The 40-something guy was feeling frustrated. He estimates he’s lost over 100 pounds in the past 15 years, always gaining it back and more. When he’s feeling motivated, he cuts back dramatically on his eating and drinking and spends long hours in the gym. Unable to sustain this level of commitment, he gradually starts eating more and exercising less. He wonders if it’s possible to turn this cycle around.
Losing weight is hard, and keeping it off is even harder. Many are caught on a seemingly endless cycle of weight loss and regain, unable to find the perfect recipe for achieving and maintaining a healthy weight. Lack of willpower does not explain this. Body weight is regulated not only by the food we eat and the amount of physical activity we get but also by our hormones, physiology, and genetics. Yet with about 70% of US adults weighing in as overweight or obese, the need for effective weight loss strategies is clear. A better understanding of the ways in which our body responds to eating less (energy intake) and moving (energy expenditure) will help.
Weight is lost when we eat fewer calories than we use, which can be accomplished by eating less, moving more or a combination of the two. This relationship between energy intake and energy expenditure is known as the energy balance equation. While it sounds simple, in actuality the relationship is somewhat complicated because changing one side of the equation affects the other. For example, eating less causes the body to use fewer calories for both metabolism and physical activity, while exercising may result in hormonal changes that induce us to eat more. More extreme diet and exercise programs amplify this effect, slowing down our metabolic rate and potentially harming muscle, bone, immune function, and gastrointestinal health. So while it may be counter-intuitive, under-eating or over-exercising can make weight loss more difficult.
While no single plan has been proven effective for everyone, some things are clear. Here are some important facts to keep in mind when deciding which plan to follow:
- The human body is far more protective against weight loss than weight gain, which is why it’s so much harder to shed pounds than to add them.
- When we eat fewer calories in an attempt to lose weight, the body compensates by adjusting its metabolism. The wider the disparity between the amount of energy (calories) we are eating and the amount we are expending, the more significant the adjustments the body will make.
- The goal of weight loss is to reduce excess body fat stores, but lean mass (muscle) is typically lost as well.
Achieving and maintaining a healthier body weight is possible, but takes careful planning. Knowing your own energy balance equation helps. A professional can help you accurately assess your energy intake and energy expenditure. A carefully planned weight management plan will:
- Include a modest reduction in calories consumed along with a balanced increase in physical activity.
- Provide adequate protein, carbohydrate, fat, vitamins, minerals and fluid.
- Address lifestyle, mindless eating, and emotional eating.
- Meet dietary guidelines (https://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/) and physical activity guidelines (https://health.gov/PAGuidelines/) for health.
Using these strategies and a personalized nutrition prescription, our 40-something guy was able to achieve his goals and feel more confident than ever before that they can be maintained.