Sitting at last year’s lovely New Years’ Eve party, I forgot that we were expected to announce our 2023 New Year’s resolutions. I watched as guests recited impressive resolutions for improving their minds, their relationships, their volunteer work, and projects. I created one on the spot, I don’t remember it.
Because looking around, I knew the truth was that my real resolution was probably the same as 75% of the groups’ resolutions…to lose weight.
So here I am, five months into it and miserable. I have tried all of those “happy” programs about how good I feel about eating well, getting rid of bad habits, the rest of the nonsense. The problem is that like many people, I eat pretty healthily, so losing weight means giving up my few indulgences (bread, fruit, yogurt, occasional desserts).
Because the truth is that our bodies are designed to maintain fat, not lose it.
Fat is our mechanism for storing energy; it evolved from our hunter-gatherer ancestors who had to move great distances in search of food. The ability to store food through fat meant survival. So, if I was able to avoid errant spears and viruses, I would have survived very well back then.
My body is resistant to my efforts to lose weight. I have tried on-line systems, calorie counting, Weight Watchers, Keto, no carb, no gluten…you name it…and I am miserable. I have given up desserts, even my favorite thing in the world, which is watermelon. I have become a type of rabbit, eschewing salad dressings and eating raw vegetables.
Admittedly this is a good time of the year to diet. Every Saturday the farmers’ markets offer fresh carrots, radishes, pickles, tomatoes, eggs, and whatever else I can find that has few calories. I switched to white carrots fearing that my complexion was becoming orange…but my body is holding onto its pounds as if my life depended on them. In five months of consuming fewer than 1,100 calories per day, I have lost a total of 10 pounds.
But enough about my misery…what is important is to understand is why it is so difficult for us to lose weight.
Bottom Line: Our body doesn’t want to.
Scientists learned a lot about fat and weight loss by monitoring participants in the television show The Biggest Loser. Most of the poor souls who participated in that television show have gained their weight back. Not because they are weak-willed or lazy, but because their bodies were determined to get back that weight. (Despite it being unhealthy.)
Their bodies used hormones and metabolism to achieve their goal.
Leptin is a hormone that signals our brain to eat. Low levels of leptin cause hunger. The effects of leptin have been known for some time, so the contestants were monitored for it. They began their weight-loss journey with normal levels of leptin. By the season’s finale, they had almost no leptin at all. In short, they were constantly starving.
Admittedly, better eating choices could have helped, but they faced a formidable foe, a body that desperately wanted its weight back.
And it got worse.
Their metabolism, regulated by the thyroid, had slowed dramatically as well. They now needed to eat 600 fewer calories than the average person to maintain their weight. One contestant who has been working to keep his weight down (despite initial gains); is a 295 pound man, 6 feet tall; whose metabolism has so slowed that, despite 6-8 hours of rigorous weekly strength exercise, he must consume 800 calories per day fewer than a typical male his size to maintain his current weight.
Our body uses other mechanisms to prevent us from losing weight. After losing 10% of weight, our muscles start using genes to exercise more efficiently, causing us to burn 20-30% fewer calories doing the same amount of exercise.
Scientists have known for some time that after losing weight, our metabolism slows, requiring us to consume fewer calories than we did before our weight loss journey. In fact, most of us who lose weight, not only gain it back, and end up heavier. (Our metabolism generally goes back to normal levels after 3 months with weight training or Pilates exercise.)
The combined effects of low leptin levels and a slower metabolism conspired to make the contestants regain most, if not all, of the weight they’d lost. But the truly shocking part was that their leptin and metabolism levels never rebounded even after six years. In fact, the more weight a contestant lost, the slower his metabolism became. Weight regain was inevitable.
After researching for this column, I changed my attitude about dieting. I now realize that every ounce lost is done against overwhelming odds. The genes that I inherited have evolved over millions of years perfecting mechanisms to prevent me from losing weight.
The battle continues, but my perspective has changed. I now realize that each ounce, each pound lost, is an incredible achievement.
Angela Rieck, a Caroline County native, received her PhD in Mathematical Psychology from the University of Maryland and worked as a scientist at Bell Labs, and other high-tech companies in New Jersey before retiring as a corporate executive. Angela and her dogs divide their time between St Michaels and Key West Florida. Her daughter lives and works in New York City.