I have been trying to lose weight for two years. Instead I have been gaining. My weight loss goal is now 25 lbs. The last time I lost weight was in 9th grade, when I successfully lost just under 25 lbs over 8 months, almost entirely with calorie restriction and working really hard in P.E., and maintained that weight more or less over the course of my teen and adult life. So I know I can do it.
Since starting my weight loss process two years ago, I now know more about what kinds of foods work well for me to lose weight. I have been measuring, weighing, and calculating this food, and track it in a diary every day since October 2011. I also know how to work my ass off literally with exercise and physical activity.
But that is only one element. During this two year struggle I have gotten down to my weight goal, twice, yet have been unable to maintain it, and instead have just added more weight. The bigger question is once I dedicate myself to working my ass of, again, how do I keep myself from gaining that 20 or 25 lbs back in the next year? Or five years? Or ten? In a grown-up life without a forced P.E. class, replaced by work, bills, friends, family, and other stressors, how I can make this work for the (almost) 30-year-old me?
This is not as easy as it seems. Over and over studies are finding that our bodies fight tooth and nail and pheromone to make us keep the weight we have and put back on any weight we lose. There are numerous studies coming out recently that discuss issues surrounding weight loss and regain. Tara Parker-Pope, who writes the Well Blog on the New York Times, has discussed this problem a lot. I won’t go into it all here, but do read through her archives. But they’re finding it is way more complicated than just calories in/calories out. Basically all this research boils down to two things:
- When we lose weight, our bodies become more frugal with our calories – which means people who have lost weight don’t need/get to ingest as much as people who have not lost weight.
- Whenever we try to lose or maintain weight loss, our brain is convinced we’re going to die of starvation and begs us to eat more. Apparently this hormonal and psychological surge can last for years for some formerly fat people.
What gives me at least some hope, however, is that there do seem to be some hacks out there to help your body not go into panic mode and try to retain or regain all that weight.
In reaction to the first point, this caught my eye in Parker-Pope’s most recent blog post:
Scientists are still learning why a weight-reduced body behaves so differently from a similar-size body that has not dieted. Muscle biopsies taken before, during and after weight loss show that once a person drops weight, their muscle fibers undergo a transformation, making them more like highly efficient “slow twitch” muscle fibers. A result is that after losing weight, your muscles burn 20 to 25 percent fewer calories during everyday activity and moderate aerobic exercise than those of a person who is naturally at the same weight. That means a dieter who thinks she is burning 200 calories during a brisk half-hour walk is probably using closer to 150 to 160 calories.
What I noticed was the mention of “slow twitch.” My husband is a fitness coach (no irony lost on me there), and talks all the time about developing fast twitch vs. slow twitch muscles. Slow twitch is what we use more of for long distance running and other endurance sports. Fast twitch is what sprinters and long jumpers and weight lifters develop more of.
Which made me think – in order to combat the body’s tendency to convert my muscles to slow twitch (which it seemed to do even before I was overweight), it would make sense to train in ways that build more fast twitch muscle, right? I know that lots of trainers already encourage the kinds of activities that build fast twitch – sprints, hill runs, weight lifting – to aid in fat loss anyway. So to maintain, the answer may not be to simply “work out more;” the answer may be to focus on specific exercises that develop fast twitch muscles. Forget running long distances, and start doing those Tabata sprints.
The other thing that formerly fat people constantly fight is that subconscious, mental, hormonal urge to eat. This is a little bit harder to solve simply by running fast. However, there do seem to be ways to hack this. Parker-Pope mentions studies in her blog post where test subjects were injected with Leptin, which seemed to calm their brains down:
Scientists at Columbia have conducted several small studies looking at whether injecting people with leptin, the hormone made by body fat, can override the body’s resistance to weight loss and help maintain a lower weight. In a few small studies, leptin injections appear to trick the body into thinking it’s still fat. After leptin replacement, study subjects burned more calories during activity. And in brain-scan studies, leptin injections appeared to change how the brain responded to food, making it seem less enticing.
This idea of making sure the body thinks it has enough fat is shared by a somewhat fad diet going around right now, called the hCG diet. As described by an author in Slate who tried the diet with decent success:
The diet is based on a protocol established by Dr. A.T.W. Simeons, a British physician working at a hospital in Rome, in the 1950s. He had discovered, accidentally, that patients who were treated with hCG would lose their appetite and burn fat (changing their figure) even if they didn’t lose weight. It piqued his interest, and he began treating obese patients with hCG. Over the years, through trial and error, he came up with the protocol that I followed: three weeks of injections and a very low-calorie diet, followed by three weeks of “stabilization”: higher calories, but no sugar or starch.
Other people have reported surprisingly good, longish-term success on the hCG protocol/diet (I say longish since there aren’t many longitudinal studies out there on this diet, or any diet strategy really). And it seems to follow that same idea that if our body thinks we have enough fat, it won’t freak out when we cut calories.
The question I have is how to tap into that using laywoman’s tools. I don’t have access to leptin or hCG shots. So how can I gain the same benefits?
I’ve read fairly strong arguments out there that eating a diet rich with Omega-3, non-hydrogenated fats is actually good and can be useful for weight loss and maintenance. For example, lots of people subscribe to a Paleo or Primal diet, which consists of eating lots of Omega-3 fats, vegetables, and no grains. Even with this Paleo crowd, though, nobody really agrees on how much saturated fat or even regular fat is enough; even with essential stuff like vitamins there can be too much of a good thing. Some Paleo diet researchers also promote more pro-starch than others; others have found that dairy mixed in works for them. I’ve previously tried strict Paleo, and Paleo mixed with various additions like dairy and legumes, with varying degrees of success. However, this basic blueprint does seem to work for me, and a lot of other people, and is actually what spurred me to finally cut gluten out of my diet entirely. So basing my food intake on this principle, rather than strict calories in/calories out, may also help with weight loss and maintenance.
This will require more research and experimentation on my part, and everybody’s body is a little bit different and will respond to nutrients in different ways, but it’s an interesting train of thought.
Another way to hack, or at least assuage, the panicky brain seems to be to not crash diet:
“There is also speculation that the body is more willing to accept small amounts of weight loss…
Many people experience transient weight gain, putting on a few extra pounds during the holidays or gaining 10 or 20 pounds during the first years of college that they lose again. The actor Robert De Niro lost weight after bulking up for his performance in “Raging Bull.” The filmmaker Morgan Spurlock also lost the weight he gained during the making of “Super Size Me.” But researchers don’t know how long it takes for the body to reset itself permanently to a higher weight. The good news is that it doesn’t seem to happen overnight.”
By easing the body into weight loss one may be able to at least lessen the hormonal “Feed me, Seymour!” spike that sends millions of people off their weight loss and maintenance goals.
So, it seems like developing fast-twitch muscles, making sure my body and brain have enough fat to chew on, and taking it slow are the best courses of action for maintaining as well as losing fat weight. This meshes with a lot of other protocols I’ve seen pop up in recent years, so hopefully we may just be on to something.
This doesn’t mean I’ve solved all my problems, and is by no means “the end” to my exploration. Hell, this isn’t even the beginning. I ate leftover (gluten free) Christmas cookies for lunch and so far have only walked hurriedly to the bus this morning for exercise. I know I will gain weight whenever I get pregnant (fingers crossed). I know I will probably go through times in my life where I am heavier than I’d like to be.
But if I have a plan to combat these things, to feel like I am in control of my body and not the other way around, then I can at least feel like there is hope, a solution, a process, and a reason to get up before first light and charge up that hill on my bike or add that extra 10 lbs to my deadlift.
This is just an exploration. I’m sure I will have other side-tracks and ideas along the way. But this is as good a place as any to formulate and kick ideas around. I’m curious to hear yours.