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Challenge or Threat?

Many people find that they can keep their diet and exercise regimen on track perfectly well as long as their life is going smoothly. But as soon as they hit a rocky patch, their meal prep, portion size, evening snacking and exercise time goes haywire.

In other words, when life inevitably gets stressful, their best intentions fall apart.

Enter the…

Transactional Theory of Stress

This model, outlined in Handbook of Behavioral Medicine, suggests that while we unconsciously assess the stressors and demands of an event, they’re not actually the problem.

The real problem is how we appraise each of them and then decide whether we have the resources (grit, determination, motivation or willpower) to meet the problems posed. But these “resources” also include our perceived ability, our previous experience, and our relevant skill level.

So when these stressful times arise, based on your ability to face these problems, you’ll fall into either a Challenge state or a Threat state.

  • The Challenge state is where you’ve processed the situation and concluded that yes, you can cope. You’re fully engaged with the task at hand and can employ positive coping strategies to deliver optimum performance.
  • The Threat state is where you perceive that you lack the resources to cope with the situation ahead. This often leads you to turn to old behaviours/patterns and abandon anything that doesn’t feel comforting or familiar.

The next time you are faced with a stressful situation, wouldn’t it be nice to have the “resources” on hand to be able to switch into a challenge state rather than a threat state?

That is a big part of what our Weighless graduates experience. Over the year-long program, we give you the tools and mindset to be able to reassure yourself that the problem at hand is a challenge which you can handle… without busting into a pint of Ben and Jerrys.

Why we build intentional plateaus into our approach

Although most people see weight loss plateaus as a problem, we actually encourage members of our year-long program to pause their weight loss efforts at regular intervals. For one thing, we’ve found that practicing maintenance is an essential part of learning how to weigh less. So we build it into the program.

But our approach is also designed to minimize the metabolic adaptation that typically accompanies weight loss. (This is that insidious phenomenon where the body compensates for weight loss by slowing down your metabolism. Not helpful.)

We believe that these intentional plateaus help the metabolism stabilize and recover. And there’s science to back that up. A 2018 study out of Australia found that alternating periods of active weight loss and stabilization periods improved weight loss efficiency and led to greater fat and weight loss.

In other words, sometimes slowing down is actually the fastest way to reach your goal.

Bait & Switch – My Noom Adventure

Photo of a woman eyeing a single leaf

When Monica and I saw that there was another program out there which promised to be a “weight-loss program designed by psychologists & scientifically proven to create real, sustainable results” we were pumped!

Sometimes when you are the lone voice in a space, you start to question your sanity. But Noom’s ads talked about all the stuff that is near and dear to our hearts here at Weighless. Phrases like “create new habits and healthy behaviours that stick” and “practice and master healthy lifestyle habits” were music to our ears. It was both validation that we were on to something, and reassurance that the world was truly fed up with diets and ready for something better.

Then one of our new members told us that she had actually quit Noom to come over to the Weighless program because they had put her on a 1200 calorie per day diet and she was tired of feeling hungry all the time.

Well, that doesn’t jibe with their messaging, does it?

So, I decided to sign up for their service and see what was going on.

Now this wasn’t some undercover, stealthy, nefarious, creepy infiltration. I was completely honest with them, including my goals and my name. I told them I only wanted to lose 2kg and was simply focussed on being healthy and strong as I approached my 50th birthday.

They had access to my demographic info (height, current weight, BMI, age, gender and so on) so what happened was a complete surprise to me.

They immediately adjusted my goal weight to 72kg (instead of my actual goal of 75) and put me on a 1400 calorie per day diet. What?!

I am a 6 foot tall, quite muscular, very active, 48-year-old man. 1400 calories per day is about 1000 calories less than I have been eating for the last 25 years. And even when I was a 21-year-old professional ballet dancer, I never weighed in at 72kg (158 lbs).

But the good news was, the Noom app told me, that if I exercised more, my calories allowance for the day went up.

Well… that also doesn’t jibe with their messaging, does it?

Here’s the thing. After working in this space for as long as Monica and I have, we have learned to recognize these behaviours as two of the cornerstones of disordered eating.

  • Starve yourself using an extremely low-calorie diet.
  • Reward yourself with more food by exercising (usually excessively).

And to top it off, I was meant to record all of my meals in their app, tracking every bite. Just like every diet and calorie counter I had ever encountered. A practice that has been shown in studies to decrease quickly over time.

Sure there were daily lessons that were surprisingly aligned with what we teach in the Weighless program – but by that point, the damage had been done.

Any possibility of “developing healthier habits that last” is lost when any of the weight loss I would experience (and I would definitely experience weight loss had I stuck to that absurdly low-calorie intake) is obviously coming from a diet that is exactly like all diets before it.

This is a true case of bait and switch.

They promise a lifestyle overhaul but that promise is purely window dressing on yet another diet that is doomed to fail in the long term.

See also: Weighless compared to Noom

Self-care and self-kindness

Researchers writing about mindful eating in Frontiers in Psychology interviewed a number of overweight people about their attitudes towards self-care and self-kindness. The results were fascinating.

The subjects were very uncomfortable talking about ways that they were kind to themselves.  They seemed to equate self-kindness with self-indulgence, which they saw as a negative trait.

They were a bit more comfortable with the term “self-care” but here again, there was an interesting divide.

They talked about things like getting out in nature or taking a bath or setting aside time to read or visit with a friend. As long as it didn’t involve food, they were comfortable identifying these activities as self-care.

But they were unwilling to see choosing healthy foods or exercising as a way of exercising self-care. They saw these things as something they “should” be doing.  Therefore, doing them didn’t count as self-care or something they were doing to be kind to themselves. 

Isn’t that interesting?

If we can come to see making healthy food and movement choices as a way of showing ourselves kindness, instead of a duty that we may or may not be fulfilling, maybe the notion of self-kindness wouldn’t feel so self-indulgent and dangerous. 

Who Succeeds at Losing Weight?

Losing weight and keeping it off is notoriously hard. Only 10-20% of those who try succeed. What is it that sets these winners (er, losers) apart?

A group of Dutch researchers recently analyzed 67 studies to see if they could identify the key characteristics, or determinants, of long term weight loss.

First, check out what doesn’t matter:

  • Age
  • Gender
  • Socioeconomic status
  • Weight history
  • How often you eat out
  • Your stress level
  • Willpower

That’s right. When it comes to your chances of achieving long-term weight loss, it doesn’t matter how old you are or what kind of neighborhood you live in.  Women, you have just as good a shot at it as men.  Your weight history does not predict your chances of success.  Stress is not a determining factor, nor is how much willpower you have.

What a relief!  Because most of those are things you can’t do much about.

So, what does predict success?  Your habits and your mindset. Specifically:

Habits that fuel success

  • Regularly monitoring your weight (because you can’t manage what you don’t measure)
  • Eating more fruits and vegetables (yum)
  • Exercising portion control (NOT restrictive dieting)
  • Choosing an active lifestyle (NOT exercising your brains out!)

Mindsets that fuel success

  • Confidence in your ability to make positive changes
  • Clarity on your goals and strategies
  • Feeling of self-worth (because you can’t hate yourself healthy)

Unlike your age or your health history, your habits and mindset are things that you have complete control over! And these are precisely the habits and mindsets that we create and reinforce in the Weighless Program.

The case for super slow weight loss

[UPDATED on Sept, 1, 2020 to include new research]

One of the things that sets the Weighless approach apart from other weight loss programs is our emphasis on slow weight loss.  Instead of coaching our members to lose a couple of pounds a week, we try to hold them to a few  pounds a month.

Crazy, right? And yet there is a method to our madness.

The famous (and heartbreaking) “Biggest Loser” study demonstrates just how much damage fast weight can do to your metabolism. After six years, virtually all of the contestants had regained every pound (and more)–despite continuing to eat fewer calories. 

And then there’s the loss of lean muscle.  Most people can only lose 2-3 pounds of body fat per month. If you’re losing weight faster than that, the rest is likely to be lean muscle. Believe me, that’s NOT what you’re trying to lose.

Although our approach may seem like an insanely slow way to lose weight, we’re finding that it’s actually a much quicker (and less unpleasant) path to sustainable fat loss. Interestingly, our members frequently report that after losing weight the “Weighless way,” they look and their clothes fit as if they have lost much more than they actually have.

Losing weight slowly not only preserves your metabolism and muscle mass. It also gives you more time to acquire the habits and practice the skills that will help you maintain a lower weight, heading off the dreaded–and seemingly inevitable–rebound weight gain.

It all makes sense, right? But occasionally, someone in the group will ask if there is published research to support the merits of the super slow pace of weight loss we endorse. Fair enough. I’ve built a reputation for being evidence-based, and most of the people who sign up for my programs cite this as one of the reasons they trust my advice.

Show Me the Research

A few studies have compared the effects of slow vs. fast weight loss. For example:

A 2016 study involving almost 60 subjects found that those who lost weight more slowly lost less muscle mass, which was associated with less weight regain. A similar (but longer) study dating back to 1994 compared the effects of “fast” vs. “slow” weight loss and found that the fast losers lost more weight initially but were much more likely to regain it.

Frustratingly, many of the studies that compare fast and slow weight loss define “slow” as 4-5% of your total body weight per month, which is still too fast by our standards.  But here have been at least two excellent studies where the slow pace is in line with our recommendations.

This 2014 study involved 200 subjects, both men and women. Over the course of the study, the subjects  lost 15% of their starting body weight, on average. The slower group lost at a pace of about 1.5% of their total body  weight per month. The faster group lost at a more typical rate of 4.5% of their total body weight per month.  Although both groups lost the same amount of weight, the slow group lost 10% more body fat and 50% less lean muscle as the faster group. 

This 2018 study by a different research group involved 68 subjects (all men) who lost  6% of their starting body weight. Once again, the slower group lost 1.5% of their total body weight per month and the faster group 4.5% per month. But the difference in body composition was a lot more dramatic. The slower group lost 50% more fat and 75% less lean muscle than the faster group. 

Our approach is certainly informed by research–but it also draws heavily on our experience and common sense. And although we are not (yet) conducting a controlled trial, the results we are seeing and the feedback we are getting from our members are enormously validating.  I think we’re onto something here…and maybe the researchers will take notice.

What’s the best diet for your genetics?

Personalized nutrition is getting a lot of attention these days. Companies will analyze your DNA and tell you what foods and supplements you should and shouldn’t eat based on your genetic profile. But a huge study throws cold water on the idea of matching your diet to your genetics.  Participants with a “low-carb genotype” (who would hypothetically do better on a low-carb diet) were no more successful on a low-carb diet than on a low-fat diet. The same was true for those with a “low-fat genotype.”

The study also found that, overall, low-carb diets are no better or worse than low-fat diets at producing weight loss.  Those are the two headlines from this study. (Examine.com has produced an excellent detailed analysis of the study, if you want to take a deeper dive.)

But there is so much more here that warrants mentioning. Here’s what really got my attention:

None of the study participants were asked to count or limit their calories. Instead, both groups were told to limit their intake of added sugars, refined flour and junk food, and to eat lots of vegetables and whole foods. And that was enough to produce weight loss.  In other words, when you pay attention to the quality of your food choices, the calories often take care of themselves. And when you’re eating a healthy, whole foods diet, low carb is no more effective than low fat.

The other thing that’s notable about this study is that the participants received intensive coaching throughout the year. They were taught how to choose foods that kept them satisfied for fewer calories.   They were encouraged to avoid distracted eating and eat more mindfully. Making sustainable changes was a bigger priority than achieving fast weight loss.  (All of this will sound very familiar to participants of  the Weighless program, our 12-month coaching program for sustainable weight loss.)

At the end of the study, the most successful participants reported having changed their relationship to food. And that’s ultimately what’s required for permanent weight loss. Not calorie or fat or carb counting.

Despite billions spent on dieting, obesity rate hits new high

Americans are spending more on dieting than ever before–more than $60 billion a year.  The percentage of obese adults is also at an all time high of 40%.

Do you think there might be a connection between these two trends?  I do.

Clearly, dieting  is not the solution to the obesity problem. In fact, I think it’s a big part of the problem.

Problem #1:  Even the most “responsible” diets encourage you to lose weight far faster than your body can actually lose fat. As a result, you end up losing a little bit of fat and a lot of water and lean muscle tissue.

Problem #2: Diets teach you how to lose weight but they don’t teach you how to weigh less.  (There’s a big difference.)  As a result, most people will eventually regain all the weight they lose…or more.

Problem #3: When you regain the weight, you don’t gain back the lean muscle that you lost while dieting. You replace it with fat, which makes it even harder to lose weight the next time.

It’s time to try something different

Last summer, my colleague Brock Armstrong and I launched WeighlessTM, a program that shows people how to stop dieting and start weighing less. Weighless is not a diet or exercise program. It’s a structured lifestyle change program that combines nutrition science, behavior modification, professional guidance, and community support.

The results have exceeded even our high hopes. It’s been absolutely exhilarating to see people escape a lifetime of yo-yo dieting and find the path to sustainable weight loss.  I’m more convinced than ever before that diets are not the answer to our obesity epidemic. (They’re a big part of the problem.)

If you think you might be ready to stop dieting and start weighing less, there are more details about the Weighless program here.

Losing weight will shorten your life? Not exactly.

A new study finds that people who lost more than 15% of their body weight over a five year period were actually more likely to die than those who didn’t lose weight. What’s more, the biggest losers were more likely to die than people who gained 20% during the same period.

How can this be? We’re constantly bombarded with headlines about the obesity epidemic and how it’s shaving years off our life span. Are you really better off remaining overweight than losing weight?

[bctt tweet=”Poor health causes weight loss, not the other way around.” username=”nutritiondiva”]

This latest study does not distinguish between intentional and unintentional weight loss, nor did it take into account the cause of death. People who are terminally ill tend to lose weight. But there’s a world of difference between losing weight due to serious illness and intentionally losing weight.

Weight Loss vs. Fat Loss

One way to see this quite clearly is to distinguish between the loss of total body weight and the loss of body fat. The loss of total body weight may be associated with increased mortality. But the loss of body fat is associated with increased life span.

Another way to separate out the effect of wasting disease is to distinguish between intentional and unintentional weight loss. Previous studies have shown that while unintentional weight loss is associated with increased risk of death, intentional weight loss can reduce mortality by 15%

The Bottom Line(s)

Actually, I have three bottom lines for you

Bottom Line #1. Losing excess body fat will improve your health.

Bottom Line #2. Losing weight slowly will increase the percentage of body fat you lose.

Bottom Line #3. Losing a modest amount of weight and keeping it off will do more to improve your health than repeatedly losing and gaining large amounts of weight.

Need help with sustainable weight loss? That’s what the Weighless program is all about. ​Learn more.