Metabolic Penalty: Reality or New Myth?

Metabolic penalty: it’s a phrase that has been popularized by a recent study into contestants on The Biggest Loser, a television show featuring several severely obese contestants who vie for the weight-loss crown of losing 100 pounds or more.

The study looked at the final season of the show, where contestants lost dramatic amounts of weight; that season’s winner reached 191 pounds, down from 430. The study however found that after six years, all but one of the contestants had returned to their original weight, or had gained even more.

What Is A Metabolic Penalty?

Why? That’s where that phrase “metabolic penalty” comes in. The metabolisms of the contestants slowed down so much, that they needed to consume 500 calories less than average individuals just to maintain their new weight.

Does this mean that dieters must plan on taking in significantly less food once they’ve reached their preferred weight? Well… No. The study has, as a recent article in the Washington Post points out, been taken out of context.

The Biggest Loser Wasn’t A Normal Weight Loss Situation

The contestants on The Biggest Loser don’t represent the norm among those wishing to lose weight. First, they were losing in excess of a hundred pounds. Second, they were losing the weight in a relatively short period of time — one television season.

The Truth Behind Metabolic Penalties

This isn’t to suggest the “metabolic penalty” is entirely fictional – someone weighing 150 pounds needs fewer calories than someone weighing 300 pounds. This is easy to see with a bit of math.

If you multiply your weight by eleven, you get roughly the number of calories your body needs just to stay alive without exercise. A 150-pound individual needs 1,650 calories; a 300-pound individual needs 3,300. The difference isn’t the result of a slow metabolism; it’s simply a matter of the quantity of energy required to keep that amount of living tissue alive.

The research is not at all clear about how many fewer calories someone who has lost weight will need, but the Biggest Loser study is clearly on the fringe. Some research shows a modest metabolic penalty. Other studies have shown none.

Beating the Metabolic Penalty Trap

If the metabolic penalty is a factor, it appears to be a minor one that can be beaten if you lose weight in a managed way. Expect to lose no more than two to three pounds a week.

Exercise to avoid a metabolic penaltyOne of the best ways to beat the metabolic penalty trap is exercise. Build muscle mass. Muscle requires more energy to maintain than fat does, so building muscles causes your metabolism to function at a higher rate. Expect to stay active once you have lost weight. This is one of the reasons why exercise is so effective at helping maintain weight loss.

Long Term Health Goals Work

For those who do experience a slowed metabolism, some research suggests that in a majority of cases, this may simply vanish after about six months. So set long-term goals. If your goal is to reach your preferred weight by Christmas, what is your goal for the following Easter?

It’s a good idea not to set your goal as simply to maintain your weight; maintenance is more of a process than a goal. But you could set yourself the goal of being able to do 100 pushups by Easter. Or you could plan on running a 10K race. Give yourself something to plan for, so that reaching your weight-loss goal doesn’t feel like the end of the road, but rather a stop along the way.

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