That Depends on the “What,” the “How,” and the “Why” of Weight Loss
How long it takes to lose weight depends on many factors beyond simply how much weight you want to lose. Obviously, losing 5 pounds should take a lot less time to lose than 50 lbs. Yet, even when someone aims to lose a modest 5-10 lbs of weight, it may take much longer than anticipated. Why? In today’s world, weight loss has become one of the most difficult tasks to achieve. The availability of high calorie foods, combined with atypical portion sizes and sedentary lifestyle, has made gaining weight an unintentional, yet normal, side effect of urban living. Losing weight, or even maintaining weight, has now become a challenging venture that requires targeted, intentional focus. The formula for successful weight loss is simple: take in (or eat) less calories than your body uses (or burns) each day. However, the critical components of a successful equation, i.e., healthful lifestyle changes, wise food choices, and staying active, can be very hard to implement. Thus, to lose weight as quickly as possible (without resorting to drastic, unhealthy measures), it’s important to assess what dieting is, how dieting is done, and most importantly, why you want to diet in the first place.
The “WHAT” of Dieting
Let’s start with the “WHAT” of dieting, which is just taking in less energy. Simply put, cutting calories. In essence, if you want to lose weight, and are currently eating 2,000 calories/day to maintain weight, you need to decrease your calories. How long it takes to lose weight will, in theory, depend on how much energy (calories) you are willing to cut each day. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends cutting about 500 – 750 calories/day for weight loss. So, cutting your daily intake from 2,000 calories/day to 1,250 – 1,500 calories/day will make your body compensate the gap by consuming the rest of the calories from stored tissues, mostly (hopefully) from your fat reservoirs. This should result in body mass reduction, or weight loss. Easy, right? Sorry, but no (which you already knew anyway). Why? I can think of two reasons immediately.
First, as you lose weight, your caloric needs also decrease alongside your decreasing body mass, so you will need to gradually continue to decrease your caloric intake to stay in negative energy balance during weight loss. The only way to combat the continual decrease in calories is to continually increase calories out via higher physical activity. Second, and maybe less obvious, is the fact that your body will very quickly learn that it is in a calorie deficit. As a result, it will attempt to mitigate further weight loss to preserve itself. How? By slowing your metabolism and prioritizing calories to keep critical functions, such as maintaining vital organs, working, while forcing other functions, such as voluntary body movement, to decrease. (You know that fatigue and “lack of energy” that comes with cutting calories? That’s your body doing its best to keep you from moving around too much and “spending” extra calories.) Very quickly, you will likely want to give up that diet and just throw in the towel. And you’re not alone. For most of humanity’s history, this was a critical and successful survival tool during times of limited or no food supply. Keep the vital organs working until food is once again available. However, in today’s food industrialized world, it has become arguable our own worst enemy. Thus, it can take a relatively long time to lose weight, even just 5 – 10 lbs. For this reason and others, it’s obvious that weight loss is complex for anyone trying to understand the process. In essence, how are people supposed to know what they need to do to effectively decrease daily caloric intake and successfully sustain it over time through dieting. In summary, how long it takes to lose weight is not just about the “WHAT” of cutting calories, but also the “HOW” (e.g., picking the right calories to cut or finding a diet you can stick to).
The “HOW” of Dieting
Weight loss dieting has traditionally been a trial-and-error process by which dieters pick, typically by some leap of faith of what might work, a series of food programs consisting of reduced caloric intake. Most diets are chosen either by personal (or professional) recommendations based on someone else’s experience or anecdotal evidence. In this regard, weight loss dieting has had little innovation over the past 40 years with minimal improvement. In fact, some have called today’s weight loss industry “an 80-billion-dollar disappointment to the consumer.” Fortunately, weight loss is turning the corner. How? By incorporating a more scientific approach and understanding the biological processes involved in weight loss. Today we know that, when it comes to weight loss, not all food calories are treated the same by each body. That is, the way the human body absorbs, metabolizes, and stores calories coming from fat, carbs, and protein may be different between two individuals. Recent scientific breakthroughs in the field of nutrigenetics have unveiled important links between the relationships among genes, diet, and health outcomes. Today we know that point mutations of specific genes within our DNA can predict more (or less) weight loss in people when adjusted for the same dietary conditions. The POUNDS Lost Study (a collaborative study that included Harvard’s School of Public Health) demonstrated that people with specific DNA point mutations lost more weight on a high-fat diet than those on the same type of diet but without these DNA mutations. Similar results were found for other DNA point mutations with regards to low-fat, high-protein, and high-carb diets. These and other studies prove that not all calories are the same and that our own genetics, our own bodies, behave differently when exposed to different types of diets. That’s why we started DietCypher®, a startup biotech company out of Sand Diego, California.
We developed an innovative, proprietary algorithm that analyzes a person’s unique DNA to identify various point mutations that predict the most weight loss. Based on the results, it then recommends the best diet type for maximum weight loss. For example, my husband’s diet type, which we refer to as a “DietCode,” is “High-Fat, Moderate-Protein.” This means that DietCypher’s algorithm predicted that by going on a diet that is high in fat, yet moderate in protein content, he will lose the most amount of weight versus going on a low-fat diet or a high-protein diet, for example. Don’t get me wrong. He would still lose weight on a low-fat or high-protein diet. But just not as much. After trying the South Beach and Atkins Diets, both focused on high-protein foods, neither one resulted in significant weight loss. On his third attempt, he chose a keto diet, focused on high-fats and moderate in protein content, and weight loss came fast and substantial. After a few months on the keto diet, he lost 55 pounds, or roughly 25% of his body mass. Following a weight loss diet that “takes advantage” of your genetics can pave the way for efficient and effective weight loss, and therefore will, arguable, result in less time needed for weight loss. Although a relatively new scientific field, nutrigenetics has challenged the conventional “one size-fits-all” calorie-cut approach to weight loss. It is quickly disrupting the weight loss industry by providing a novel scientific approach that maximizes weight loss.
Another important angle on “HOW” we can accomplish successful weight loss is dietary adherence, that is, to what degree a person obeys or “sticks to” the food recommendations of a particular weight loss plan. An overwhelming body of evidence has suggested that a higher level of adherence to a diet is an important factor in weight loss success over the short and long term. As already mentioned, sticking to a weight loss diet is one of the most difficult behavioral tasks for humans. Real-world evidence suggests that dietary adherence amongst the most popular diets is 20% at best. This means that 4 out of 5 people on a weight loss diet fail to obey the food recommendations, thereby impacting their ability to properly follow the diet and ultimately failing to lose weight. Several strategies have been studied to improve dietary adherence, which can be grouped in two major fields: behavioral and dietary. Behavioral strategies include self-monitoring (i.e., keeping a food journal), meal planning, and understanding crave triggers. Although proven successful in limited studies, behavioral dietary adherence strategies face sustainability challenges. Maintaining these daily practices over time requires discipline and persistence. As we all already know, changing human behavior is a tedious and long-term process that requires repetition and professional support. Aside from behavioral strategies, some dietary adherence strategies have focused on customizing weight loss diets according to the user’s own food preferences. For example, someone that prefers eating red meats may chose a weight loss diet that incorporates plenty of these foods and likely will end up on a high-protein diet, such as Atkins. This dietary adherence strategy based on food preference has also proven to be flawed as some research shows that users do not seem to have any additional weight loss success over those who were simply assigned a diet. One reason might be that those dieters quickly get bored and dissatisfied with food routines (no one likes to eat the same thing over and over). Some research indicates that a more impactful approach to dietary adherence may be “usual intake.” Rather than focusing on food preference, usual intake focuses on customizing a weight loss diet based on the user’s typical and common daily foods. The logic behind this approach is that what the user “prefers to eat” is often very different from what the user actually or “usually” eats. Thus, by aligning a weight loss diet to the user’s current daily food intake, the disruption and inconvenience of the new diet scheme can be minimized. As a result, if dietary adherence can be achieved, the “off again, on again dieting” can be avoided. And, how long it takes to lose weight can be significantly shortened. Although limited studies have reported on this adherence method, the trend thus far suggests it can be successful and holds promise in becoming the preferred angle to maximize dietary adherence overall.
The “WHY” of Dieting
After discussing the “WHAT” and the “HOW” of weight loss, a third layer needs to be considered: the “WHY.” Why we choose to lose weight is an important factor in weight loss. And understanding your why can impact how long it takes you to lose weight. Bestselling author Simon Sinek in his book “Start With WHY” introduces his idea of the Golden Circle, providing compelling insights into finding the “reason-to-believe” as a powerful motivator for consumer engagement. By applying this framework to weight loss, it is suggested that people that focus on the “what” (i.e., losing 10 lbs) are less likely to be as engaged as people that understand the “why” [do I want to lose weight]. Being intentional about a task, such as weight loss, requires having the right motivation which is embedded in your definition of PURPOSE.
We can argue that in most of the cases related to weight loss, the purpose is not clearly defined. The key for successful long-term weight loss is, first and foremost, finding your purpose for taking on this challenging task. When embarking on a weight loss venture, it is important to visualize success in terms of understanding the benefits of losing weight for you as an individual. For example, even a modest reduction in body weight is enough to improve health outcomes such as a reduction in blood pressure, a lowering of total cholesterol, and improved management of blood sugar levels. An additional benefit of weight loss is the gain of self-confidence, which has been shown to have positive psychological outcomes such as improvement in self-esteem, reduction of depressive symptoms, and increased vitality. So, what your purpose? Improved health outcomes? Confidence? Or just simply fitting in your old jeans? Or a combination of these? You need to find and clearly define your purpose.
In conclusion, the key for successful weight loss is multi-factorial and lies in a combination of tasks that need to be carefully considered. My professional advice is the following: first, be ready to commit! Take a moment to understand “WHY” do you want to lose weight and make sure you considered all the benefits of weight loss and identify your own purpose. Keep in mind how the benefits of weight loss may affect your future life projects (e.g., improved self-esteem or having more energy). Find your “reason to believe” for losing weight before you are ready to start the process.
When you are ready to commit to weight loss, chose smart when it comes to “HOW” you plan to lose weight. Even though they have the best intentions, stop listening to everyone who recommends a weight loss diet based on their own experience; instead, listen to your own body. Nutrigenetics is a powerful guide when it comes to choosing the best diet to maximize weight loss for you. If you are not ready for a DNA-based diet approach, then chose a weight loss program that maximizes your dietary adherence. To do so, make sure you choose a diet that focuses on what you typically are used to (i.e., “usual intake”) as opposed to food preferences or the latest fad diet, since science suggests that is your best change for diet-based adherence. The only metric that matters in dietary adherence is how obedient you are to the diet plan and usual intake appears to be the preferred path for success. Taken together, understanding what, how, and why of your weight loss journey will affect your ultimate success and how long it takes to lose weight.