The 6 year ‘Biggest Loser’ study: Why Is It So Hard to Maintain Weight Loss?
Danny Cahill leaned forward, looked at the scale and raised both of his hands in celebration as the audience screamed and his family ran through the blizzard of confetti to hug him.
Cahill had just won Season 8 of the reality television show “The Biggest Loser”—a show featuring overweight contestants attempting to lose the most weight for a 250,000 dollar grand prize.
“This thing has stolen my life and I want my life back.”
These were Cahill’s words 7 months prior, when he had just begun the programme as a man weighed at 430 pounds.
7 months later, following a vigorous diet and exercise programme, his weight had significantly dropped down to 191 pounds.
Cahill had lost more weight than any other contestant that ever participated on the show — 239 pounds in total.
In a follow up interview, Cahill said:
“I’ve got my life back…I mean, I feel like a million bucks.”
And he did get his life back—but, only for a short time.
Despite his best efforts, Cahill regained more than 100 pounds over a period of 6 years following his initial weight loss.
Cahill wasn’t alone in regaining his weight.
Majority of the season 8 contestants have regained much, if not even more weight than they had lost during the show.
These surprising findings have been explained within a Biggest Loser study of these contestants over a period of 6 years after their weight loss.
Let’s discuss some of the insights from this study to explain why some people fail to keep off the weight they lose.
The Biggest Loser Study
After the Biggest Loser season finale, researchers followed and studied 14 contestants who participated in the 30-week competition.
The average weight of the contestant prior to the show was 328 pounds (approx. 149 kg). After the show, their average weight was 200 pounds (approx. 91 kg).
Six years after their initial weight loss, six men and eight women from the Biggest Loser agreed to follow-up measurements at the National Institutes of Health.
The results were astonishing.
The average weight of the Biggest Loser contestants was back up to 290 pounds (approx. 132 kg). There was only one contestant who didn’t regain any weight.
4 of these contestants have reported—after this study was done—that they now weigh even more than before their participation on the show.
The most significant finding from this study was the change in resting metabolic rate, which slowed down dramatically after their weight loss.
Before the Biggest Loser competition, the group on average burned 2,607 calories per day versus the reduction to 2,000 calories per day by the end of the show.
Even worse, 6 years later, the average calories burned had slowed down further to 1,903 calories per day.
The significance of this is that the slower your metabolism, the more you have to cut back on calories to avoid gaining weight.
These contestants would have to eat several hundreds of calories less each day than the average person of comparable size, in order to maintain their weight.
Anything more than this baseline will lead to weight gain.
If you’ve ever struggled to lose weight and keep it off, you probably know how much of a blow regaining weight can be on your self-confidence.
The Biggest Loser study provides some insights as to why maintaining weight loss can be so difficult.
Often, we blame our willpower, lack of exercise and motivation for our inability to make consistent progress towards our weight loss goals.
In the case of weight loss, your body could be working against your best interests.
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Why Is Keeping Weight Off So Hard?
Let’s take two individuals, both weighed at 200 pounds.
One person is at their ideal weight, whilst the other person just lost 20 pounds to get to this weight.
The second person who lost weight has a slower metabolism, burns fewer calories and experiences more hunger and cravings than the first person.
This ‘metabolic adaptation’ is just one of the biological factors working against a person who wants to lose and keep weight off.
Kevin Hall, the lead scientist behind the Biggest Loser study also highlights this important point:
“After you lose weight, your body’s metabolic rate will slow down. In other words, the number of calories that your body requires in order to maintain life is going to decrease.” 
Dr. Rosenbaum, Obesity Researcher at Columbia University, also agrees:
“It’s extremely difficult to keep weight off because your body doesn’t want to do it. And on top of that your desire to eat increases.” 
“The difficulty in keeping weight off reflects biology, not a pathological lack of willpower affecting two-thirds of the U.S.A.,” he said.
These biological challenges were also reflected within the Biggest Loser study.
For example, researchers found that the contestants constant battle with hunger and cravings, was due to their plummeting levels of leptin—a hormone responsible for controlling hunger.
Another factor that comes into play is drastic changes in environment and routine.
During the Biggest Loser show, Danny Cahill’s routine looked something like this:
Wake up at 5 a.m, go for a 45 minutes run then eat a healthy breakfast —eggs, fruits and so on. Bike ride up to nine miles to the gym and workout for close to two hours. Ride back home, eat a healthy lunch — skinless chicken breast, broccoli and so on. Go back to the gym for another round of exercise.
After the show, Cahill’s environment and routine drastically changed.
He started working as a surveyor, spending much of his day sitting down and working in front of a desk.
He could no longer sustain his routine of exercising for several hours daily.
Cahill has also mentioned during interviews that in order to maintain his current weight of 295 pounds, he has to eat 800 calories per day less than average man his size.
These struggles are consistent with the discoveries within the Biggest Loser study.
The combination of constant hunger, a slower metabolism and change in environment is a sure recipe for weight gain over time.
At this point, we could conclude the following:
“There is no point trying to lose weight, because after I lose weight, I’ll just gain it back.”
This is the wrong conclusion from the Biggest Loser study.
The findings within the Biggest Loser study doesn’t mean that losing weight is pointless and a waste of time.
It means that we need a better approach to weight loss that is sustainable over the long-term.
An approach that will keep you fit and in shape for the rest of your life.
A Sustainable Lifestyle
“It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop.”
We live in a fast-paced world that constantly pushes for quick fixes and results.
Long gone are the days of patiently grinding for several years to achieve your goals.
Nowadays, it’s all about the speed of results.
We chase the instant gratification of quick success with little patience for gradual results.
We idolize the model with the great body or the entrepreneur with the successful business and look for “new” ways to achieve similar success quicker.
The Biggest Loser study is a reminder and lesson on what happens when you achieve your goals too quickly—you may lose it all over time.
If you find that you’re constantly falling back to your old mediocre results—aside from the complex biological and environmental factors—there’s a simple explanation for this:
You haven’t changed your self-identity.
No amount of willpower, motivation, equipment or programmes will keep you off weight gain.
If you think and act like someone who weighs 190 pounds, so it will be.
If you think and act like someone who is a struggling artist and writer, so it will be.
If you think and act like someone who is struggling to get by financially, so it will be.
In the case of weight loss, your body and mind will constantly fight you to get back to the weight that is consistent with your self-identity.
It doesn’t matter how quickly you shed off the weight, you’ll gain it back over time.
This is why I’m a strong advocate of self-experimentation and finding a consistent healthy lifestyle that works for you.
The more consistent you are with your routine and the greater your self-confidence—the more your self-identity will slowly change over time.
Once your self-identity shifts to someone who lives a healthy lifestyle, your body will stop fighting and start working in your favour to maintain weight loss.
So, you have a simple choice to make:
Will you take the fast path to quick results and instant gratification, or will you take the slow and steady path to success?
Whatever you decide think carefully about the real effects over the long run.
Afterall, what’s the point of getting started if in the end, you lose everything that you’ve worked so hard for?
- The Procrastination Masterclass: The best-selling course on the science of how to stop procrastinating, stick to good habits and get things done with less effort.
- Best Nutrition Books on the science of healthy eating for weight loss.
- 11 Lessons Learned from 4 years of Intermittent Fasting: The Good and Bad.
1. New York Times report on the Biggest Loser contestant, Danny Cahill.
2. ABC news report on Biggest Loser contestant’s weight battle.
3. The Biggest Loser study: Kevin D.Hall et al. Persistent metabolic adaptation 6 years after “The Biggest Loser” competition.
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