The Biggest Loser Study and How to Make Weight Maintenance Work

A new study shows just how difficult weight maintenance is (and why). But that doesn't mean regaining the pounds is inevitable.

Losing weight—especially a significant amount of weight—is an emotional roller coaster. Triumphs small and large make you feel empowered, triumphant, and like anything is possible; meanwhile, setbacks and obstacles feel like a blow to the head, knocking you down until you find the resolve to stand back up and try again.

Earlier this week, all of us in the struggle to achieve a healthy weight were dealt a serious blow. That blow came in the form of a study, published in the journal Obesity but covered in just about every major news outlet, that showed the staggering odds stacked against those who want to lose a lot of weight, and keep it off.

The Research

In case you missed it, here’s a quick overview of the study: Kevin Hall, a scientist and metabolism expert at the National Institute of Health, followed 14 contestants from Season 8 of Biggest Loser for six years after the show ended. His goal was to see how people fared after losing large amounts of weight through diet and exercise.

In a nutshell, he found that after the body has stopped losing, it fights very hard to get back to its starting weight.

It’s long been known that dieting to lose weight slows the metabolism—but what’s revelatory about Hall’s results is just how much it slows. When Biggest Loser began, every contestant had a normal metabolism for his or her size. By the end of the show, their metabolisms had drastically slowed, making it extremely difficult for them to maintain their smaller sizes. However, as they began to regain weight, their metabolisms didn’t recover; in fact, they became slower.

Today, 13 of the 14 contestants have regained a significant amount of weight, and all of them have slower metabolisms, burning hundreds fewer calories than they should each day. One man burns 800 fewer calories a day than would be expected of a man his size.

On top of that, the contestants’ level of the hormone leptin fell radically. Leptin is a crucial hormone, as it helps regulate hunger—without it, cravings become too powerful for most people to resist day in and day out.

With the twin forces of decreased metabolism and increased hunger working against them, the study shows that the contestants’ weight gain was almost inevitable.

Maintenance Moves to Center Stage

This research brings to center stage the notion of weight maintenance. For a long time, it’s been a background issue—there are no TV shows about weight maintenance, no ripped celebrities selling plans that promise “instant maintenance”—and there’s no denying that weight maintenance isn’t sexy. However, this study drives home that for those looking to lose, it should be considered equally as important as weight loss.

Since DietBet launched, we’ve been aware that maintenance is the crucial counterpart to weight loss, and a weight maintenance game has always been on the horizon. However, challenges in figuring out game mechanics (not to mention how on earth to add fun and excitement to a game about not making progress) kept the Maintainer a mere idea for years.

But this spring, we’re almost ready to launch—and the release of this study shows that an effective maintenance game is something that could benefit millions of people struggling on their own with something they never knew would be so hard. The biological forces working against us are real—but structure, support, accountability, and rewards provide some serious ammo to fire back at weight gain.

We’re hoping to release the game in the next few months, so keep an eye out for an announcement.

What Do We Do Now?

This study might seem grim, but despite what the numbers suggest, watching your hard work slip away is not inevitable (just take a look at our success stories if you need evidence). In fact, this study is a gift: it lets us know what we’re up against so that we can prepare, fight back, and succeed. 

Down the road, there may be medical interventions that can make weight maintenance less of an uphill battle for those who have lost a significant amount of weight. (For instance, a new procedure in which beads are inserted into the stomach to block the production of ghrelin, a hunger-stimulating hormone.) But for now, there are steps you can take that will set you up for success.

As it turns out, the way you lose can have a big impact on how hard it is for you to maintain, so it makes sense to begin thinking about weight maintenance at the beginning of your weight loss journey. Though we don’t prescribe weight loss plans, and different things work differently for each body, here are some best practices that have been shown to help:

  • Lose weight gradually. The CDC recommends losing 1-2 pounds a week to set yourself up for sustainable, long-term weight loss. Compare that to Biggest Loser, where contestants lose hundreds of pounds in a few months (10 to 20 each week). As a comparison, a 250-lb person would need to lose just over 1 pound each week to win a Transformer game.
  • Weight train. Muscle requires more energy just to exist, so adding muscle while losing fat helps to boost your resting metabolism, also known as basal metabolic rate (BMR).
  • Eat more protein. According to some studies, protein requires more calories to digest than fat or carbohydrates, helping to raise your overall metabolism.
  • Don’t overdo it. Extreme measures like severely cutting your calories or over-exercising (Biggest Loser contestants were working out for seven hours a day) can shut down your metabolism and cause calorie-burning muscle to break down.

Specifics aside, the most important thing is to have a weight maintenance plan in place. Our Maintainer game is one example of such a plan, but there are plenty of others: in-person support groups like Weight Watchers or Overeaters Anonymous, a personal trainer who regularly comes to you, a friend or spouse who holds you accountable, monthly check-ins with your physician. Think about what works for you, and decide on a combination of tools that will provide you with adequate support. 

We’ve been there alongside you as you’ve lost the weight, and watched many of you cross the “finish line” of your goal weight. We now know, more than ever, that the finish line is actually far further down the road—that it in fact may be a lifelong journey—and we feel thankful that soon we will have the tools to keep you on the right track to your goal weight, and beyond.

Make it WayBetter

No matter how far you are on your weight loss journey, start thinking about maintenance. Visualizing your life post-weight-loss will make you much more likely to follow through and stay on track!