Losing Weight (Part 4A): The Myth that You Have an Unescapable “Set” Weight
A May 5 article in the New York Times has spurred a lot of interest in whether you can lose weight and keep it off forever. The article cites the fact that nearly all the winners from six years ago on the TV show The Biggest Loser had regained their original weight or even gotten heavier.
The article cites experts from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and researchers at academic institutions who say that once your brain adjusts to your body weight, it aims to restore you to that weight, even if you lost a large amount of it.
The body does this by slowing down your metabolism. Even though you might be thinner and eating less food, you still cannot burn enough calories to stay thin, and so you begin regaining the weight. The experts claim that as the years go by, the TV show’s participants had metabolisms that slowed even further, causing them to gain even more weight. The article concluded that this exemplifies “just how hard the body fights back against weight loss.”
The article also stated that those who lose pounds end up unable to maintain the lower weight because they were hungry all the time. The hormone leptin, which controls satiation, was reduced when they lost weight, causing them to feel hungry. Even after gaining some weight back, their leptin levels did not return to normal, so they were still hungry much of the time.
Is this true?
The idea that your brain forces you to regain weight after losing it is a questionable theory, in my view, for many reasons.
The brain, like any control system, has to have a sensor to detect changes in the condition to be regulated, a control center, an effector mechanism that can vary that condition, and a negative feedback connection between the two (e.g., when a certain weight is reached, it should turn off). Let us apply this principle to the weight-regulation system.
What the experts’ claim is that the brain actually creates mechanisms to cause people to regain weight. If your total body weight consists of muscles, bones, ligaments, fascia, circulating cells and fluid including blood and its components, organs, water and of course, fat, the question is, does the brain’s control center have subdivisions for each component? Does the brain actually tell the body to increase the weight of each of these components?
At this time, no research shows that the brain does this or that there are different regions in the brain with co-ordination in the center to monitor the components and take corrective action?
In general, most people perceive their weight gain through the increase in fat they accumulate. So my question is, does the brain have control centers for where to put the extra fat that one gains by overeating? Are there separate brain centers in charge of each body region such as abdomen, breast, buttocks, under the skin, and so on? To my knowledge, no specific mechanism has been identified that restores fat in any one of the areas mentioned.
Another quandary to consider: A vast majority of people who lose significant amounts of weight are likely to gain it back over the next five years. But my question is: If there is an efficient control mechanism in the brain forcing you to regain that weight, why does it take so long to regain the weight?
And for those people who not only regain their old weight but exceed it, the question is: If the brain’s weight-regulation system sets the correct weight, should the gain not stop when the previous weight was reached?
One might also wonder about this paradox: many people lose and regain weight in yo-yo fashion, going up and down over and over again. Yet, it is natural that with practice, most control systems become more efficient. So why are there such repeated cycles of weight loss and regain? Does the brain not learn anything?
Many more unanswered questions
Let’s look at babies. By the end of the first year of life, babies have almost 50% of their body weight as fat. If the brain’s weight-regulation center were fully functional, as many other control centers in the brain are, one would expect the percentage of body fat to be set from that time onwards and that most humans would therefore have 50% body fat. Yet, in toddler years, babies tend to lose most of their stored fat.
So, if the brain has a center to control weight, what about these questions:
- when does the brain actually start to operate in its adult mode?
- Is there a specific rate of weight gain for each adult?
- Is the rate of accumulation the same everywhere in the body?
- Or, will the fat deposits be faster in areas purported to have high metabolic activity, such as intra-abdominal fat?
- Is the rate of restocking fat after weight loss similar to the initial weight gain or different?
- If different, why?
If maintaining a high body weight is required for survival, why is that we do not see anyone, after having lost a significant amount of fat, replenish that by having an urge to gorge on lard, butter or oils, the very sources from which the body can reconstitute fat in a hurry? Shouldn’t the body also have had provision for storage of other nutrients needed to convert fat into energy?
In short, I disagree with the NY Times article’s fundamental analysis of why people regain weight after losing it. (I also question the theories about why people become obese to begin with.) So if you are aiming to lose weight, do not accept the notion that your brain will force you to regain it and there is little you can do to prevent renewed weight gain. There is, as Part 2 of this blog will tell you next week.
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