Is Your Weight Loss Going to Make You Healthy?
I have put off writing this post for about a year. The subject is so important but I have really struggled because there are some unavoidable ramifications to publishing it. I have patients, business associates, friends and even family that will be offended by some of the things I’m about to write. Thanks to a great conversation with some really good friends recently a few things have become clear to me 1) I have to write this and 2) I have to be brutally honest otherwise this will be nothing more than a petty nag. So as you read please bear in mind that I’m writing this from a position of love and genuine concern.
If you don’t know me I’ll give a bit of my background. I’ve spent the last decade of my life studying and learning how to get people healthy. Some of this has been through schooling as I have earned degrees in Human Biology and Chiropractic. Some of this learning has been as a practicing Doctor of Chiropractic. I have also gained knowledge and experience as a teacher of Pathology (the study of disease) and Cell Biology. In addition I have been a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist for the past 3 years working with athletes and individuals who want to get healthy and perform their best.
Everybody knows that America has a weight problem. More than this our society suffers from a collective form of a problem called Body Dysmorphic Disorder. This is a mental illness where a person becomes excessively concerned with body image. It leads to extreme behaviors which are ultimately abusive such as anorexia, bulimia, etc. We obsess about specific muscle groups like abdominal muscles, pecs, and biceps. Blame magazines, TV shows or whatever you want the fact is that we have a problem. Physical traits that we find socially or sexually attractive are typically markers of good health such as a lean body or color in the skin. Ironically, we are so bent on possessing these traits that we are willing to sacrifice our health to get them.
It drives me nuts when people obsess about a number. They want to weigh 175 lbs, or 120 lbs, or whatever arbitrary weight they pick. I have no idea why people become crazy about seeing a specific number on a scale. As if when the scale reads this magical number doves will be released into the sky and angels will sing. The fact is that in a given day your weight fluctuates as you eat, drink, pee, exercise or watch TV. Pretend you looked and felt terrible, like some gelatinous three-eyed blob. When you felt like people were laughing and pointing would you turn on them and yell “Well I weigh 125 lbs!”? WHO CARES? That number doesn’t make you happy, healthy or beautiful. Weight shouldn’t be important to the average person. It’s really only useful for figuring out body composition, chronic disease risk factors, etc. Ok, well I guess if you are planning on bungee jumping it might also be important. Stop chasing magic and meaningless numbers, people!
What we should be chasing is health; long term, bring-on-the-world, health. I have a good friend who in the past year has totally changed his life. A year ago he was overweight and sedentary. He had some chronic health issues but overall led a pretty comfortable existence. Now he is an endurance athlete. He has a healthy body composition and he is happier now than he has ever been. He had tried every shortcut and miracle weight loss cure out there with small successes followed by colossal crashes. It wasn’t until he decided to go through the fire and the pain and do it the right way that he found lasting change and success. I asked him this question: “If you had to go through the same work you have in the past year and ended up feeling as good as you do now, with the ability to do all of the things you are doing now, but your weight and size never changed, would you do it all again?” He didn’t even hesitate to answer “yes”. People have been congratulating him on his amazing weight loss but if you ask him, he wasn’t losing weight. He was getting better, healthier, and stronger in his body and soul. Weight loss was a by-product of his new life.
That is what people should be chasing. Forget about weight loss! Who cares how much you weigh if you’re still sick? I’m not just talking about sicknesses like Diabetes or Hypertension. I’m talking about a behavioral sickness where you are not caring for your body in the way it was designed to work. Any program that does not teach you to eat clean and exercise is not getting you healthy. Run, literally RUN from any program or product that promises health or weight loss without exercise. It won’t make you healthy. If you lose weight then you will have attained something you have not earned. You will have stolen the shape of a healthy person without becoming healthy yourself. It’s a counterfeit, a fake, a fraud, a trick, a deception and the only victim will be you.
The human body is a biological machine. We are built to do physical work. Like any machine you need an energy source which you get from your nutrition. Too little isn’t good for your machine. Too much is like filling the tank of your car and then using the gas hose to fill your trunk full of gasoline too. These aren’t safe operating conditions. Machines need maintenance which is why you need exercise. If you don’t work your body the machine breaks down. It doesn’t matter how much you weigh.
Maybe you’ve heard of a company called MediFast. Their products are also marketed under the name Take Shape For Life. According to Forbes it is one of the fastest growing companies in America. This product used to be available by doctor’s prescription only but is now a multilevel marketing company. The program uses prepackaged dehydrated foods which have been engineered to offer a specific blend of high-protein/low-carbohydrate nutrition designed to restrict a users calorie intake to between 800-1000 calories per day during the weight loss phase. During this phase you also consume one meal consisting of real food. If you want weight loss the fact is it works, and fast. I know a person who lost 20 lbs in one week simply by following this eating program. I know many people who have lost dozens of pounds.
I mentioned that this is multilevel marketing. Distributors are called “Health Coaches”. They make money when people order food from the company. There is a lot of money to be made because there are a lot of pounds to come off and it all happens fast and that’s exciting. The food is carefully engineered so that it helps to regulate your blood sugar making diabetes improve or even disappear. Everything about this program seems miraculous. It would seem that this may be the cure to the obesity epidemic right? It actually couldn’t be more wrong.
I’m picking on MediFast because it is quintessential of the struggle we are facing. While the approach is based on a sound physiological principle, namely that controlling calories encourages weight loss in a normal person, that is where the sound principles end in my opinion. MediFast is all about the product. Stay on the product and the results come. The “Health Coaches” I mentioned previously are more aptly called “Product Coaches”. Their job is to sell product and keep you on it to get results. They are Health Coaches like I am a soccer coach (for those who haven’t seen me coach 8 year-old soccer, that was a joke). They tell people not to exercise because their caloric intake is too low or that they don’t need to exercise period. Sorry. You aren’t really a Health Coach. Their job is to keep people on product and then help them transition to “maintenance mode”. But if you are a busy Product Coach are you going to spend more time and effort with people in the weight loss phase (buying a lot of product) or in the maintenance phase (buying little or no product)? Maintenance is nowhere near as exciting or lucrative. That’s why most people go back to their old fluffy selves and beyond.
So are they right about the exercise piece at least? Obviously you don’t need to workout to lose weight. I already told you about how quickly I have seen MediFast customers shed pounds without a single jumping jack. But MediFast is still dead wrong. It’s bad news all around because the weight and the diabetes comes back with a vengeance without exercise. When you exercise your body changes how it metabolizes energy. The muscle tissues in your body put up more insulin receptors which help to regulate your blood sugar and reduce calorie storage as fat. You strengthen your respiratory system, cardiovascular system, improve the motility of your digestive tract, produce neurotransmitters that can help you manage stress and avoid emotional food binges, and so much more. There is absolutely no substitute for the beneficial effects of exercise. If you could put all of the effects of exercise into a pill it would become the single most valuable substance on earth. It would reduce the effects of aging, protect against some types of cancer, fight most of the common chronic diseases, and yes… it would even help prevent obesity.
MediFast is not alone. There are many programs out there with the very same flaws. They offer quick results with little or no effort for an ongoing financial commitment. They go to extremes that can’t be sustained over time like huge calorie deficits or abstinence from entire nutrient categories such as fats or carbohydrates.
I know. Now you’re wondering what to do. I already told you: Eat clean and exercise often. You will not lose weight fast. It will not be comfortable or easy. It will hurt sometimes. But you don’t want to be skinny or ripped, you want to feel good and be able to do all the things physically that you want to do. Remember my friend who did it the right way? He started by running (mostly walking) a 5k race. He had never done anything like that before but it lit a fire in him. He started to discover the possibilities. He started to change. That’s what you want. You want to change. You want to feel amazing about yourself, not a product or a diet system.
What does eating clean mean?
What about exercise?
Well there it is. Please receive this message in the spirit which it was intended. Receive it in good health or in the pursuit thereof. In closing here is a thought once shared with me by a wise friend: It doesn’t matter where you are, only what direction you are heading. So what direction will you go?