Do you have extra pounds?

A low-calorie diet may not be best option

If you would like to lose weight, the most common advice is to eat fewer calories and exercise. Unfortunately, 97 percent of people who lose weight gain it back within three years. The problem with this common approach is illustrated by a six-year follow-up of 14 contestants from the Biggest Loser television program. Not only did the group regain 90 of the 128 pounds lost, their metabolisms were slower six years later than at the end of the contest. To avoid gaining more weight six years later, contestants needed to reduce the number of calories per day by 704 calories versus 610 calories at contest end.

One factor influencing this outcome is the contestants initially lost 22 pounds of muscle, bone and other desirable tissue. Eleven pounds of this loss was never recovered. The contestants’ muscle loss was reduced by exercise and a high protein diet but not eliminated. The more calories you cut to lose weight, the more muscle you will lose.

Exercise is divided into two main types, aerobic and resistance. Aerobic exercise improves heart fitness. Common aerobic exercises include walking and running. Resistance training improves muscle strength. A common resistance exercise is weight lifting.

While cutting calories decreases your metabolism, aerobic exercise increases your metabolism. Resistance training increases your metabolism even more. Resistance training has multiple other positive effects including increasing bone, muscle mass, strength, good cholesterol and physical endurance. It also decreases fat, bad cholesterol, blood pressure and blood sugar. You can benefit from resistance training at any age.

Focusing on resistance training has other advantages, including losing inches without losing weight since muscle is heavier than fat. Also, you do not need to cut calories to build muscle.  You often have to eat more.

Resistance training is not for everyone. If you are not knowledgeable about resistance training, you should get an individualized assessment and instruction from an exercise specialist. Diana Pearce, a trainer at the UnityPoint Wellness Center points out focusing on building muscle works best for people with mild obesity. An expert trainer is essential if you have a significant medical condition such as heart disease or severe obesity.

Building muscle is hard work and slower than losing weight. However, unlike losing weight by cutting calories, maintaining muscle is not a 24 hour per day seven day a week effort. Once you build up muscle, maintaining it can be done with one or two sessions of resistance training a week. Many more people should consider resistance training. You can improve your health and lose inches by focusing on resistance training without cutting calories.

Selected References

  1. Fothergill E, Guo J, Howard L, Kerns JC, Knuth ND, Brychta R, Chen KY, Skarulis MC, Walter M, Walter PJ, Hall KD: Persistent Metabolic Adaptation 6 Years After “The Biggest Loser” Competition.  Obesity (Silver Spring). 2016 May 2. [Epub ahead of print]
  2. Braith RW1, Stewart KJ: Resistance exercise training: its role in the prevention of cardiovascular disease.  2006 Jun 6;113(22):2642-50.
  3. Coetsee C, Terblanche E: The time course of changes induced by resistance training and detraining on muscular and physical function in older adults. Eur Rev Aging Phys Act. 2015 Oct 29;12:7
  4. Brown H: The Weight of the Evidence: It’s time to stop telling people to become thin. NY Times 3/24/2015.

David Trachtenbarg, M.D.

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