic, personalized approach.

Have you lost significant weight and kept it off for several years? I’d love to hear from you in the comments.


*The average doesn’t really paint the whole picture here, since there was a wide variation in how much weight was regained over the six years (one contestant continued to lose weight after the show). However those who regained the least weight showed the largest drop in RMR.


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59 Responses to “Does ‘The Biggest Loser’ Study Prove That Long-term Weight Loss is Impossible?”

  1. Anette says:

    20 years ago i lost 20 kgs in 3 months. I used hclf and walks for exercise. Never counted calories. Still keeping the weight off. Stll eating hclf.

  2. emily says:

    I’m so glad you addressed this. I was hoping you would!!

    • Monica says:

      Me too. My first thought when I came across this NYTimes article was “Damn, I hope Darya addresses this in her Friday article…”

      Thank you for always providing the sane, thoughtful, scientifically-grounded perspective!

  3. Ann says:

    Thanks for addressing this, Darya! When I read the NYT article I felt discouraged as I’m trying to lose 10 lbs I gained over the last couple of years. Thank you for pointing out that this does not necessarily mean that RMR drops with all diet/exercise programs. In our on-demand world, we’re always looking for the quick fix, but to your point, it’s better to focus on healthy, sustainable lifestyle changes than extreme measures in an effort to quickly change our outward appearance.

    I’d love to learn more about metabolism and the role food and exercise plays in it. I wonder if the bariatric group maintained their RMR because they didn’t participate in an extreme exercise program (or if it’s just because their stomachs’ are permanently smaller). Maybe the bodies of the Biggest Loser contestants were rewired to be accustomed to so much physical activity that their bodies are trying to burn less energy when at rest?

    Thanks for the great points, Darya!

  4. Brenda says:

    I’m glad you addressed this topic I felt so defeated after the article. I lost 84 lbs 5 years ago. I have gained back 10 all the while trying to lose another 10. Not sure if my body has reached its set point but at least I have been able to keep a large portion off

  5. Judith says:

    Keeping weight off for me requires focus and discipline to the commitment to daily clean eating, exercise, water consumption, keeping sugar out of the pantries, daily weigh-ins, and finding ways to stave off hunger without eating. The long term focus is keeping caloric intake down to ward off cancer, arthritis, diabetes, vascular disease and the discomfort of weight. It helps to read this site because I feel community with others doing the same. I would love to read others’ tricks on how to put up with hunger.

    • Brian says:

      Hi, we have a weight loss clinic and our rule is “when you’re hungry, eat” just make sure it’s fruits, vegetables or protein. If you can focus on whole foods and base your diet around whole foods there is generally no ceiling on what you can eat. Listen to your body, if you feel like you’re starving, you probably are, which means your brain is getting a message that you’re starving and it’s going to slow down your metabolism, so eat!

      • Michele says:

        Brian said: “If you can focus on whole foods and base your diet around whole foods there is generally no ceiling on what you can eat.”

        I’m glad you said “generally,” because hunger is stimulated by much more than physiological needs — habits, stress, smells, sights, time of day, social situations, etc. And it can be very convincing, even if you are mindful. Some of us MUST restrict how much we eat, regardless of how “whole” the food is. The mind is a tricky thing.

  6. Leigh says:

    I’m so glad you addressed this right away, I felt a little panicked after hearing about this study.

    Can you elaborate on this line? It seems important but I don’t really get it:
    “It is intriguing to speculate that the lack of long-term metabolic adaptation following bariatric surgery may reflect a permanent resetting of the body weight set-point.”

    • Darya Rose says:

      The researchers found that significant weight loss via gastric bypass surgery did not have the same negative metabolic effect that being on ‘The Biggest Loser’ had. To me this negates the idea that weight loss alone is the reason for the disturbance, and it is more likely something negative about the method used on the show (e.g. the starvation, over-exercising, rapid weight loss, etc.). This is a huge bright spot, since it means lasting weight loss without drastic metabolic slowing is possible (note: some metabolic slowing will still occur as a result of weight loss, it just doesn’t need to be worse than expected).

      • Leigh says:

        Ah! Thank you! Is the “set point” a scientifically supported thing? I always assumed it was BS.

      • Darya Rose says:

        I don’t know how rigid or scientific “set point” is, but it is referring to a scientific phenomenon called homeostasis, which is biology’s general reluctance to move away from a stable system.

  7. Rebecca says:

    I lost over 50 pounds 8 years ago by cutting way back on junk food sweets and after-dinner snacking, and incorporating about half an hour of exercise into every day.

    Not the same category as morbid obesity, I realize, but it made a significant difference in lower body joint pain, digestive issues, and mood.

    With the exception of a brief ~10 lb upswing following a cross-country move 4 years ago, which corrected itself after a year, my weight and pants size have remained consistent. I guess this means I reset my set point?

  8. Raelle says:

    Thank you for addressing this article! I have heard of a lot of conflicting information this week about metabolism, building muscle, weight loss, etc. For example, that your RMR doesn’t really change with muscle growth, that exercise is considered more important than diet for weight loss, that it doesn’t matter whether one loses weight quickly or over time…(all sourced from NY Times articles).

    As someone in Public Health, I am feeling a bit confused about what our message should be besides avoiding processed foods, and staying active.

    • Darya Rose says:

      Isn’t it frustrating? The truth is we don’t know enough about metabolism to say much (except that ‘The Biggest Loser’ is apparently terrible for it). Science is still working all this stuff out.

      My personal experience has shown me that my metabolism is much higher (I eat ~800 cal/day more than I did while dieting and weigh less) since eating more nutrient dense food and almost no processed foods, and that strength training and cardio are both important in maintaining my physique. But I’m just one person who has never been obese, and who was relatively young when I made the switch.

      In addition to avoiding processed foods and staying active, I encourage a diversity of Real Foods and mindful practices to avoid overeating. Sleep/circadian rhythms, stage of life, gender, environmental exposures, and genetics are all also likely important, just not sure how exactly. Wish I could say more, but the evidence isn’t there yet.

  9. Bonnie says:

    Your blog is spot on as usual! The new mantra for the health industry should be “listen to your body and treat it kindly,” because pain equals no gain.

  10. Ross says:

    About 3 years ago, I started the process of losing what ended up being about 90 pounds. I kept it off for a couple years, and then slowly regained about 30 pounds. Since then I’ve lost 10 pounds.
    I’ve noticed that it is significantly harder for me to lose weight then when I did it the first time. I lost the weight by working out for about 45 minutes, 4-5 times a week, and not stuffing my face with pizza every other day, like I had done previously. I ended up falling off the wagon for awhile there, and I’m still a very emotional eater and I know my cravings are often directly connected to how I’m feeling at any particular moment, but I’ve been able to keep that in check recently and am trying to lose weight the same way I did before. It’s coming off much slower. I’m eating the same, working out, taking the dog for walks, etc., but it’s just coming off so. much. more. slowly. I do fear that my metabolism has been destroyed by my past terrible eating habits, my large weight loss, etc. I often feel quite hopeless about it all.

    • Lisa says:

      Don’t be discouraged Ross! It sounds like you know what you need to do, you did some of the hard work on figuring out triggers and you are doing the best you can. I have battled this same thing and the older I’ve gotten the harder it is to lose weight. But, if you’ve lost 70 some pounds (if my math is right) you should be very proud of yourself. I lost 60 too and have struggled to lose any more and even just to keep that 60 off. But you are doing it and you have support!

  11. Nina says:

    Is there any research to support the idea that the speed of the weight loss had anything to do with the metabolic changes?

    • Darya Rose says:

      Indeed there has been, and they didn’t find that it mattered. Of course this is just one study with what I would consider a short-term design (even their “slow weight loss” was only 12 weeks), so it isn’t gospel.

      It’s worth noting that ‘The Biggest Loser’ contestants were working out so hard that they didn’t lose very much lean body mass during the show, so the theory that metabolism slows due to muscle loss isn’t very strong.

  12. Rina says:

    I have in fact lost 30 lbs over about 3 years–about 10 lbs per year. This is quite a lot on a 5’1″ young woman. However,I lost the last 10 lbs very rapidly, in about 3 months, after joining a cross-country team, and since then I have continued running. I have kept the weight off for a good 3-4 years, although it has fluctuated between normal and underweight when I had an eating disorder.

    In one sense, weight loss is as simple as diet and exercise; in other ways it is not. I exercise 6 days a week because it helps my mood, makes me feel strong, and is part of my running training. I went somewhat overboard with being aware of food intake–to the point of developing an eating disorder–but now I make sure that I eat *enough* to fuel my activity. My current weight is pretty sustainable, and my size doesn’t really fluctuate, even through holiday cookies and pumpkin pie. 🙂

  13. g says:

    Are there ways to recover the RMR when damage has been done?

    • Darya Rose says:

      I imagine the answer is different for everyone, and we don’t have a very good one for anyone.

      I have some hope that it is, since I used to struggle to maintain my weight (which was higher) on 1100-1300 kcal/day, and have since had my RMR measured at 1700 kcal/day (remember that is pre-exercise calorie burn). But again, everyone is not me and there are many factors that could impact this.

      • Agata Kostecka says:

        Darya, are there ways to measure you RMR? I found some formulas online but am wondering how accurate those are.

  14. Dory says:

    The Learning Channel has a number of programs that I think promote irresponsible and unhealthy behaviors, including encouraging a group of Amish youth to move to Manhattan when they had no survival skills for that environment or any counseling, marrying couples who had never met before (and were not from cultures where arranged marriage is normal) etc. Even among this line up of trash I think the extreme weight loss program stands out as a particularly unethical reality stunt. Of course people who eat extremely restrictive diets and spend the entire day exercising will lose weight, but there is absolutely no way this is sustainable. I watched the show one time and it made me sick to see what they did to people. If I were the personal trainer they feature on the show I would be ashamed to show my face in public. I am sorry to be so harsh, but very obese people deserve real healp- not to be put through torture and then left, with no support to break their hearts by regaining the weight because they never learned any sustainable way to eat and exercise.

    • MrsMac says:

      In Britain, the Biggest Loser’s iconic trainer committed suicide.

      On the subject of resetting you metabolic rate, mine has got much better since being rather messed about by shift working and VLCD with exercise. I’ve a tracker and food diary now and just try not to eat more than I expend. Darya is spot on about the nutrient dense foods – my body seems to have switched to using fat as its fuel of choice. The weight is creeping off at about a pound a month, rather than the reverse. I’m 50 and exercise a lot.

  15. Lynn Baldwin says:

    Hello Darya,

    Thanks for a thorough overview of the study and pointing out the lack of negative effects in the Bariatric Surgery Group vs. The Biggest Loser’s well discussed metabolic slowdown. I find it amazing that the media’s spin on this story is one of negativity…. no matter how much you exercise and how little you eat…. You are doomed to wind up worse than before vs. the documented benefits seen in the bariatric surgery group. I would like to see the positives of this study discussed in greater detail….. Bariatric surgery was far superior in preserving metabolic rate and offers a more sustInable method of weight loss than extreme diet and exercise regimens. I would like to see the entire process of lifestyle management become an “exercise” in sustainable joyous habits as opposed to “goal weights” …… What did the person do to achieve this “goal”….. As for myself, I lost 45 lbs 5 years ago from being acutely ill with gallstones. I ate nothing because eating made me sick/ I did not exercise as I wasn’t up for it. People’s reactions following my weight loss were very amusing…… “Somebody was working really hard” ….. ” Good for you; for deciding to finally take care of yourself” …… Like I never took care of myself when the scale showed a larger number and I wore a size 16….please….. I wasn’t perfect, but I ate well. Five years have gone by, I am still a size 12 but it’s getting to be a tighter squeeze…. I have gained about 15 pounds….. I am quite fine with the gain ( it’s life) and am working on having the tide turn the other way. My physician however will harp on endlessly about my weight gain at my next appointment which I am not going to lie hurts my feelings. He makes me feel like a failure. I know statistically maintaining any weight loss is an anomaly. I don’t want to give the impression that people who don’t lose weight or lose weight and regain are somehow failures for not achieving their “goal” weight! Incidentally I was model skinny way back when, I lived off candy, caffeine pills( they didn’t have Red Bull in those days:)) and conspicuous compulsive exercise/ while none of these behaviours were at all “healthy”, I “enjoyed” everyone’s presumption that I led this fantastically healthy lifestyle…. After all, I looked the part!!!!…… No physician ever questioned me about my “troublesome habits”…… In fact, they would rave how nice it was to see someone who takes such good care of themselves/ not like their other patients!!!! Yikes…..I would like to say, I have only had one doctor but I have had several so I think this “weightism” is not rampant but common. Now, the fleshier me eats real food and eats way less sugar and other junk than skinny me did ( you can eat lots of junk if that is all you eat and nothing but/ and still stay skinny) nonetheless I still am going to be subjected to the ” you need to watch what you eat” blurb and judged as inferior all because I have a BMI over 25. Everyone in my boat knows, they will bring out that “chart” and go on about how my “bad behaviour” is contributing to my weight gain. I also don’t mean to demonize those with normal BMI’s….. Just because I had a load of bad habits….. Doesn’t indicate other people with choice BMI’s don’t practice very healthful lifestyles…… Bottom line, we need to stop judging based on size….. Maybe if we weren’t so judgemental there were be loads fewer problems with regards to “size management”…. Just a thought …..

    • DKelly says:

      Well said – great work achieving a sustainable lifestyle and approach to sustenance/food…

    • Malena Tanguera says:

      Amen to every word of your comment, especially your last sentence!

    • jenhee says:

      Oh my gosh, I feel like you wrote exactly what is in my head. I work out (fairly strenuously) 6 days a week and eat 95% clean, yet I simply cannot break through my current BMI of 25. I push myself harder than most of my (skinny) friends, and I always try on make myself feel better by saying my “insides” must be crazy healthy, because I know my “outside” doesn’t reflect all my hard work, food journaling, and dedication to eating only Real Food. I even decided to switch doctors a few years ago after her careless comments about me (without inquiring anything about my habits, exercise, or dietary regime) made me cry. Again.

    • MeiMom says:

      Yes! I walk marathons, every one of my numbers is perfect when I have my annual physicals, I’m not on a single medication, and yet my physician constantly harps about weight loss. Of course I could lose some weight, my BMI is over 30, but how about some positive comments? I’m probably one of the healthier patients she sees!

  16. Jason Harrison says:

    It will be interesting to see if the scientists can determine how the RMR and leptin levels were depressed. How did the Greatest Loser approach damage the contestants’ bodies?

    For everyone else who regains lost weight, how sustainable were the changes they made to lose the weight? Obviously, the Biggest Loser approach is completely unsustainable.

  17. Blair says:

    I would say yes you can lose weight and maintain it if you keep at it for a couple years until your body resets its natural body weight. I use to weight over 250lbs and now weigh 185lbs on average. I got down to 210 over a couple years by somewhat changing my eating habits by doing more healthy food and dropping energy drinks and sweetened coffee drinks. But it helped that my friend had the brilliant goal of doing Rim to Rim for the Grand Canyon and we went into training mode walking and hiking a lot. After the goal Tim Ferris came along with his Slow Carb Diet and I started doing that and I met a spin teacher who advised me to walk 30+ minutes a day if I did nothing else. So I put on my headphones to listen to audio books and podcasts and would walk every morning. When my weight got under 200lbs it switched something in my brain. For years I had gone up and down and never believed I would get below 200lbs. When I did somehow a new belief popped into my head and I somehow mentally just went for a cleaner diet and a lot of KettleBell Swings and longer walks. I one day hit the magical 175lbs and eased up a bit…but kept motivated knowing that people who lose weight gain it back often within the first year. Seems I balanced out at 185lbs and nowadays although my diet isn’t as strict… More cheat meals than not at times (which brings about cravings) my weight seems to go no higher than 190lbs which causes me to kick in mentally and get back on course. So maybe severe crash diets and overexercising does cause long term challenges to the bodies metabolism. But I also believe it is a great mental attitude in believing you can actually maintain the weight and a health fear of gaining the weight back to keep you motivated and on top of it.

  18. Susan says:

    My weight has fluctuated from a high of 182 when I was 18 to a low of 134 when I was 40. I’m 5’4″ tall. Now I’m 51 and it stays around 155, though I eat healthfully and exercise. To maintain my weight much below 150, I have to be hungry all the time. It’s pretty unsustainable. It’s frustrating to be seen as somehow undisciplined by people who are naturally lower weight, but eat more, and more unhealthy food, than I do.

  19. Ita says:

    I was wondering, I’ve heard all kinds of time frames to ‘reset the set point’, from one year to the idea that after 3 years it gets harder. Is there real evidence of a time frame? I kinda think people relax after sometime and that’s what leads to weight gain. Mostly because weight loss was done in an unsustainable way, I suppose.

    Also, I ran into this today:

  20. Suzie says:

    I removed 45 lbs (from 185) approx 5 years ago, eating mostly paleo-ish. It took a year and a half. I eat as you suggest, lots of fat and protien, fruits and veggies. I have found that I must limit grains or I gain quickly. That said, I have food rules too. Nothing is forbidden but it must taste delicious and I eat treats slowly and enjoy every bite. My weight is stable at 145 and I am 5’6″ so I am not skinny but as another commenter said, to go below this weight I have to starve all the time. This is what my body wants to weigh and I am ok with that.

  21. Jack Marxer says:

    I went from 209 to 154 pounds (5’9″) in 1970 over a 3 month period on the Doctor’s Quick Weight Loss diet (protein, no carbs, almost no fat and lots of water). I’m now about 164 but over the years have stayed closer to 160 most of the time. I started running and walking along with the diet and gradually ran 4 miles a day. The diet started with a 3-day fast to get the metabolism jolted. It was a ketonic diet and test strips showed the ketones resulting from the fat burned. Over the years had to occasionally use the diet for a week or so to knock off some weight gain.

  22. Pablo Ortega says:

    Hi all:
    I lost 18 kilos (40 pounds) in a 5 month period. I did count calories using the Myfitnesspal app. Also I did start running every 2 days. 1 year and half later and I have not gained 1 pound.
    I started eating healthier and stayed away from high calories food. Why should I eat a hamburger (550kcal) when I can have a full plate of Nopales (cactus, yes we eat it in Mexico) that only has 200 calories and keeps my full for longer?
    What I liked about the app is that it gave a realistic goal of calories deficit per day so that I never entered what they call starvation mode.
    I really hate diets. I have seen tons of people try magic diets and powders. Some of them do lose weight, but gain it back in no time. They always ask me how did I do it, and I always answer the same. If you do these diets but you don’t change your eating habits nothing will change in the long run.

  23. April says:

    I was glad to see you tackled this! I wanted to share my “weight loss” story.

    My weight topped out at 252 in 2007 (I am 5’10”). I had “dieted” from 1998 to 2007, going from 197 to 175, back up to 205, and then after college, but before graduate school, I gained 50 pounds due to disordered eating practices and severe depression. In 2007, as I began graduate school for social work, I decided that I needed to make a change. And it wasn’t the kind of change most people would expect! Instead, I decided that no food was “off limits,” “bad,” or something to make me feel “guilty.” I ate what I wanted when I wanted. If I wanted a pint of Ben and Jerry’s for dinner, I ate it. Bread and butter, cheese, pizza, chocolate, an entire super-ripe pineapple. Whatever I wanted, I ate. And I didn’t judge it. I just let myself have it. It was expensive, because I often couldn’t plan meals and wasn’t really cooking for myself in the beginning. And man, my stomach hurt some days…

    After 6 months of this, maybe not surprisingly, I found that I was choosing foods that were less processed, more whole food oriented. Waking up and cooking sweet potato and swiss chard hash with an overeasy egg, bringing my lunch and snacks to school, occasionally having ice cream, and when I did, I didn’t eat the whole pint in one sitting. I started realizing that food creates changes in my affect, changes in how I feel physically, changes in my mood. When I said, “no, I shouldn’t have that donut,” it was because I knew how I would feel an hour after eating it, because I let myself eat all the donuts not six months earlier.

    It’s been 9 years, and I have lost 67 pounds. I have weighed somewhere between 181 and 187 for the last three years. My relationship with food is healthy, and that is just as important to me as being a “healthy weight.” I incorporated body movement that I love, instead of suffering through physical activities that aren’t things I enjoy. It’s amazing that this has helped me better manage my depression, better manage migraines and other body pain, and experience more joy. Your blog has been a consistent source of helpful facts-based nutritional and practical advice too. My partner and I make your cabbage-and-eggs breakfast at least once a month!

  24. Jordan says:

    I really enjoyed reading this post. I think it’s extremely important for people to realize just how much time the contestants on the show put into the gym and how unrealistic that can be when placed back into the real world. As seen in the example you used with the season 8 winner, the lifestyle can get very dangerous and unhealthy. I completely agree with you that long term weight loss can be achieved with more realistic, personalized approach. Thanks for sharing!

  25. Richard says:

    It seems to me that the assumption that if you have a slowdown in your metabolism, that is a decrease in the percentage of calories that are converted to heat, that you will continue consuming the same amount of calories is probably not true. By the same logic, if you had the misfortune to lose your arms and legs, you would thereafter gain a lot of weight because of the significant decrease in calories consumed. A better explanation it seems to me, is that chronic hunger triggers an evolutionarily determined mechanism in the brain (hypothalamus) that promotes fat storage once the “famine” has ended. The decrease in metabolism is something that just happens in parallel with the change in the appetite mechanism and in fat storage but it is not directly the cause of subsequent weight gain. My guess is that if you could find a way to suppress uncoupling proteins that regulate metabolism, you would not see any weight gain because this action would not change appetite.

  26. Kelly says:

    Having lost 100 pounds over 5 years ago, the only thing I can say has helped me keep it off was adopting healthier habits. Cooking more, trying new healthy recipes and maintaining a consistent workout schedule (date) with the gym. I did not loose the 100 pounds over a few months, but actually a few years, staying at certain weight points for months before making changes to continue loosing more weight. I was fine with this approach because I implemented small changes over time that I was able to make stick. It has been a lot of trial and error along the way, with small set backs and great successes to celebrate. As we age, there’s always new challenges that our bodies and life toss our way. I agree that the the show, while entertaining to some, seems to set them up for failure. What happens after the show? Where is their support and guidance for learning how to maintain their weight? I guess that would make for boring TV so it’s not incorporated into the show. What we, and probably the contestants don’t get is the idea of how to re-build (repair?) your metabolism. I have read a lot of articles and success stories based on the idea of “reverse dieting” and have actually been able to increase my calories slowly, over the course of months though, to build up what they call your “metabolic capacity”. When my dieting phase ended, I was eating about 1,450 calories a day. Over the course of about 5 months I was up to an average of 1900 calories a day and my weight increased by only 3 pounds. I actually dropped a size but I was lifting weights, not just doing cardio. However, “reverse dieting” is almost more difficult to do than dieting. Darya, I would be interested to hear your opinion on “reverse dieting” to be able to build metabolic capacity.

    • Lynn says:


      Congratulatiions on your successful weight loss and maintenance! Really impressed to hear the lengths and struggles you went through to find a program that works for you. I think you nailed to some key points that need to be top of mind when making lifestyle modifications. Your approach of going very slowly, spending a considerable amount of time in maintenance before embarking on additional weight loss, and accepting the fact there will be ups and downs along the way, is a real life blueprint that can be applied effectively for making better lifestyle choices. Like the fact you put all of your focus on the actual journey as opposed to the “goal weight”. Keep enjoying your journey and stay happy!

  27. Justine says:

    The regimen the show participants follow seems similar to what people with anorexia or eating disorders do- unfortunately, it’s just seen as acceptable because the participants are obese. It’s no wonder that their metabolism is destroyed afterwards. Slow changes are sustainable changes.

  28. Gabrielle says:

    This article explained a lot to me, especially why I gained back 70 of the 90lbs I lost in 6 months last year. I have got to lose this weight (and more) in order to be healthy. But, I have to say I feel utterly defeated and without any hope. I really appreciate your blog and the great articles posted here.

  29. Stacey says:

    I lost 50 pounds over 5 years by calorie counting, which works for me because I can still eat what I want as long as I keep it within budget. Generally, calorie counting leads me to make better food choices as well, things that will fill me up & maximize nutrition while keeping calories low. Over the past 5 years, I have transformed myself from a couch potato to a walker to a lap swimmer/elliptical/yoga gym person to a competitive racing cyclist. Working with my cycling coach has been awesome, he is an extraordinary individual and now a personal friend. But that process has also been eye opening in how you systematically train and increase exercise intensity, I wonder if I did not train systematically like I do if perhaps the exercise effect might have waned over time as my body adapted. Anyway, I found your site because July is going to be the start of my trying to kick another few remaining poor nutrition habits, I turn 50 this month & know I may become sidelined at some point by injury, might as well get my nutrition improved now while I have the cycling which makes that all easier and creates some wiggle room. My message (as a life-long overweight person, from the time of childhood): if I can do it, anyone can. I’ve looked at this whole process as a way of improving my health & well being incrementally over time. It’s a long term project for me.

  30. Shiv kumar says:

    Do You think excessive sleep can raise levels of craving hormones like ghrelin, which accelerate appetite and can lead to hundreds of extra calories than when you have enough amount of sleep and well rested ??

  31. Sam says:

    The biggest loser is a great ideal in theory…. When you have people who are fairly large to start with and trying them for hours and hours a day, along with having professional chefs making their meals. yes they are going to loose massive amounts of weight. But once they transition back into “reality” its impossible to continue to train for hours and hours a day and of course they are going to fall off the wagon where food is involved as its somethings easier to eat something out of a box rather than making a meal and then that becomes a habit .
    There are no short cuts, health, nutrition and exercise is a lifetime (sometimes uphill) battle. If you slip up, just keep going don’t punish yourself.

  32. Joestar says:

    I have only recently come across Darya and Foodist. I have yet to get/read the book but it is on my birthday wish list.(birthday next week!)
    I lost about 12-13 kgs(30lbs) doing 5:2 and was actually thinking that this is a pretty easy way to lose it. Unfortunately , this and other methods (i.e.LCHF) only seem to take you part of the way but never deliver you to the promise land. Once you plateau on these methods it wants you to double down to break the plateau and you then feel locked in and trapped. I have regained half the weight and now it doesn’t matter what method I try my body just seems to resist !(I actually feel bloated when I have a fast day) I think it was Food Inc. that got me thinking of just trying to eat nutrient dense food and exercise. I understand that I’m getting to an age(over 45) that I need to exercise so I’m currently 10-15 mins strength training in the morning)(4 x week).
    My biggest motivation at this stage is trying to get my thinking right and I think that’s where Darya will be of great assistance. From what I have read on her website so far makes so much sense. I am sure I’m going to love reading the Foodist and it should be my manual for many years to come.

  33. Anne says:

    I used to think that show was a great motivator to stay fit. It made me think that trying their extreme exercise routines and activities will help me lose the pounds like they did. After reading your post, it gave me a new opinion of these shows and my mindset about weight loss. This is a really good eye-opener for all of us.

  34. Frank Mason says:

    I am 20 years old student who weights 75 kilos. I know its not normal but i am planning to lose more kilo because im losing confidence to myself. At my age, i should be conscious coz im not getting any younger anymore and it’s for my health also. I love to eat pizza, burger, pasta especially fries. Yummm!! I start looking for a solution to my problem. I exercise, I make a diet. I limit myself to the food i love. But upon searching, i saw [link removed] that CBD can help my problem. I am not sure about this. Can somebody tell their experience in CBD?

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