September 21st, 2011

Bad news for dieters

Not that we needed more evidence, but new research is explaining just why it’s so hard for most people to lose weight and maintain the loss.

I already knew about this from personal experience and observation. And don’t get me wrong—I’ve never been fat, but I’m one of those people who is always trying to lose ten to twenty pounds to look and feel what I’d consider my best. Trouble is, this comes at the price of a sort of mild but steady starvation, an experience I’m not willing to voluntarily endure for more than a few weeks or months at the most. Plus, my weight loss is agonizingly slow (and this despite the fact that my nutrition is good, and I already exercise virtually every day) and my rebound weight gain is astoundingly fast.

In other words, I can diet for months and lose about five pounds total, and I can regain that five in just a couple of days of eating what most people would call normally. Although the tendency has gotten worse as I’ve gotten older, twas ever thus. Even when I was young I had to severely limit my calories in order to maintain my dance weight (very slender), despite the fact that I was highly active on a daily basis.

Your mileage—and poundage, and diet experience—may differ, especially if you happen to be a man. Men are generally bigger, less affected by weight-clingy hormones such as estrogen, and with bodies that have a higher proportion of metabolically active muscle.

In Lancet, Dr. Kevin D. Hall and his colleagues at the the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases have described “a more realistic model of how the body responds to changes in caloric intake and expenditure, basing their calculations on how people of different weights responded to caloric changes in a controlled setting like a metabolic unit.” So this study is not relying on such inherently suspect measures as people’s reports of what they’re eating and how much they’re exercising; it rests on more exact measurements than that.

The news isn’t pretty, but it reinforces what I’ve long suspected and also observed among my heavier friends, most of whom don’t seem to eat all that much:

According to the researchers, it is easy to gain weight unwittingly from a very small imbalance in the number of calories consumed over calories used. Just 10 extra calories a day is all it takes to raise the body weight of the average person by 20 pounds in 30 years, the authors wrote.

Furthermore, the same increase in calories will result in more pounds gained by a heavier person than by a lean one — and a greater proportion of the weight gained by the heavier person will be body fat. This happens because lean tissue (muscles, bones and organs) uses more calories than the same weight of fat.

In an interview, Dr. Hall said the longstanding assumption that cutting 3,500 calories will produce a one-pound weight loss indefinitely is inaccurate and can produce discouraging results both for dieters and for policy changes like the proposed tax on sugar-sweetened beverages.

If the 3,500-calorie rule applied consistently in real life, it would result in twice the weight loss that the new model predicts, the authors wrote. This helps to explain why even the most diligent dieters often fail to reach weight loss goals that were based on the old rule.

A more realistic result, he said, is that cutting out 250 calories a day — the amount in a small bar or chocolate or half a cup of premium ice cream — would lead to a weight loss of about 25 pounds over three years, with half that loss occurring the first year.

Why is this bad news? Well, for starters, people like me are not eating small chocolate bars or half a cup of premium ice cream on a daily basis. Some of us have already pared our daily calorie consumption done to the bone.

Do the math: if a person is losing 25 pounds over three years, that’s approximately 8 pounds a year or about 2/3 a pound a month. Hardly enough to provide the motivation to keep the struggling dieter going. Plus, how many people have such an exact idea of their daily caloric consumption that they can consistently cut back that much, not to mention doing it for that long? If the weight loss rate is so slow, just a couple of days a month of special treats (on special occasions, for example) can undo all the good of the far more numerous days of deprivation, just as I’ve observed. The requisite consistency of denial is more than most mortals can manage, especially with the constant temptation of wonderful food at the grocery store, in advertisements, and at social events.

It’s not surprising that most people have trouble keeping the weight off. The wonder is that anyone ever succeeds, considering what’s required.

40 Responses to “Bad news for dieters”

  1. mizpants Says:

    Oh, take me out and shoot me.

  2. Baklava Says:

    I think the reason why fasting (losing weight fast and unhealthily) is the usual method because nobody except the Pope can discipline theirselves to lose 2/3rds a pound per month…

  3. Don Carlos Says:

    Never fight biology. I see the struggles to ‘just lose a few pounds’ as exercises in denial, a refusal to accept that one is what one is, biologically speaking. Fighting gravity doesn’t yield much either.

    Serenity: the acceptance of things we cannot change.

  4. Mr. Frank Says:

    If you look at school group pictures from seventy years ago you will see very few fat people. Similarly, I am always struck by how thin American WW II soldiers, sailors, and airman were in news films.

    I’m confident we have not seen genetic drift since then. Our culture has changed greatly with respect to food and eating. We have lots more money and eat out far more often where portions are massive. Snack foods are cheap and everywhere. The gas station of yesteryear had a candy machine at most.

    Eating has become a leisure activity, especially among the poor.

  5. Tom Says:

    I quit smoking six years ago, and put on about 20-30 pounds. I am still trying to drop it. It would probably help if I drank less beer, but without beer, there is no life. hahahahahaha

  6. Bob T Says:

    Just finished reading “Wheat Belly”. Fascinating book. I stopped eating wheat and all wheat products for one week. I have lost about a pound a day. Not starving, not hungry, really inconvienced. But it seems to work.

  7. Margaret Says:

    I agree with Bob T. Stay away from carbs of all types, but especially wheat products. Eat fish, peanut butter, all kinds of nuts, avocados, sources of good fat and you won’t feel you are on a starvation diet. Think of it as a lifestyle, not a diet. Oh and eat lots of fruits (the fiber prevents alot of the carbs there from being absorbed) and veggies too, just not alot of carbs. People look at me like I am crazy when I don’t take dessert, but after a while sugary sweets just make you feel sick after you eat them, because your body gets unused to them.

  8. Curtis Says:

    I heard an interesting theory that fat is serving as a pseudo organ like the liver or kidney only not purifying toxins, but trapping them. The extra fat is due the extra toxins found in pollution and preservatives.

  9. Richard Aubrey Says:

    Curtis . We have a friend who became disabled, cause unknown, but one doc theorized her fat was particularly prone to trap toxins. Then, for some reason, the toxins came out and she was pretty flaky for a couple of years.
    Might have been something else.

    The whole thing makes you think about how people in the not-very old days felt. Were they hungry all the time, there in 1956? Were they craving…donuts, cheeseburgers, candy?
    Problem is, to lose weight, you have to take in less than you need. Balance of energy is taken from metabolizing fat. Thus, you lose weight. But the body has a number of ways of telling you it doesn’t like not having enough, and it’s hard to ignore them. You are, literally, starving yourself. Slowly, of course, but still starving yourself. Evolution didn’t make that a favored option.

  10. neo-neocon Says:

    Bob T and Margaret: well, that sort of thing doesn’t work for me. What’s more, I know a lot of people who lost weight cutting out wheat and/or many carbohydrates, and sooner or later they can’t take the restrictions any more (unless they are truly allergic) and go back to their old ways, and gain the weight back.

  11. J.J. formerly Jimmy J. Says:

    The problem with dieting is that, to do it successfully, it requires precision and dedication.

    You have to know your basal metabolic rate and then tailor your diet to eat 10-15% less than required for maintenance of your weight for three or four days. Then you must eat 20-30% more than required for one day. Then 10-15% less for three days, and so on. This tricks your body into believing that there is plenty of food around while your are eating less than it takes to maintain your weight. Continous low calorie days will cause your body to think there is no food around and it will go into starvation mode, down regulating your basal metabolism. That is why most people lose quite easily at first and then reach a “sticking” point. To do this means you must weigh, measure, and record all the food you eat with some precision. Body builders know how to do this. It is too difficult for most people who have lives to live and jobs to go to. Especially in this day and age with high calorie food everywhere. Using one of the Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig, etc. type of programmed diet food can be successful if people are motivated enough. However, when one goes back to eating normally, it’s easy to put the weight back on.

    And yes, refined carbs are poison for most people because they eventually screw up the insulin reaction in the body. Although I have known a couple of people who could eat a high carb diet and still be relatively normal weight. The refined carbs are what, IMO, are causing the large increase in Type II diabetes.

    Exercise can help, but it takes an hour of vigorous aerobic exercise for me to burn an extra 225-275 calories. I can eat that much very easily. You eat properly to lose or maintain weight, you exercise for fitness. Exercise does two things. It improves your cardio-vascular system and it tones your muscles. It also helps keep your basal metabolism revved up. Anerobic exercise, (wind sprints, heavy weights lifted to failure, sprints on a bicycle) if it is pulsed, can do the same thing for you and will burn more calories in a shorter time. Both types of exercise should be done because the body adapts very quickly to one or the other. You have to keep challenging your body in different ways to make it stronger.

    I’m no longer into body building, but I control my calories by eating a very boring diet where I know the calorie count with some precision. I eat to live, not live to eat. I know that shows I’m a very boring person. Sorry, that’s just my way. I’m no longer ripped like I was a few years ago. Am maintaining myself at about 10-20 pounds above my contest weight. When the weight has crept back I go “strict” for a few weeks and lose ten pounds.

    There are many people who, for some genetic reason, have low basal metabolic rates. That is a good trait to have in a society where food is scarce. It means that you can maintain weight even when food is scarce and fatten up easily when it becomes plentiful again. That was a very good gene to have back before food became so plentiful. My wife has it. Her basal metabolic rate is about 1100 calories/day. She eats very little, but can gain weight just by eating 1400 calories a day – what most people think of as a very restricted diet. To lose weight she has to go on about 900 calories for a few days, 1300 calories for a day and then back down. Most people would see that as deprivation, but it is what it is.

    Back in the day when people worked long and hard at physically demanding jobs and the food was mostly unprocessed and home made, people were not as heavy. Of course, a lot of people smoked in the 30s, 40s, and 50s. Nicotine seems to rev up the basal metabolism and reduce the appetite as well. There is a fortune waiting for the scientist who can find a pill that does that and doesn’t have the bad side effects of nicotine.

  12. Curtis Says:

    Fat and stress, fat and toxins!
    Unless you’re Injun moc’sins.
    Remember, it’s the butter you better
    ever never mix with cheddar.

    Dental or mental I say it’s spinach!
    The game isn’t chess it’s cribbage.
    Cause it’s not smart but lucks
    messes with which your tummy tucks.

  13. Curtis Says:

    Doesn’t show you’re boring, JJ. Shows you’re disciplined. Nothing wrong with that.

  14. neo-neocon Says:

    Curtis: well, J.J.’s food is certainly boring.

  15. vanderleun Says:

    Yet another factor in the rise of obesity is that we are gaining more because we are smoking less.

    “We simultaneously estimate the effects of the various socio-economic factors on weight status, considering in our analysis many of the socio-economic factors that have been identified by other researchers as important influences on caloric imbalance: employment, physical activity at work, food prices, the prevalence of restaurants, cigarette smoking, cigarette prices and taxes, food stamp receipt, and urbanization. We use 1979- and 1997-cohort National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY) data, which allows us to compare the prevalence of obesity between cohorts surveyed roughly 25 years apart. Using the traditional Blinder-Oaxaca decomposition technique, we find that cigarette smoking has the largest effect: the decline in cigarette smoking explains about 2% of the increase in the weight measures. The other significant factors explain less.” — The Socio-Economic Causes of Obesity, National Bureau of Economic Research, September 2011

    Want to lose? Smoke’em if you got ’em. (Just for a month or so until the pounds drop.)

  16. J.J. formerly Jimmy J. Says:

    I forgot to mention that there are also people who have a very fast metabolism and can stay slender almost effortlessly. I worked with one such as a flight instructor at Pensacola. He brought a dozen glazed donuts to polish off before the first flight in the morning and he had already eaten a full breakfast at home. Then it was a big grease burger and fries with a chocolate malt for lunch. I could gain weight just by watching him eat. He is slightly paunchy now – 49 years later, but not fat. He still eats a lot and it hardly shows. In the old days people like him were the first to die when the game got scarce. I guess that’s why there are so few of them today.

  17. Curtis Says:

    Yeah, well, you lost me there JJ. I am not a believer in the “evolution made me this way” explication. I believe in the “we lost our original and quite awesome abilities” theory. For instance, a man’s sex drive is a constant until he violates it’s boundaries and then the drive violates the man. Kind of like you said earlier, you eat to live, not live to eat. Such a statement comes not from evolution, which has no opinion on such things. We are fast coming to a full repudiation of the evolutionary-social model of human behavior and merely because experience and empircal evidence shows contrary.

  18. Sharon W Says:

    I personally have found that pain is a great motivator. Having joint and muscle issues has made it necessary for me to take seriously the health concerns that many overlook or ignore. When my 1st grandchild was on the way and I committed to one day per week care, I determined to enact the discipline required to take off the 20 pounds excess that would only aggravate problems that started to manifest due to age and use. I have utilized the free site, SparkPeople for the last 1-1/2 years and have learned a lot and benefited greatly. Statistically only 5% of people keep weight off over time. If that isn’t proof that diligence and discipline are required I don’t know what is. Of course anomalies exist as cited in J.J.’s post, but for most of us it is like living the marital vows, or “taking the high road”…commitment, sometimes tough work, but worth it in the long run.

  19. Perfected democrat Says:

    Misery loves company!

  20. A_Nonny_Mouse Says:

    Mr. Frank (above) says “Eating has become a leisure activity”, and I think that’s at least partly right.

    But the OTHER thing is (compared to the lifestyles of 70 years ago) — we don’t walk to get where we’re going any more. We’ve somehow gotten so busy -and so scheduled- that there’s no free time to just hike over to the park and play with the kids for a while. You’ve got appointments and meetings; the kids have extracurricular stuff, and of course it’s too far to walk to any of this, so you drive.

    Fast food and cars. Both are a benefit and a curse.

  21. Sergey Says:

    Self-regulating systems are notoriously hard to control, since they can respond by policies of their own to counter external regulations imposed on them. That is axiomatic in cybernetics, and it is strange that it took dietology so long to understand this.

  22. Hong Says:

    I eat one large meal two months ago and I gained 4 pounds. I haven’t been able to lose it since. I exercise nearly everyday lifting and running on the treadmill to no effect. But I spend two weeks in the field where there are no chairs, no tables or couches eating MRE crap all day and I lose four pounds. Life just isn’t fair.

  23. Don Carlos Says:

    Ahhh, the People’s Medicine. Ya gotta love it and its tenuous links to facts.

  24. Ron Says:

    People have different body types. I KNOW I could lose weight if I gave up most (to all) carbs. I am a protein type. I could eat a pound of good steak and not be full. Put a bowl of pasta or rice in front of me – it’s gone. Wrong move though. Where’s the chocolate?

  25. I R A Darth Aggie Says:

    More protein.
    Fewer carbs.
    More veges.
    Less grains.
    More nuts and berries.
    No sugar.

  26. roc scssrs Says:

    In the old days, if you wanted to lose weight, you cut out potatoes and pasta (there wasn’t a lot of refined sugar around). Then in the seventies George McGovern and the Senate Agricultural Committee pushed the low-fat, high-carbohydrate diet.

    George McGovern is, of course…a Democrat!

  27. Margaret Says:

    “Where’s the chocolate?”

    When I listed good foods to eat while avoiding carbs, I failed to mention that I eat one cube of 90% chocolate every day for the valuable cocoa butter found there. It does have a little bit of sugar, but not much. I usually have that and a bunch of dried apricots right after exercising. You can find the 90 % chocolate at Walmart or Target and very reasonably priced it is too.

  28. Margaret Says:

    This may be of interest to some:

  29. stan Says:


  30. Bilwick Says:

    And yet people who really throw themselves into a health-and-fitness lifestyle and stay with it over the decades seem to have no trouble keeping off those extra pounds.

  31. neo-neocon Says:


    I beg to differ—although I suppose it depends what you mean by “really throw themselves.” If you mean complete control of every morsel that goes into the mouth, and many many hours every single day of intense training, then you are correct.

    But even fairly rigid diet control and very regular exercise (both of which I’ve maintained for most of my adult life) does not suffice in many cases. I’ve seen this same phenomenon among friends, too. Unless the devotion is total and fairly extreme (a fairly intense case of OCD), it doesn’t necessarily work for many many people.

    Years ago I stood at the finish line of the Boston Marathon and watched for quite a long time. The very earliest finishers were all lean, of course. But I was stunned and surprised to see that many (not the majority, but a very substantial number) of those with very respectable times were somewhat overweight. Not just muscular, but somewhat fat, although not obese. It was a sobering sight; these people were clearly in excellent shape in terms of exercise, and yet for many it didn’t seem to make them the least bit lean.

  32. Tom Z Says:

    Dieting by itself is never the answer. You also need to have an exercise program that you stick to and that you make actively challenging for yourself. And by exercise, I don’t just mean distance running, because that barely does anything for you other than make you a better distance runner. Really it’s all about the weights– building muscle is by far the best way to burn calories, both during and after your workouts.

  33. Doug Says:

    I R A Darth Aggie is correct…I spent 10 years gaining 75 Lbs drinking and eating as a typical southerner would (biscuits and gravy and beer)…I got tired of it last Christmas and went on yet another diet with 1 difference…I got rid of the bread and sugar…started shopping on the outside wall of the grocery store and stopped drinking (so often…and switched to red wine). I’ve lost 60 Lbs.

    regulation of insulin is the key to weight loss…Calories are only relevant over the long run…daily calorie counting is obsessive and will not get you losing weight. Eating whole food (with butter of course) will.

    for your reading pleasure:

    LCHF= Low carb high fat

  34. bonhomme Says:

    Can you describe what your weekly exercise routine is, or point to a post that contains that info?

    I look around at people on treadmills and ellipticals when I’m at the gym and 75-85% of them are plodding along and not pushing themselves. Many never lift weights.

    I’d guess that you could use another 7 or 8 lbs of lean muscle. That and pushing harder when doing cardio will probably produce better results. Find a personal trainer and let them know you don’t mind bulking up a little in the short term to reach your long term goals.

    After I married I very quickly gained weight. It didn’t help that I broke my leg. In the last year I’ve lost 45lbs and have another 15 to get to my ideal weight. I’m at the gym 5-6 days/week and I record every meal. Keeping an accurate journal and sticking to your allowance of calories is much more effective than cutting out types of food.

  35. neo-neocon Says:

    bonhomme: I’m not sure you were asking me, but the answer is that because of several chronic injuries (which I’ve written about elsewhere) I am not able to do any weight training, although I’ve tried (with trainers and various other exercise experts). I would love to be able to , but that’s out. I walk almost every day at a pace of 4 mph for 3 miles or so, and I try to incorporate hills to make it more difficult.

  36. Doug Says:

    I didn’t change my exercise routine at all and lost all my weight. I play soccer once or twice a week and coach football but other than that I don’t go to the gym at all…Going to the gym 5-6 times a week and tracking every meal seems like a lot more work than not eating bread and sugar…Just sayin…

    Eating meant and vegetables has caused my body to lean out naturally. I’m convinced humans weren’t meant to eat grass seeds (grains) and need to eat more natural fats for energy.

  37. neo-neocon Says:

    doug: doesn’t work for everyone, didn’t work for me.

  38. Doug Says:

    That’s too bad because its been a real life changer…and super easy..I’m the only thin person in my family now (my mother died of diabetes and heart disease) and tried to lose weight her entire life.

    What I do is not Atkins though…although fats are are any vegetables..I eat eggs for breakfast…Salads with meat for lunch…and some meat with many veggies for dinner…Nothing crazy. Just no starchy carbs.

    This doctor has outlined a very simple plan to follow (very few rules) the farther you get on the list the healthier you’ll become. Its basically what I do. It took about a month for stuff to start working though so patience is necessary as insulin resistance can cause your cells to hold onto the fat…

  39. bonhomme Says:

    Ah, well I know what it’s like to try to exercise when you’re physically limited. The results are, bluntly, crap. I’m sorry to hear you have chronic injuries.

  40. Doug Says:

    This video talks about the fallacies of the calories in vs. calories out hypothosis and other issues around dieting…Go back to the first in the series for some sciency stuff that is interesting:

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.

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