Mind over metabolism and your mass

Spending hours at the gym and having a strict diet can be frustrating when you do all the work and see no results. But researchers say this is a common struggle that will eventually occur when trying to shed those extra pounds.

Traditionally, people have been told the general rule to lose one pound is to reduce their caloric intake by 3500 calories a week. This is because one pound of fat is equivalent to 3500 calories. It assumes that if a person keeps up this caloric reduction, it would result in a slow and steady weight loss over time.

In reality, it will take twice as long to lose those pounds.

“People have used this sort of rule of thumb to predict how much people should lose for decades now, and it turns out to be completely wrong,” says Dr. Kevin Hall, a scientist at the U.S. National Institute of Health.

The rule fails to account for the bodily change that occurs once a person slims down. The metabolism, which is the rate at which a body burns calories, alters once there is a change in diet or exercise routine.

Exercise and healthy eating are an important part of weight loss. Photo courtesy of Sasha W. on flickr.

Alfonso Abizaid, an obesity researcher and associate professor of neuroscience at Carleton University in Ottawa, says metabolism will slow down once weight loss begins. This is because the body will not be working as hard to burn those extra calories, he says.

If the current 3500 calorie rule were true, it would have to work in the opposite direction as well, Abizaid says.

“If I ate one potato chip a day, it would mean I would gain a pound every month,” he explains. “Because there are so many calories in one fried potato chip.”

Researchers at the U.S. National Institute of Health have devised a new guideline to account for the change in metabolism once a person decides to lose weight.

Based on mathematical calculations, the guideline supports the idea that if a person wants to lose ten pounds, they would have to cut 100 calories per day. Five of those pounds would be gone in one year.

Eventually, the goal weight will be reached in three years.

“We fully recognize that people aren’t going to be necessarily willing to wait three years to reach their goal weight,” says Hall. But the new rule would allow people to think realistically about their weight loss goals.

Overcoming the plateau

During the weight-loss process, a common and often frustrating phenomenon that occurs is a weight-loss plateau. This means the body has adjusted to the metabolic changes in the body and therefore will not shed any more pounds, says Hall.

“The problem is when people lose and gain weight, they don’t just gain and lose fat tissue. They also change their lean tissue,” he explains.

Abizaid says the hypothalamus is partly to blame for this plateau. The hypothalamus is a part of the brain responsible for determining the metabolic rates for an individual. It creates a ‘set point’ for a person’s metabolic rate, he says.

When a person begins to change their diet or fitness routine, the metabolism will change and the hypothalamus will send signals to the body telling it to return to that original metabolic ‘set point,’ he says.

“Essentially your body will start defending whatever body fats are there and you can be very skinny at this point or you could still be overweight,” he explains. “But your body will fight losing weight.”

Abizaid says this new rule is very general and does not take into account the different body types of an individual.

“These are guidelines and we have to understand that,” says Abizaid. “And there is some truth to them, but you have to make big assumptions with this.”

Those attempting to lose weight are often discouraged when they reach their plateau. Courtesy of 05com on flickr.

In an effort to cater the new guidelines to an individual, researchers created a computer-based simulator. Users simply have to plug in numbers, such as sex, age and weight. They then add their weight loss goal. The simulator — which has now approached half a million users — will inform a person how long it will take to reach a goal based on the research.

“People have very great expectations about the amount of weight they can lose in a period of time,” says Hall. The simulator is designed for an individual to set realistic goals, he says.

Obesity as an epidemic

The rise of obesity is not new. The World Health Organization described the trend as a global epidemic in 1997. Today, one in four Canadian adults are obese, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada.

Commercial weight loss programs are designed to encourage people to lose weight. The programs usually call for a change in both diet and exercise routine. However, most of the programs do not account for the weight-loss plateau.

One of the greatest challenges for those trying to lose weight is not just losing it, but keeping it off, says Abizaid. This new general guideline would allow people to become aware of the plateau that occurs.

“A lot of these weight loss programs are effective in the first two or three months,” says Abizaid. “You have to continue the diets and the exercise for long periods of time in order to not lose any more, but just maintain that weight.”

Know your limit

A recent article published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association calls for nutritionists and dieticians to communicate to their clients the realistic approach to slimming down.

“You have to continue the diets and the exercise for long periods of time in order to not lose any more, but just maintain that weight.”

This includes speaking with a client to set a realistic weight loss goal, as well as informing them that being healthy is more than about the numbers on a scale.

It recommends that clients should be aware that a weight-loss plateau will occur and this is a normal and expected part of the weight loss process.

“It is a lifestyle change,” says Abizaid. “It’s not just dieting. It has to do with exercise and healthy eating.”

“And that will help with a more sustained body weight,” he says.



Comparing commercial weight-loss programs

Hitting the gym at GoodLife Fitness

Along with nutrition, fitness is an important ingredient when losing weight. Gyms, such as GoodLife Fitness, offer personal training and guidance to those who are willing to take that step.

Although the gym promotes weight loss and management, Ian Suski, manager of a GoodLife Fitness located in Ottawa says the basic 3500 calorie rule is not applicable to its members. He says each individual is different and a general guideline does not help with personal training.

At GoodLife Fitness, trainers are not equipped to give nutritional advice or formulate a meal plan, says Suski. They do provide referrals to dieticians, as well as referring the client to Canada’s Food Guide.

The new research from the National Institute of Health is not on Suski’s radar. He says the in-depth consultation process that occurs at the beginning of training allows trainers to devise a personal fitness plan specific for an individual.

If a plateau occurs, the trainers will sit down with the clients and find out the reason they are not losing any more weight, says Suski.

Personal trainers at GoodLife are not required to have post-secondary education, says Suski. Although, he says, most of his trainers do have a kinesiology or biology degree.

Wellness and Chiropractic Centres

Many wellness and chiropractic services offer nutritional and weight management information for their clients.

Typically for people who have bodily concerns that are linked to weight, such as back or joint issues, these weight loss programs focus on healthier eating habits and being active.

“I try to keep it simple,” says Dr. Surbjit Herr, a doctor at the Barrhaven Family Chiropractic Centre when creating programs for his clients. “The more complicated you make things, whether its in exercise or diet, the less likely they are to follow the instructions given to them.”

Dealing with the general 3500-calorie rule, Herr says, “It is a very basic way of losing weight.” However, he does not agree on creating a diet based on that rule.

“ There are so many different diets out there,” he says. “Some people will lose five to ten pounds in a week, but two to three weeks down the road they put back on the weight, plus more.”

When creating a program for an individual, Herr will sit down with a client and design a program based around nutrition and exercise. He says for his clients to maintain weight loss, they need to have create a behavioral change or they will just gain back the weight.

Counting points with Weight Watchers

A program designed around a point system, Weight Watchers is based on healthy eating, being active and attending community meetings.

Participants receive a certain number of points for a week, depending on height and weight, says Pam Allen, Executive Vice President of Weight Watchers of Ottawa, Eastern Ontario, Northwest Territories and Nunavut.

Each food is accounted for by points. Depending on the activity level of an individual, they can gain or lose points. This allows for participants to become aware of their daily habits, says Allen.

Although it doesn’t rely specifically on the 3500-calorie rule, the program offers participants the ability to become aware of their nutritional habits.

“The point system itself is very reasonable,” says Abizaid. It accounts for the lifestyle change people need to overcome the initial plateau and continue maintaining their weight, says Allen.

According to a 2011 study published in the British Journal of Medicine, which examined four commercial weight loss programs, Weight Watchers helped people lose weight. The study followed 552 participants over the course of one year, with participants divided into four different weight loss programs.

Weight Watchers came out on top.


Produced by Matthew Irving

Front Page Photo courtesy of o5com on flickr.


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