After a diet, your body might be working against you

The New York Times has a fascinating story about the current state of the science on weight loss, including the results of one recent (albeit small) study that suggests that the human body responds to weight loss by actively trying to regain weight—a finding that could help explain why it's so difficult to maintain significant weight loss, even when you are able to shed pounds.


  1. “I’m not fat, my body just works against me every time I take on a diet. There’s even a study about it.”

  2. People who use extreme diets gain the weight back?  Quelle surprise!

    I’ve known people who have lost weight and kept it off.  They did it by fixing the underlying problems in their eating and exercise habits, and then using those new patterns + moderate calorie restriction to peel off the additional pounds.   They had to stick with their new habits, though, or they did tend to gain the weight back.

    Being overweight is like being in a leaky boat.  You can bail the boat out, but if you don’t also fix the leaks then you’ll end up right back where you started. 

    1. You didn’t read the article, clearly. The article cites an increasing mound of longitudinal evidence as well as close observation of obese folks that shows that no matter what method you use to lose weight, once you achieve some sufficient unknown level of obesity, your body then fights weight loss by changing the way it burns calories and stores them.

      Thus, if you’re a few pounds beyond an optimum size for health and such, you can lose a few pounds and keep it off with moderate effort. If you’re a bit to very overweight or obese, it takes you maybe twice as much effort to burn calories and you need to eat less than your more HWP peer to begin with.

      The article is full of specifics. One woman did very precise calculations and finds she burns 4 to 5 calories per minute of biking, while people without this weight tax burn 11 calories per minute.

      It conforms to my experience, and explains why, when I was younger and thinner, it was easier to shed 10 pounds—not just a change in metabolism for age (one factor), but also a change in body chemistry.

    2. Everybody “knows somebody” who lost weight and kept it off. Guess what? I know somebody who won six figures in the lottery. I guess we should all buy lottery tickets, by that logic.

      1. So … what you’re saying … is that anecdotes are kind of meaningless? :)

        I feel like Patti is quite like a lot of people: They see “fat” or “diet” or “health” or something related, and because they are not fat, or because they know someone who is not fat, or because they or someone they know lost some weight, they have some sort of high authority on the subject.  So, instead of reading actual research and data that may change the way they think about these things, they just come in and start talkin’, because they think they understand the topic at hand … when they really don’t.

        Patti:  Read the article.

        1. I have read the article, more than once.  I’m also not one of those annoying thin people who thinks that fat people should just lose weight.  In fact, I’m just the opposite.  I”m also currently down a bit over 40 pounds from my peak weight, and I have about 60 more to go.

          One of the things that I’ve learned from people who have been successful is that how you lose weight matters as much as losing it.  If  you just diet, you’ll lose muscle as well as fat.  Part of losing weight is that you also have to work to build muscle at the same time.  Resistance training does more for weight loss than cardiovascular exercise.

          That’s actually pretty consistent with what I read in that article.  Most of the people it described lost weight without also trying to build muscle.  I would expect that someone who did this would lose muscle and therefore slow their metabolism down, so it’s not at all surprising that this actually happened.

          Here’s a blog from someone who has lost about 120 pounds, and has dedicated herself to maintaining it as much as she did to losing it.  She completely redesigned both her eating and her exercise patterns,  and has been very analytical about what she’s doing.

  3. For years, the advice to the overweight and obese has been that we simply need to eat less and exercise more. While there is truth to this guidance

    It baffles me how, given the statistics about weight loss, people can continue to claim that long-term weight loss is within most people’s reach. The statistics are so glaring, and yet even articles that point out the ways in which weight loss doesn’t work still beat the drum for “eat less and exercise.” “There is truth to this guidance?” Did you read your own article?!

    This translates into a sobering reality: once we become fat, most of us, despite our best efforts, will probably stay fat.

    And, since obesity is strongly heritable, most of us will get obese, or not, regardless of our best efforts.

    It was her great regret that in the days before she died, the closest medical school turned down her offer to donate her body because she was obese.

    Waitwaitwait. You’re telling me that medical schools don’t take obese cadavers? Given what proportion of the population is obese or overweight, seems like a pretty big oversight that medical students don’t practice on representative cadavers.

    I had a much longer post written, filled with commentary on this article, but I decided that BB is not the right forum for long tirades, so I’m cutting it here.

  4. By the way, I’m not buying the genetic argument.  Look at the population of obesity in American right now, and compare it to 25, 50 and 100 years ago. It just doesn’t make sense that our genetic makeup would change dramatically over that time period. 

    What did change is our food system, and our physical activity level. 

    1. Saying that obesity is 60-70% heritable doesn’t rule out environmental effects, Patti. Our genes could be exactly the same as they were, and if our environment changes, some of us will gain weight that we wouldn’t otherwise have. The genetic effect controls who gains weight and who doesn’t, given a shared environment. The point of the genetic argument is not to say, “No matter what, you are destined to get fat.” The point of the genetic argument is to say, “If you are fat, here is a rational basis for rejecting the proposition that it is all because you are a weak-willed slob.”

      EDIT: And I don’t mean to suggest that environment and genetics are the only two factors determining who gets fat, but IMO, they’re dominant.

      1. Oh, absolutely.  Some people are more genetically predisposed to being fat than others.

        Our environment has changed drastically in the last 50 years, though.  Specifically, our food system has changed.  We have plentiful, ridiculously cheap calories available to us, especially sugars.  We have lots of highly-processed foods.  We eat far fewer fruits and vegetables than we used to.  I’ve heard some fairly strong arguments that our current obesity levels can be traced directly to Nixon’s farm policies.

        We’re also less active than we used to be, but I think our food system is more to blame than our activity level.

      1. Certainly the definitions have changed.  Still, when I look around these days I see something very different than when I looked around in the 70s.  If I go back and look at pictures of the 20s, 30s, 50s, I see something that’s much closer to the 70s than what I see today.

        1. “Still, when I look around these days I see something very different than when I looked around in the 70s.  ”

          Yay for more anecdotes!

  5. I don’t know, man. I basically went LCHF a little over a year ago and my weight hasn’t changed by an ounce since, regardless of my activity level. I never count calories and I eat until I am full. I think Taubes is on the right track; calories-in do equal calories-out in the long run, but it’s the wrong framework. It’s not how much you eat or don’t eat, it’s what you eat.

    1. With all due respect, maintaining one’s weight for a year just barely begins to qualify as long-term weight loss.

      Also, some percentage of people are able to lose weight and keep it off. You may be one of them. That doesn’t change the Herculean effort that is required for the majority of people.

      Regarding “calories in = calories out,” let me refer you to an article that I wrote: 

      Here is a summary excerpt:

      The first flaw in the theory is that the human body uses calories for a lot more than just maintaining weight. For example, if you restrict calories, many people’s cognitive function will suffer or energy levels decrease before they reach a point where they begin to lose weight. You can’t pick and choose. You can’t say to your body, “Dear body, please take those calories from my fat and not from my brain-function.” Imagine that, on a given day, my base metabolic rate is determined to be 2200 calories, and from that point on, I begin to consume only 2000 calories, a 200-calorie deficit. Who’s to say that I won’t be 200 calories stupider, slower, grumpier, and weaker without losing any weight?

      1. Thank you, it was a nice article! I hate, hate hate hate hate the calories in < calories out argument for how to lose weight. It's way too simplistic for what actually is happening in a body. And when people start bringing up the law of thermodynamics I stop reading, because they obviously know nothing about what they are talking about.

        For the calories in < calories out argument to work the body needs to be burning and storing energy at more or less a constant rate. But what on earth says that? I have not seen one bit of evidence for it (true, I haven't looked into every study). What says that every single body is storing energy when there is an excess and storing less when there isn't enough? I could well see a rationality for the body starting to frantically store energy when there isn't enough and make up for the diffence by turning down the dial for everything else (brain, heating, re-building muscle mass…), just to have _something_ for when there is no food as we apparently are going to face a famine soon.

        But the "calories in < calories out" seems to be the basic premise of weight loss studies, so much so that when the numbers don't match it is explained away by "well, they just underestimated how much they ate". But the test subjects estimating wrong their calorie intake doesn't seem to be an issue when the numbers do match… strange that.

      2. So what would you suggest obese people should do? Nothing, because they are destined to be fat anyway?

        So it takes an effort to live healthy, make the bloody effort then.

        What are the environmental changes you are talking about compared to 30 years ago,when people used to be thinner? The availability of cheap calories? Just because they are available doesn´t mean you have to eat as many of them as possible on a daily basis.

        1. “So it takes an effort to live healthy, make the bloody effort then. ”

          No one said that.We need to be less focused on weight and what the body looks like, and more on eating good stuff and getting exercise.  Right now, the focus is on how one LOOKS, rather than health.  They aren’t necessarily related.

  6. Great, now my body and my brain are in cahoots with each other and are now both actively conspiring against me.

  7. I debated this article on another blog with people who wanted to defend their right to continue shaming and hating on fat people. Finally, an obesity researcher came on the thread and admitted that there is only one verified way to achieve significant and permanent weight loss– dangerous and costly surgery. In the future, this expert allowed, there may also be a drug which tricks the brain into no longer defending the higher weight. The tiny percentage of people who have maintained permanent weight loss without surgery exhibit all of the behavior patterns of an eating disorder. They are obsessed with food and obsessed with fat. They are forever at war with their own bodies.

    Rather than obsessing on fat, we should be encouraging people to have healthy diets and get regular exercise. 

    Oh yeah, and we should stop being petty, cruel and judgmental toward fat people.

    1. “Rather than obsessing on fat, we should be encouraging people to have healthy diets and get regular exercise. ”

      YES!  A thousand times yes.  The focus is largely on how one looks, rather than how one eats, or how healthy one is.  They aren’t really related.  Fat people can be healthy.  And, being 100% healthy isn’t necessarily what all people want, or should want, to strive for.  Sometimes enjoying life is more important than a super-low body fat percentage.

  8. [quote]I hate, hate hate hate hate the calories in < calories out argument
    for how to lose weight. It's way too simplistic for what actually is
    happening in a body. And when people start bringing up the law of
    thermodynamics I stop reading, because they obviously know nothing about
    what they are talking about.[/quote]

    I understood this at some level but didn't know enough to communicate it to people.  Then I was diagnosed as diabetic.  I decided to map my progress back to health because I knew that I would succeed.

    In great detail, I tracked my eating and exercise habits for about a month before starting treatment and then after starting.  Before I was diagnosed, I was taking in a certain amount of calories, getting no exercise, and losing massive amounts of weight.  The weight loss is actually what got me to the doctor.  I was stuffing myself, ravenously hungry all the time and getting no exercise, yet I dropped 60 pounds in about a month.  I felt great but I knew something about that wasn't right.

    The doctor prescribed the standard DED regimen – diet, exercise, and drugs.

    I thereafter took in fewer calories in the form of much higher quality food.  I exercised extensively.  I took the drugs prescribed.  I kept detailed records and made charts and graphs.  I swear I had twenty seven eight-by-ten color glossy
    pictures with the circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each
    one explaining what each one was to explain everything that I was doing.  My A1c numbers dropped to the normal range within 6 weeks AND I GAINED BACK EVERY SINGLE POUND.

    Less calories came in, in the form of a better diet.  My physical activity drastically increased.  And I gained lots and lots of weight.  The drugs I was taking changed the way my body used the calories I took in; some common diabetes drugs have a horrible reputation for causing weight gain and I got about the worst results possible in that aspect of my treatment.

    I now know that anybody who thinks a reduction of calories coming in combined with an increase in calories used will result is weight loss is an idiot.  The human body doesn't work that way.

    One big problem is that the idiocy isn't confined to the uneducated or otherwise dense folks among us.  I saw Dr. DeBakey on TV once.  Yes, that Dr. DeBakey.  He was utterly disgusted by fat people and couldn't understand why they didn't just push back from the table.  "All you have to do is take in less calories and get some exercise."  Some very smart people don't know squat about this problem and are happy to pontificate on it to anyone who will listen.  Sometimes I just want to punch them, hard and repeatedly.

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