Some of the weight loss articles out there these days are getting a little nutty. New scientific studies that shed light on how metabolism works are wonderful and valuable in their own right, but when findings get morphed into magical new tips for losing weight, somethings amiss. Some recent pieces in prestigious journals, which have sought to dispel the myths of weight loss and of the individual diets themselves, suggest that the medical community is also getting tired of the hype and the unfounded assumptions that permeate the public discussion.
When it comes down to it, the things we know to be true about weight loss are relatively simple, and certainly few. Theyre also extremely effective when actually carried out. So, from the researchers who have studied this stuff for decades, heres pretty much everything we know about weight loss today, whittled down to six points about how the body actually gains, loses, and maintains its weight.
1. Dieting trumps exercising
We hear a lot that a little exercise is the key to weight loss that taking the stairs instead of the elevator will make a difference, for instance. But in fact its much more efficient to cut calories, says Samuel Klein, MD at Washington Universitys School of Medicine. Decreasing food intake is much more effective than increasing physical activity to achieve weight loss. If you want to achieve a 300 kcal energy deficit you can run in the park for 3 miles or not eat 2 ounces of potato chips. Its as simple as that. Some studies have borne out this dichotomy, pitting exercise against diet and finding that participants tend to lose more weight by dieting alone than by exercise alone. Of course, both together would be even better.
The problem is that when you rely on exercise alone, it often backfires, for a couple of reasons. This is partly because of exercises effects on the hunger and appetite hormones, which make you feel noticeably hungrier after exercise. If you walk briskly for an hour and burn 400 kcal, says Klein, and then have a beer and a slice of pizza afterwards because the exercise made you feel hungryyou will eat more calories than you have burned. It may not always be beer and pizza, but people do tend to naturally compensate for the calories they expend.
This is an adaptive system, adds David Allison, PhD. For every action theres a reaction; thats a law of physics, not of biology, but it seems that it also works in biological systems. This is why we often overestimate quite radically an effect of a particular treatment. He points out that public health campaigns that, for example, urge people to take the stairs instead of the elevator or go on a nightly stroll or, for that matter, even eat fewer calories are unlikely to work, since they may fail to take into account the bodys compensatory mechanisms that can totally counteract the effect.
The other problem with exercise-without-dieting is that its simply tiring, and again, the body will compensate. If the exercise made you tired so that you become more sedentary the rest of the day, you might not experience any net negative energy, says Klein. Some of the calories we burn come from our basic movements throughout the day so if youre wiped out after exercise, and more likely to sit on the couch afterwards, youve lost the energy deficit you gained from your jog.
2. Exercise can help fix a broken metabolism, especially during maintenance
People used to come into the doctors office and say, My metabolism is broken! says James Hill, PhD, at the University of Colorado. We never had any evidence that it actually was, until recently. We were wrong it was! While exercise may not be as important for weigh loss as calorie restriction, as Hill says, its important in another way: It begins to repair a broken metabolism.
A lot of what we know in this area comes from NASA, of the bed-rest studies, he says. Within a couple of days of non-activity, the metabolism becomes inflexible. You start moving again, and it does start to change. Your metabolism may not ever go back to normal (more on this below), but the evidence indicates that it can indeed pick up again, in large part through moving your body every day.
This is a large part of why exercise is critical in the maintenance phase, which is well known to be more difficult than the weight loss phase. Essentially, it buys us some wiggle room, says Michael Jensen, MD at the Mayo Clinic. Exercise is very, very important for maintaining lost weight, and people who are not physically active are more likely to gain weight. We think its partly because in the extra calories burned from physical activity, you have a bit more flexibility in food intake, so youre not so much relying on ridged changes in eating habits; it makes it more tolerable.
3. Youre going to have to work harder than other people possibly forever
Though exercise can help correct a metabolism thats been out of whack for a long time, the grisly reality is that it may not ever go back to what it was before gained weight. So if youve been overweight or obese and you lose weight, maintaining that loss means youre probably going to have to work harder than other people, maybe for good. The sad thing, says Hill, is that once youve been obese or not moving for some time, it takes a little more exercise to maintain. It doesnt come back to normal. Its not a pretty reality to face, but coming to grips with it is important, he says, so that you wont get frustrated when you discover that you have to do more work over the long term than your friend who was never overweight.
Building muscle can help your body burn a few more calories throughout the day, but its also likely that youll have to work harder aerobically in the long run. Its not fair, but thats the way it is, adds Hill. Once you understand it, though, you know it and its better. Because you can work with it.
- ^ dispel the myths (www.nejm.org)
- ^ individual diets (jama.jamanetwork.com)
- ^ studies (www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- ^ James Hill (www.ucdenver.edu)
- ^ bed-rest studies (ntrs.nasa.gov)
- ^ evidence indicates (www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- ^ Michael Jensen (www.mayoclinic.org)
- ^ maybe for good (www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
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