Most Common Weight Loss Myth
Myth #1: Eat Less + Exercise More = Weight Loss
Joanna, a 53-year old executive secretary and mother of 3 was a bundle of frustration and resignation. She recounted a story I had heard from hundreds of patients. She had tried every diet – liquid diets, low carb diets, low fat diets, high ‘fad’ diets, shakes, prepared meals, and raw foods. And every time the same thing occurred – she lost weight initially, only to gain it all back, plus some more. Now she said she finds she doesn’t even eat that much and she still can’t lose weight.
Initially my training led me to believe she was either deceiving herself or hiding her eating habits from me, but after many years of blaming the patient for lack of willpower, for overeating and not exercising enough I realized that there must be more to the story.
When Joanna kept a complete detailed 3 day diet record – everything she put in her mouth for 3 days. She in fact was constantly dieting on poor quality food – putting her body in a state of chronic low grade starvation.
She decided to have her metabolism tested – something called her resting metabolic rate or RMR – the amount of calories the body burns at rest. Not surprisingly she found out she had a slow metabolism – she burned less calories than expected for her age, sex, height and weight. Further testing of her body composition – what percentage of her body is composed of fat – showed that she was under lean (this often goes along with being over fat, but not always). In other words she had less muscle than expected for her body weight.
Why? Repeated restricted calorie or partial starvation diets led to muscle and fat loss. When she gained the weight back as she always did, she gained back all fat, leading to a slower metabolism. Fat burns 70 times fewer calories than muscle. So she needed a lot less calories to sustain her increased body weight. Following the eat less = weight loss model, she actually made things worse for herself.
Eating the right foods — whole, unprocessed foods — and eating them in quantities that exceeded her resting metabolic rate led to steady and sustained weight loss, getting her off the yo-yo, see-saw, merry-go round of diets. Like many patients seeking to lose weight the answer is paradoxically eat more, not less to lose weight.
Eat less + Exercise more = Weight Loss
We’ve all heard the fiendishly simple and completely untrue colloquialisms that abound in our culture that “teach” people what they need to do to lose weight: “Just eat less and exercise more”, “Just stop eating so much”, “It’s all about willpower,” “Everyone knows that people who are overweight are lazy, undisciplined and self-indulgent”. Most of you trying to lose weight have internalized a cultural message that it’s your fault you’re fat.
Early in my career after dealing with mostly athletes where this message seemed to be true, I believed the formula for weight loss was simple: Eat less + Exercise more = Weight Loss. I thought the only reasons people couldn’t lose weight were because:
- They overate.
- They were lazy and didn’t exercise enough.
- They ate too much and didn’t exercise enough.
Now I know better. For many overweight and obese individuals, these explanations are overly simplistic. After almost two decades in practice I know relying on this myth for weight loss is terribly unfortunate. Not only is it completely unsupported by the scientific literature, it develops a blame-the-victim mentality that tells people who are struggling with their weight in a not-so-subtle way that if they only tried harder they would lose weight. There is only one problem with this point of view: It’s not true.
Nobody Wants to Be Fat
The truth is that nobody wants to be fat. It isn’t your fault that you have problems with weight. It isn’t as though you chose to face this struggle. Even if you had enough willpower to keep yourself from eating when your body tells you to, you may still not be able to lose weight. This is because our bodies are genetically wired to make us gain weight and keep weight on. You cannot get away from this basic biological, evolutionary truth, but you can do something about your weight.
The trick is learning how to tune up your metabolism and use your body’s natural calorie-burning capabilities to help you lose weight and get healthy. But believing the common oversimplifications about your weight that our culture promotes won’t help you to sustain long term weight loss and health. You need to understand that the human body is much more complex than this.
What makes us thin, fat, or somewhere in between does indeed have something to do with how much we eat and exercise. But the oversimplification stops there. Complex forces that govern our survival control our weight and metabolism. In fact, there is no one simple reason why an individual may have trouble with his or her weight.
Over the last 10 years, medical research has revealed that weight loss is much more sophisticated than our outdated preconceived notions about eating less and exercising more. This new science of metabolism and weight loss carries us far beyond the old idea that losing weight is simply a matter of eating less and exercising more.
This analogy makes the obvious even clearer: “Telling someone who’s overweight that all he/she has to do is eat less and exercise more is like telling someone who’s poor that all he/she has to do is make more and spend less.” These kinds of simple equations ignore many factors.
One of the factors left out in such simple equations is what I call the starvation syndrome. When you buy into the idea that eating less will make you lose weight, you convince yourself that you need to restrict calories from your diet. In fact, most of the popular diets on the market recommend that you do just that. The problem is that calorie restriction almost always backfires. The reason? Your body thinks it’s starving to death and sets off chemical processes inside of you that force you to eat more. This, in essence, is how the starvation syndrome works. Let’s look at it in more detail.
The Starvation Syndrome: The Real Problem with the Old Way of Looking at Weight Loss
The World Health Organization (WHO) classifies a diet containing less than 2,100 calories a day for the average man and 1,800 calories for the average woman a starvation diet.
The average woman dieting in America is trying to eat less than 1,500 calories a day. That means she is constantly in a state of starvation. Our culture praises starvation and excessive weight loss. We live everyday with the starvation syndrome.
Models today are 25% thinner than models 40 years ago. To achieve this, many binge, purge, use laxatives, smoke, drink diet sodas, and over-exercise. These activities trigger a cascade of molecules in the blood designed to make them rebound from their severe diets and overeat. Thus they binge, purge, and diet even more rigorously. This turns into a very ugly cycle that works in opposition to their body’s natural chemical construction.
This molecular cascade is the body’s way of saving itself from starvation. Human beings are genetically coded to do this. The most fundamental parts of who we are as biological creatures are designed to keep us from starving ourselves. It is a very basic survival mechanism. These models are receiving commands from their bodies to eat more and gain back the weight they have lost for their own good. Their body thinks it is in danger and it is sending them signals to eat so they can save themselves. Ignoring these signals makes their body grow old before its time. This is not a good pattern.
You may have fallen into this trap yourself. If you have tried dieting and restricted your eating below the calories you need to make your body function properly, you have been setting off the same molecular cascade inside yourself. As a consequence you receive hunger signals that are too strong to ignore. You rebound and gain back the weight you have lost. In most cases, you gain back more than you initially lost. You end up on the classical dieting weight yo-yo. Welcome to the starvation syndrome.
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Article adapted from:
“UltraMetabolism® Myth #1: Eat Less + Exercise More = Weight Loss.” Dr. Mark Hyman, 18 Oct. 2019, https://drhyman.com/blog/2016/10/26/ultrametabolism/.
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