4 Things I’ve Learned Working in Weight Loss


Want to know the secret to losing weight and keeping it off?

Well, I’m sorry to tell you that there isn’t one single easy solution, magic trick, or secret tip.  Weight-loss can be frustrating, challenging, and different for everyone.

Here, I’ll share with you four tips I’ve learned working in weight-loss research.

1. What you eat matters  

I see participants of all shapes, weights, and sizes engage in the studies I work on, and most of them struggle with one of two components targeted in studies: diet or exercise.  The ones that struggle primarily with diet typically have a harder time losing weight than those that struggle to meet physical activity goals.

In most cases exercise alone won’t lead to significant weight loss. A study published in Current Biology  in February found that there is a plateau in energy expenditure at higher activity levels as the body adapts to maintain energy expenditure within a narrow range.*   The study measured 332 adults living in five populations.  After adjusting for body composition, researchers found that energy expenditure is positively correlated with physical activity; however, the relationship weakens at moderate to high intensity physical activity.  This suggests that working out a lot or at high intensity may not be the most effective approach to weight loss.  That’s not to say that working out at high intensity is not beneficial to your health; however, if your sole goal is weight loss, focus first and foremost on your intake.


2. BMI is not the best measure of health

BMI or body mass index takes two things into account: height and weight.  It is commonly used to estimate body fat percentage and categorizes people based on what is appropriate for their size.  You can calculate your BMI HERE.

  • Underweight: <18.5
  • Normal Weight: 18.5-24.9
  • Overweight: 25-29.9
  • Obese: >30

Often, it’s assumed that if you’re overweight or obese, you must be unhealthy.  It is important to note that it is not weight itself, but specific types of fat and distribution that has been correlated with health problems.  We see people with BMIs over thirty who appear to be otherwise healthy: their blood pressure is normal, their hemoglobin A1C is in the normal range, their cholesterol is normal…  Similarly we’ve seen other participants, who’s weight is in the normal range or whose BMI is slightly greater than 25 have high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes.  It’s important to keep in mind that BMI may not be the best measure of health.

There are a number of factors BMI does not take into account.

  1. Muscle v. Fat:  muscle tends to be heavier than fat, and so more toned individuals may end up in the overweight category
  2. Different types of fat: brown fat, white fat, and visceral fat all have different metabolic effects.
  3. Where the body holds fat:  Excess visceral fat can be a lot more dangerous than fat that simply sits under the skin.

In a study published in the journal PLoS Onelead author Dr. Eric Braverman found that BMI misclassified 25% of men and 48% of women.**  The study found that BMI may actually underestimate the obesity epidemic in the US.  The study compared BMI to body fat percentage (measured by a DEXA scan) in 1,400 men and women.

It is difficult to judge health and risk factor based solely on height and weight.  That being said, there’s a reason that many in the medical field use BMI. It’s easy and cheap to calculate, and it can give us an idea of risk for certain complications.  Although CT scans, MRIs, and DEXA scans (dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry) can give us a more accurate idea of the body’s make up, BMI is unfortunately more commonly used.

3. Weigh yourself Twice a Week

Although BMI and weight may not be the best measure of health, weight loss can still be beneficial for many. A recent study published in Cell Metabolism showed that just a 5% weight loss can greatly decrease risk of heart disease, colon/breast cancer, and type 2 diabetes.***

If your aim is to lose weight or even maintain your weight, than having a scale handy is a great idea.  I would go further to advise you to weigh yourself once or twice a week.  Some people choose to weigh themselves every day, but I find that it’s often easy to get caught up in the minuscule fluctuations.  It’s when we give up weighing ourselves that weight tends to creep up.

Most of us have schedules that differ on the weekend from the work week. Some of us get more exercise on the weekend when we have more free time, while others choose to rest on the weekend and go to the gym throughout the week. Eating habits also tend to differ. Often those in their teens, twenties, and thirties drink more alcohol on the weekends. People of all ages tend to go out more on the weekends. By weighing yourself twice a week, Monday’s and Friday’s, you can better understand your weight trends, and understanding can be the first step in altering habits.


4. We eat what our friends/family/partners eat

We often don’t consider how influential the people around us are. Our eating and exercise habits tend to reflect the habits of those we spend time with.  Therefore, weight-loss and weight maintenance is much more achievable when we are surrounded by others that are motivated to be healthy.

Imagine this scenario:

You and a group of friends go out to a restaurant for dinner.  Let’s imagine that Johnny is the first to order and he orders a pepperoni pizza.  Then Lizzy orders a sausage pizza. Then it’s your turn.  Are you going to order the chicken breast and asparagus or are you going to go for pizza as well?

More often than not, you’re going to order the pizza as well.  Maybe you’ll order a veggie pizza or a pizza with a side salad, but the more your friends order pizza, the less tasty that chicken breast sounds.

A study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics  analyzed eleven other studies, concluding that social norms and social pressure influence both food quantity and food choice.**** If your friends around you are feasting, you are going to be inclined to feast as well.

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One of my good friends once told me that when she began a Weight Watchers program, she struggled socially.  In order to remove herself from temptation, she refrained from attending certain events, and as a result isolated herself socially.  She was successful in losing weight, but struggled to maintain her weight-loss.

Studies have found that social support is crucial for weight maintenance.  Although some may find it challenging to tell those around them that they are trying to be healthy or get into shape, it is extremely beneficial to seek the support of family and friends.

Tell those around you about your goals and rope them in.



Recent Research You Should Check Out

*Constrained Total Energy Expenditure and Metabolic Adaptation to Physical Activity in Adult Humans.  Pontzer, Herman et al.  Current Biology , Volume 26 , Issue 3 , 410 – 417

You can read the article here.

**Shah NR, Braverman ER (2012) Measuring Adiposity in Patients: The Utility of Body Mass Index (BMI), Percent Body Fat, and Leptin. PLoS ONE 7(4): e33308. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0033308

You can read the paper here.

***Effects of Moderate and Subsequent Progressive Weight Loss on Metabolic Function and Adipose Tissue Biology in Humans with Obesity. Magkos, Faidon et al.  Cell Metabolism , Volume 23 , Issue 4 , 591 – 601.

You can read the paper here.

****What Everyone Else Is Eating: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of the Effect of Informational Eating Norms on Eating Behavior.  Robinson, Eric et al.  Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics , Volume 114 , Issue 3 , 414 – 429

You can read the paper here.

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