Avoiding the weight loss whiplash – my rebuttal to the New York Times

NYT header

The New York Times recently published an article highlighting the grim truth of weight loss: most people who lose weight will regain some or all of the weight they lost. [1]  This NYT article is based on a study in the journal Obesity, which focused on results experienced by participants in the 2009 season of The Biggest Loser television program.  These participants lost up to 239 pounds each during the seven months of the program.

To lose their weight, the participants were sequestered with trainers at The Biggest Loser ranch, where they suffered grueling daily routines and a deficit of up to 3500 calories per day.  The season winner exercised seven hours per day during the program, and burned 8000 to 9000 calories per day.  All participants ate reduced calorie meals that included animal products such as eggs and chicken.

Within six years, 15 of the 16 participants regained much if not all of the weight they lost, with some weighing even more than before the program.  The authors of the study and article attributed this weight gain to two primary causes:  a reduced basal metabolic rate (BMR) and increased food cravings associated with changes in the levels of hormones that cause hunger.  According to test results, the winner of the program, whose weight increased from 191 pounds when the program ended to 295 pounds today, must now eat 800 calories a day less than a typical man his size just to avoid additional weight gain. The article also shared anecdotal experience regarding his food cravings:  “He opens a bag of chips, thinking he will have just a few. “I’d eat five bites. Then I’d black out and eat the whole bag of chips and say, ‘What did I do?’”

After reading the NYT article, I felt compelled to write a letter to the editor for two reasons:  First, to share how my experience in losing 140 pounds almost six years ago was completely different and without extreme exercise, calorie deprivation, or discomfort. And second, because an obese acquaintance who pointed out the article to me told me that since the article “proved weight loss was futile,” he saw no point in trying to lose weight, and had resigned himself to being obese for life. This broke my heart, and caused me to exclaim:  “THEY’RE DOING IT WRONG!”

The NYT did not publish my letter, which does not surprise me, since my rebuttal is more complex than can be explained within the 150 to 175 word limit of their editorial policy. But this is my letter, followed by a more complete explanation:

Subject:  LTTE: After ‘The Biggest Loser,’ Their Bodies Fought to Regain Weight.

To the Editor:

Six years ago, I weighed 340 pounds, spent $1,000 per month on medications, and had tried and failed every diet known to mankind.[2]  Then I tried one last approach: a plant-based vegan diet. On this diet, and by adopting a shelter dog and walking him for one half hour twice daily, my weight dropped to my optimal weight of 180 pounds in just ten months.  I have sustained this optimal weight for six years now by staying away from the standard American diet (SAD) of animal products, oils, and processed foods.  The basal metabolic rate (BMR) of a vegan averages 16 percent higher than a person on the SAD.[3] And by avoiding the SAD, I also avoid food addiction and cravings, so I can eat until I feel satisfied without controlling my portions or feeling deprived.[4]  My diet and results aren’t unique, and are the same that Bill Clinton and Al Sharpton followed to lose their weight and keep it off.[5]

Eric O’Grey

Spokane Valley, WA


In other words, the NYT article reflects the consequences and results of the SAD, not the results I experienced six years ago after losing a comparable amount of weight as many of The Biggest Loser contestants.  And unlike The Biggest Loser contestants, I have maintained my results without discomfort or deprivation.

I lost my weight by transitioning to a whole foods, plant based diet similar to the one now described in The Starch Solution by Dr. John McDougall,[6] and also by walking my dog for a half an hour, twice per day.  After losing my weight, I took up long distance running and became involved in some extreme exercise.  While on my running routine, my calorie intake increases to between 4000 and 5000 calories per day.  But I have also been sidelined from running with injuries and travel for weeks and months at a time in the past several years, and each time I stopped running, I did not gain weight.  That’s because my BMR hasn’t dropped, and also because I have no food cravings on my plant based diet, so the amount of calories I eat automatically adjusts to my level of physical activity.

I can strongly relate to and agree with the frustrations described by The Biggest Loser contestants, because I have experienced the same problems myself.  Before my weight loss, I tried and failed every weight loss program ever marketed in America, including prescribed controlled substances, Atkins, Nutrisystem, South Beach, and more.  I was always able to lose some weight on each of these programs, but in my experience none could be sustained as a permanent lifestyle. And when I eventually failed on these programs, I not only regained whatever weight I lost, but more.  When I wasn’t dieting, I would commonly order “foods” such as two Dominos extra-large pizzas at the same time, so I could eat one that night and save one for the next day.  As usually happened instead, after eating the first pizza, I would eat a slice of the second, and then another slice.  And then I would think, I might as well finish the second pizza also, and before I knew it, I had eaten two meat lover’s extra-large pizzas in one sitting. So the reason that the NYT article and Obesity study are just plain wrong is because The Biggest Loser participants have failed to try a plant-based alternative to the SAD and are doomed by the animal products, oils, and processed sugars in their diets.

By maintaining my plant based diet and a regimen of at least light exercise in the form of taking my dog on long walks when I can’t run, I have avoided the pitfalls described in the NYT article:  my BMR has increased rather than decreased, and I have no desire to over eat, since I do not experience food cravings or any urge to binge on food as described in the article. I also never feel deprived with what I eat:  I strongly prefer the delicious and satisfying meals I prepare now from whole plants versus the unhealthy processed foods and animal products I ate when I was obese.

[1] Kolata, G. (2016, May 01). After ‘The Biggest Loser,’ Their Bodies Fought to Regain Weight. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/02/health/biggest-loser-weight-loss.html (discussing Fothergill, E., Guo, J., Howard, L., Kerns, J. C., Knuth, N. D., Brychta, R., Chen, K. Y., Skarulis, M. C., Walter, M., Walter, P. J. and Hall, K. D. (2016), Persistent metabolic adaptation 6 years after “The Biggest Loser” competition. Obesity. doi: 10.1002/oby.21538).

[2] See, e.g., Eric and Peety. (2016, March 14). Retrieved from https://www.facebook.com/SFGate/videos/10156605140745594/, and Janovich, A. (2016, April 03). New leash on life: Canine companion helps man change life, go viral. Retrieved from http://www.spokesman.com/stories/2016/apr/03/new-leash-on-life/.

[3] Barnard, N. D., Scialli, A. R., Turner-Mcgrievy, G., Lanou, A. J., & Glass, J. (2005). The effects of a low-fat, plant-based dietary intervention on body weight, metabolism, and insulin sensitivity. The American Journal of Medicine, 118(9), 991-997. Retrieved from http://www.pcrm.org/sites/default/files/pdfs/health/medstudents/The%20effects%20of%20a%20low-fat%20plant-based%20dietary%20intervention%20on%20body%20weight%20metabolism%20and%20insulin%20sensitivity%20.pdf  (By consuming nutrient-dense vegetables versus animal products, oils, and processed fatty foods, metabolic rate increases by 16 percent. Adoption of a low-fat, vegan diet was associated with significant weight loss, despite the absence of prescribed limits on portion size or energy intake.)

[4] Moss, M. (2013, February 23). The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/24/magazine/the-extraordinary-science-of-junk-food.html (Processed foods are intentionally engineered to be addictive and cause overeating.  Those who eat a diet based on whole plants typically stop eating when satiated.)

[5] Barnard, Neal D. et al. (2015). A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Changes in Body Weight in Clinical Trials of Vegetarian Diets. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Volume 115, Issue 6, 954-969. Retrieved from http://www.andjrnl.org/article/S2212-2672(14)01763-8/pdf (Meta-analysis showing that a vegetarian diet is associated with a lower average body weight.)

[6] McDougall, J. A., & McDougall, M. A. (2013). The starch solution: Eat the foods you love, regain your health, and lose the weight for good! New York: Rodale.