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Seen the phrases “lose weight” and “get healthy” paired together before?  Me too.  At least a “Jillian” times.  Our entire society has come to equate losing weight with an improvement in health.  Funny thing that weight loss stuff though.  Not everybody gets healthier when they lose weight.  In fact, by percentages, most people get more UNhealthy when they lose weight.  A more appropriate phrase pairing might be…. “Lose weight and Lose health!”

So why does everyone think weight loss is such a great thing?  Why does just about every doctor in America think that if his/her patients lose weight, their health will dramatically improve?  The answer is really simple actually…

Weight loss causes a lot of temporary improvements in the biomarkers for things like heart disease and diabetes.  Emphasis on the word TEMPORARY.

With weight loss, you will typically see a drop in LDL, a drop in triglycerides, lower blood pressure, reductions in blood glucose, and several other changes that appear to be beneficial.

The problem is that these are just transient changes.  The weight is almost always regained due to powerful biological forces seeking to maintain a set bodyweight.  And when the weight returns, there actually tends to be more abdominal and visceral body fat than there was before – a biomarker in and of itself for heart disease and diabetes (but don’t get too scared here, the gain in abdominal fat is a result of having done something unhealthy, like subject yourself to the stress of dieting, and the fat itself doesn’t appear to be harmful – kind of like how a mullet has a positive association with dying in a drunken boating accident, but the hairstyle itself doesn’t directly drive the boat onto shore at high speed.  The hairstyle does directly attract women with STD’s though, and is directly responsible for the higher rates of STD’s seen with those who flaunt the hairstyle).

But even when the weight doesn’t return, and hell actually does freeze over, there is a lot of indications that these changes are still not maintained…

“On a short-term basis, weight loss is very effective at improving control of blood glucose.  However, this doesn’t mean that the diabetes is being cured; even skipping one meal will similarly lower blood glucose.  A 1995 review of all the controlled weight loss studies for type 2 diabetics showed that the initial improvements were followed by a deterioration back to starting values six to eighteen months after treatment, even when the weight loss was maintained.”

~Linda Bacon; Health at Every Size

Another reason doctors think weight loss is healthy is because people who are naturally leaner do tend to be ever-so-slightly healthier on a statistical basis.  Of course, on an individual basis, there are tons of really healthy obese people and tons of extremely ill people with the physiques of underwear models.  But as you age, the protective effects of being lean get smaller and smaller until, in the United States for example, you hit age 65 and stage 1 obesity (BMI of 30-35) actually becomes protective against degenerative disease and positively associated with longevity – more so than any other BMI range.

But we know that formerly fat people who have lost a ton of weight are much more often than not metabolically deranged as a result – not sharing the same health characteristics of a lean person who has never had a weight problem at all.  Paul Campos summed this up more simply than any author I’ve read, in his book The Obesity Myth

“The case against fat proceeds on the assumption that if a fat person becomes thin, that person will acquire the health characteristics of people who were thin in the first place.  It also assumes that there is some reasonably safe and reliable method for producing this result.”

And of course, as anyone who has followed my work can attest, I could go berserk, filling volumes on the details of the negative metabolic consequences of dieting – much of it attributable to the drop in leptin.  When leptin levels plummet, you see a large fall in metabolic rate, and the onset of any number of changes that take place when the basic metabolic energy production of the body falls (destroyed immune system, decreased sex drive and function, anxiety and depression, chronic fatigue, increased estrogen dominance, yada yada).  We also know that dieting raises cortisol, no doubt a big factor in the diseases losing weight is supposed to prevent.  No wonder weight loss typically results – not in health and body composition improvement, but an actual long-term worsening in both for most who experience it…

“There is no good evidence that significant long-term weight loss is beneficial to health, and a great deal of evidence that short-term weight loss followed by weight regain (the pattern followed by almost all dieters) is medically harmful.  Indeed, frequent dieting is perhaps the single best predictor of future weight gain.”

“…there is a great deal of evidence that weight LOSS increases the risk for cardiovascular disease among ‘overweight’ individuals, and some studies suggest that obesity actually protects against vascular disease.”

~Paul Campos

And so, in closing, (as mentioned in 12 Paleo Myths) based on what we know about weight, one should assume, unless proven otherwise, that any weight lost by any means is…

1)      Impermanent

2)      Unhealthy

3)      Destined to trigger health problems attributable to a reduced metabolic rate

While there are certainly success stories, typically as a result of improving metabolism through healthier eating, stress reduction, better sleep, exercise, and any number of other factors – you can hopefully let a couple of things go after reading this.

You can let go of the idea that if you are overweight, you MUST lose weight to be healthy.  Not true.  You can also let go of the idea that weight loss is a sign of improved health.  It rarely is, even when ALL biomarkers of metabolic syndrome improve!  Because when those changes are brought about by weight loss, they are likely to reverse themselves over time, with or without weight regain.  1 step forward, 2 steps back (unfortunately most health writers, practitioners, bloggers, gurus, etc. use short-term changes in such biomarkers shown by various studies as support for their theories, not knowing that these changes can often be looked at in reverse).

For now, think of weight loss (unless it is a spontaneous result of an improvement in your metabolism/hormones somehow) as something that, instead of getting you healthy…

  • Slows the rate at which your body burns calories.
  • Increases your body’s efficiency at wringing every possible calorie out of the food you do eat so you digest food faster and get hungrier quicker.
  • Causes you to crave high-fat foods.
  • Increases your appetite.
  • Reduces your energy levels (so even if you could burn more calories through physical activity you don’t want to).
  • Lowers your body temperature so you’re using less energy (and are always cold).
  • Reduces your ability to feel ‘hungry’ and ‘full,’ making it easier to confuse hungers with emotional needs.
  • Reduces your total amount of muscle tissue.
  • Increases fat-storage enzymes and decreases fat-release enzymes.

The message here?  Don’t blame yourself when you ‘break’ your diet.  It’s not about gluttony or a failure of willpower.  In fact, most dieters show extraordinary self-restraint, persistence, determination, and willpower.  You didn’t fail; the diet did.”

~Linda Bacon; Health at Every Size