Opinion: Is losing weight pointless?

POSTED: 01/3/12 4:10 PM

The human body is unique in many ways, and one would think that the engineer of this blood and flesh-machinery would have put some thought into it. Well maybe he (or she, who knows?) did, but an Australian doctor discovered a small oversight. His conclusion is that losing weight is pointless, because during the process of losing weight the body produces substances that stimulate weight gains.

We picked up this story in the Dutch Telegraaf; we’re suspicious by nature, but when we read that the story does not come from the newspaper’s health and beauty editors but from that it is based on scientific research that was recently published in The New England Journal of Medicine, it got our full attention.

The publication is based on findings by Joe Proietto, an Australian doctor who has been treating overweight people for fifteen years. He became increasingly amazed about how difficult it is for people to maintain their weight after the conclusion of an in itself successful diet.

So Proietto started examining his patients who gained weight after dieting. He found that the body of frequent dieters works differently from the body of “normal” slim people.

The good doctor examined the hormone level of 50 healthy people who each weighted 100 kilo. He paid special attention to the hormones that suppress and stimulate appetite, and those that regulate the hunger feeling. The participants in the test received each during ten weeks a diet of just 550 calories, combined with intense supervision. The average weight loss among the participants was 15 kilos.

Then, something weird happened. After a year their bodies began to behave as if they were starving. Their weight had gone down, but the hormone-values had changed significantly. Proietto suspects that dieting triggers a defense mechanism that promotes weight gain.

We were not really satisfied with this rather limited explanation the Telegraaf served its readers, so we dug a bit deeper. We found an article in the Australian Herald Sun dated – mind you – August 1, 2011, wherein Proietto already discusses his findings. It seems that the Telegraaf thought nothing of serving its readers some old news, handily disguising this with a reference to a “recent” publication.

However, Proietto, who is a professor of medicine at the University of Melbourne, had a lot more to say about the subject. The Herald Sun noted in its introduction of the subject that obese people face a virtually impossible battle to lose weight because their bodies are programmed to regain any kilograms they shed.

Proietto told the newspaper that once someone lost weight changes in both energy expenditure and hunger-controlling hormones encouraged weight regain.

“It is likely that it is these physiological adaptations that make it so difficult to maintain weight loss,” he wrote in an article published in the Medical Journal of Australia.

“Importantly, if this regulatory mechanism is operating in those who are already obese, public-health messages encouraging people to eat healthy food and to exercise are unlikely to have long-term impact on their weight.

“Several studies have shown that although obese people who make the effort can achieve and maintain significant weight loss for one to two years, the weight is usually regained in the longer term.”

Prof Proietto said obesity was often attributed to people eating too many high-calorie foods and not exercising enough. But he noted not everyone who indulged in that type of behaviour became obese.

This was largely because the body prevented obesity by increasing the levels of a protein hormone, leptin, as fat accumulated. But when that failed, people were likely to become obese.

Prof Proietto said such cases were rare and more people were likely to become obese because of genetic changes caused by environmental factors, either in the womb or their early years.

He said the battle against obesity should focus on stopping children from becoming obese in the first place and making bariatric surgery, such as gastric banding, more widely available because it was nearly impossible for obese people to lose weight any other way.”

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