Best way to stay thin: never get fat

Tara Parker-Pope had a fascinating article about weight loss in a recent NYT magazine piece.  The long and short of it: once you’ve put on a lot of weight it becomes incredibly difficult to keep it off.  This is not just a matter of willpower.  You’re body goes through permanent hormonal and physical changes that make it extremely hard, but possible, to keep weight off.

The data generated by these experiments suggest that once a person loses about 10 percent of body weight, he or she is metabolically different than a similar-size person who is naturally the same weight.

The research shows that the changes that occur after weight loss translate to a huge caloric disadvantage of about 250 to 400 calories. For instance, one woman who entered the Columbia studies at 230 pounds was eating about 3,000 calories to maintain that weight. Once she dropped to 190 pounds, losing 17 percent of her body weight, metabolic studies determined that she needed about 2,300 daily calories to maintain the new lower weight. That may sound like plenty, but the typical 30-year-old 190-pound woman can consume about 2,600 calories to maintain her weight — 300 more calories than the woman who dieted to get there.

That’s a huge disadvantage.  Imagine being told you would have to eat 300-400 calories less per day simply to maintain your current weight.  Obviously, then, the best strategy to not being fat is to never let yourself get fat whereby you undergo these changes that make it so hard for you to stay thin.  The good news is that scientists are now figuring out the mechanisms at work, so there’s at least hope on the medium-long term horizon.  Also, before you question the willpower and discipline of an overweight person, you might ask yourself just how well you’d do if you literally felt like you were starving every day if you were at a healthy weight.

Two important questions seemed left unanswered to me, though.  1) Just how much weight can you put on before your body undergoes these permanent changes?  That’s important to know, as obviously you really want to take control of your weight before it gets that far.  2) Almost all the studies this research is based on had people lose weight on fairly strict calorie restriction diets.  Certainly worth knowing if a much more gradual weigh loss, e.g., 1/2 1 pound a week, or something like that, might be more effective.   As for me, I’m going to assume that with my recent 20 pound weight loss, I did this before any permanent changes took place in my metabolism.  I guess we’ll see.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

One Response to Best way to stay thin: never get fat

  1. itchy says:

    I’m guessing your 20-pound weight loss doesn’t cross the threshold, especially since you’re a guy.

    And this may be unrelated, but I’ve heard that one problem with yo-yo dieting is that people tend to lose a lot of lean mass when losing weight quickly. Lean mass burns calories, so losing that is going to drastically reduce the number of calories one burns while at rest.

    So it’s important to include exercise, including resistance training, in a fitness plan.

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