Harvard Study Finds Certain Foods – NOT Calories – Have a Strong Impact on Weight Gains and Losses

Individual foods are more important than calories when it comes to long term weight gains or losses, according to the study. Specifically, potatoes are associated with weight gain, along with sugar-sweetened beverages and meats, while foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and yogurt, are associated with weight loss, according to the study.

 “Modest changes in specific foods and beverages, physical activity, TV-watching, and sleep duration were strongly linked with long-term weight gain. Changes in diet, in particular, had the strongest associations with differences in weight gain… The idea that there are no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ foods is a myth that needs to be debunked,” said a researcher in a press release. The study appears in the June 23, 2011, issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.

When I was contacted by USA Today reporter, Oliver St. John, to comment on the Harvard Study, this gave me an opportunity to look over the study so that I could offer an analysis which would help not only “USA Today” readers, but me and my clients better understand it.

I found some of the claims made regarding the study incomplete.

While this is an interesting study and confirms much of what we know about healthy and unhealthy foods, I’m concerned about the sweeping conclusions for the following reasons:

The Harvard study is epidemiological, the kind of study which analyzes large populations and their health outcomes. Because the facts cannot be precisely measured, as it would be in a clinical study -nobody is weighing and measuring the foods people are eating, their body weights, or their lifestyle patterns – the conclusions which can be made are limited. This is true for many reasons. First, there are no “controls” in the study; making it difficult to tease out confounding variables having an effect beyond the particular foods being studied. What I mean is: eating certain foods is associated with specific behavior patterns, so it’s impossible to determine if the effect (weight loss/gain) is due to the food or the behavior pattern. For instance, studies of whole-grain eating find it is a “marker” for engaging in many healthy behaviors. People who eat whole grains are more likely to exercise and eat more vegetables. SO when epidemiological studies find whole grain- eaters are healthier, one must ask: is the effect due to eating whole grains or the lifestyle associated with eating whole grains? The only way to answer this question is, once the epidemiological data is observed, to take the observations into a lab and do a controlled clinical study. The clinical study would need to control for everything – exercise, diet, body weight, etc – and change only whether people are eating refined or whole grains, to determine if the health effect is due to the whole grain eating or the lifestyle.


The Harvard study found potato-eating associated with weight gain. The researchers warned against eating potatoes, attributing the weight gain to the rise in blood sugar caused by potatoes.

I am not quite convinced. Why?

First, many foods cause rises in blood sugar – including whole wheat bread and whole grain cold cereals. But they aren’t associated with weight gain, in fact, quite the opposite.

Second, in America, most potatoes are eaten as french fries or potato chips, and these are very fattening versions of potatoes. So, the way potatoes are cooked – not the potato itself – may be why Harvard’s epidemiological study found potato-eating is associated with weight gain. This argument points to excess calories as a factor.

Also, and this may be an important factor explaining why potatoes are associated with weight gain. When people eat french fries, they are usually eating hamburgers and hot dogs alongside.  Not only that, the beverage they’re drinking is SODA (a known contributor to obesity in adults and children). Therefore, instead of the potatoes causing the problem, could it be the meal pattern or high calorie lifestyle associated with people who eat french fried potatoes? In the United States, french fries are eaten together with fattening, unhealthy foods, known to be correlated with increased weight, diabetes, heart disease, you name it. Same with potato chips. People who regularly eat french fries, potato chips, and sodas also eat other fattening and unhealthy foods. In fact, studies show soda-drinking, for instance, is another “marker”  but this time, for engaging in unhealthy behaviors like smoking and being sedentary. These confounding variables could influence the study’s results.

This brings me to the last piece of evidence – and what convinces me the most – that potatoes do not a cause weight gain:  SWEDEN

In Sweden, people are no fatter than Americans, in fact, they’re slimmer. But, they eat potatoes every day, and often more than once a day. But when Swedes eat potatoes (and I’m sure of this as I am a Swede and visit often), they eat them in small portions, they’re boiled, topped with a little butter (oops), alongside FISH. Not burgers, not fried fish, just grilled, steamed, cured, smoked, or sauteed FISH.

So, if eating potatoes in Sweden is not associated with weight gain, could it be because the potatoes are cooked in a healthier way than in the United States and the meal pattern is a healthier one?  1) the potatoes are boiled, not fried, 2) the potatoes are eaten in smaller, more reasonable portions, and 3) the potatoes are more often eaten together with other healthy foods, such as fish – not burgers and sodas.

And, how do you explain all those poor, skinny Irish and Russians – heck, anyone living in the northern parts of the world – people who subsisted on and depended on potatoes as their only vegetable for centuries. Why didn’t the potatoes make them fat?

Do I believe potatoes are a wonder food? No. But I also do not believe potatoes are  “POISON,” as some commentators have stated.

Should you be eating larger portions of watery vegetables and smaller portions of starchy vegetables, such as potatoes? Yes.

Do I occasionally enjoy French Fries and Potato Chips, known to be fattening, unhealthy foods? Yes I do.

Do I eat French Fries and Potato Chips on a regular basis? No, I do not. Do I wish I could?
Yes I do, but I’d rather be healthy and slim.


People eating nuts were more likely to have lower body weights, according to the Harvard Study. Their explanation is that nuts are satiating; they make us feel full, inferring that they lead to eating fewer calories overall. Clinical studies have found years ago that adding nuts to meals, especially breakfast, decreased overall calorie intake, making weight loss easier. This is one reason why I have been encouraging nut-eating for many years. Also, we’ve known for quite a while that nut-eaters around the world have fewer heart attacks and are healthier in other ways.

Does this mean you cannot gain weight eating too many nuts? No. Plenty of people eat too many nuts and can become overweight because of it. Nuts are healthy, but fattening little morsels. One ounce, or a small handful, contains about 180 calories. This is why I recommend most people eat one ounce per day. But if weight is not an issue, two ounces a day – or more, if you can afford the calories, is fine – and is even heart healthy. When I work with people wanting to gain weight healthfully, I advise snacking on nuts!

Are certain nuts better than others? I’m not convinced of this. Every time a new study comes out about a nut – any nut – it’s positive news. Certain nuts, though, are more commonly eaten, have a bigger consumer base, and more money to fund scientific studies. This may be why you hear about some nuts over others. It is also a very expensive and time-consuming process for a food to be approved for a health claim on a food label. So, only certain nut growers can afford to put health claims on their labels, and educate you about their health benefits.

While you already know each nut has a different look and flavor, each nut also has its own unique nutritional characteristics. For instance, almonds are the highest in protein and Vitamin E, and the lowest in artery-clogging saturated fat. Walnuts are the only nut with omega-3-fatty acids. Pecans have the highest antioxidant content. Pistachios contain lutein, a compound which may significantly improve eye health.

Bottom Line: Eat nuts every day.
They’re good for you and may help you eat fewer overall calories because they’re so satiating!
Yes, calories matter: So, stick with just one or two ounces, if weight is an issue. If not, eat more.


"Yogurt Spinach Dip" from "Diet Simple"

The study found yogurt-eating associated with lower body weights. Whole civilizations have known about yogurt’s health benefits for thousands of years.

When my mother was recovering from hip replacement surgery I advised her to live on yogurt, fruits and vegetables for healing AND to prevent weight gain from being immobile. It worked. She healed very quickly and lost a little weight at the same time. She was thrilled. I’ve repeated the same advice to my clients, when appropriate, and they’ve been thrilled with the results, too.

Yogurt has many positive qualities. I’m convinced: Yogurt is a Superfood; it may be one of the best overall foods you can eat. Yogurt creates a natural way to boost your immune system by providing probiotics which  increase the healthy bacteria in your gastrointestinal tract, according to my friend and colleague, Jo Ann Hattner, MPH, RD, in her book, Gut Insight.”

Probiotics are live bacteria that promote digestive health. As we age, it is thought that bacterial populations in our gut change – resulting in increased harmful, disease-causing bacteria and fewer protective bacteria.   When you add probiotics you repopulate the gut with beneficial bacteria that protect against infection-causing toxins.

You also improve colon health by lowering pH of the colon, so it’s receptive to the beneficial bacteria and detrimental to the disease-causing bacteria, you protect the intestinal lining, and strengthen immunity.  Exciting research is evolving on the health benefits of probiotics.

But correlating yogurt with lower body weights is complicated. Do you believe people who regularly eat french fries, potato chips, burgers and sodas eat much yogurt? I don’t think so. This is another case where lifestyle probably plays a huge role and why Harvard’s epidemiological study found yogurt was associated with lower body weights.

While it may be true that yogurt has health benefits causing leanness, this hasn’t been proven conclusively in clinical studies yet. There have been studies showing dairy foods are very satiating… That is, when you eat yogurt, you feel full in relation to the calories. And when you feel extra satiated by something, such as yogurt or nuts, it helps you eat fewer overall calories for the day. There is some evidence that the protein in yogurt may be especially high quality, spare lean muscle (and bone), and increase metabolism, thereby making weight loss a little easier. Diary products may also contain other bioactive compounds contributing to leanness. The Harvard researchers speculated the probiotics in yogurt may be responsible for the weight benefit. All of these reasons could be significant. But, the most significant factor probably is: Yogurt-eaters are more likely to live a healthy lifestyle, exercise, and eat other healthy foods.

My clients, family and friends have known this for years. Why? I love keeping up with the science and keep myself and them informed.

This Looks Healthy, But Is It?

A restaurant meal may look like it’s good for you, but we had a lab count the actual calories. Here are the surprising numbers.

By Todd Kliman ,    Sara Levine ,    Ann Limpert

Years ago, the Center for Science in the Public Interest shocked lots of people by exposing the ghastly number of calories in Kung Pao chicken and movie popcorn. Then came the film Super Size Me,which revolted moviegoers with the fat-laden, sugar-drenched realities of a McDonald’s meal. Just thinking about it was enough to make your pants feel tight.But what about a sit-down meal at a good restaurant? According to a Zagat survey, Americans in big cities eat out, on average, four times a week. What exactly are we consuming when we sit down to a restaurant dinner?

We set out to find out. We dispatched staff to pick up three-course meals from five restaurants, each with a different cuisine. Then we packed the food up in containers filled with dry ice and shipped it to a lab in Des Moines, Iowa, for burning—yes, burning—to measure its caloric content. We also had it tested for proteins, fats, and carbohydrates.

The results: Who knew that a three-course sushi dinner has more carbs than a three-course French dinner? Going out for Thai sounds like an excursion into light, bright cooking, but a meal at a Thai restaurant can be nearly as caloric as a certain New Orleans – Style restaurant. Note to all the lobbyists who chow down on the latter’s shrimp and grits and beignets several times a week: In one dinner you may be taking in more than a day’s worth of calories.

Lab results in hand, we invited two experts to help us make sense of the numbers. Walter Scheib, who as White House chef under Bill Clinton and George W. Bush was tasked with finding out the nutritional content for every meal he served to the First Family—and who went on diets with First Ladies—commented on each dish. Katherine Tallmadge, a DC nutritionist who has been a guest expert on TV shows from Food Network programs to Good Morning America, offered commentary and alternative recommendations for each meal.

Our hope is not that you’ll come away from this vowing to steer clear of these restaurants. Rather, we hope you’ll come away a wiser, healthier diner.


Vegetable Spring Rolls With Sweet-and-Sour Sauce

Roasted Duck With Red Curry Sauce, Side of White Rice

Thai Coconut Custard With Sweet Rice

Calories: 2,226

Carbs: 307 grams

Fat: 82 grams

Protein: 65 grams


Walter Scheib says: “[Spring rolls] are little grease sponges. But there are wonderful things called summer rolls, which are basically spring rolls that are fresher and lighter—and without the deep-fried part.”

“Thai desserts are based on rice and coconut. Go for sorbets or fruit ices—just not coconut ice cream, which is basically frozen butter. Ask if they’ve got a fresh mango with a squeeze of lime.”

“Most people think of Oriental cuisines as ‘light.’ When I worked at the White House, this is what Mrs. Clinton used to call gratuitous fat—fat in your food that you don’t necessarily see. You’ve got coconut milk, which is straight fat, and then the duck skin.”

What to get instead: Coconut milk is the biggest source of calories and fat on this diet-busting menu. Often you don’t even know it’s there. Instead look for dishes that get their flavor from citrus juices, spices, vinegars, and herbs.

Katherine Tallmadge, a Thai Restaurant regular, orders lemongrass soup, beef salad, and steamed whole fish: “If your main dish is a lot of food, you probably don’t want the extra rice. A cup is 200 calories.” If you’re going to have noodles, get cellophane noodles, made with mung beans instead of flour. And keep in mind that at many Asian restaurants, portions are served family-style and meant for sharing.

Photo: Washingtonian Magazine

Those Liquid Calories

Original Content: Washington Post

My client Caroline, who had been losing weight successfully for a month, was disappointed one recent week when she failed to do so. It didn’t make sense. Her food intake was stellar, and she had been even a little more physically active than usual. It wasn’t until we reviewed her food diary thoroughly that we discovered the culprit: liquid calories. They added up in a way that surprised her.

As for many of us over the holidays, that extra glass of wine or mixer here and there adds up in ways that you might not expect. Though liquid calories in alcohol, juices or sodas are stealthy, their impact can be enormous.

When food is consumed before or during a meal, the volume and caloric content of that food will limit what else you eat fairly proportionately. Most caloric drinks consumed before or during a meal are not satiating and have little or no effect on how much you eat in one sitting or over the course of several meals.

Scientific evidence is confirming that our bodies don’t detect the calories in these liquids the same way as when we eat solid foods.

“Fluid calories do not hold strong satiety properties, don’t suppress hunger and don’t elicit compensatory dietary responses,” says Richard D. Mattes, professor of food and nutrition at Purdue University. In fact, “when drinking fluid calories, people often end up eating more calories overall.”

It’s fairly well established that alcoholic beverages and sugary liquids, especially sodas and fruit drinks, simply add more calories.

This may help explain the results of the recent Harvard Nurses’ Health Study of more than 50,000 women over eight years. Researchers found that those who increased their intake of sugar-sweetened beverages, such as sodas or fruit punch, from one per week to one or more per day consumed an average of 358 extra calories per day and gained a significant amount of weight. The women who reduced their intake cut their calories by an average of 319 and gained less weight.

Studies in previous years demonstrated that consumption of sugar-sweetened soft drinks increased the likelihood of obesity in children, but this is the first finding from a long-term observational study in adults.

The mechanisms controlling hunger and thirst are completely different: Although liquids may contain calories, they don’t seem to satisfy hunger even if they quench your thirst. Physiologically, your thirst is quenched once your blood and cell volume are increased by water. This sends signals to your brain that you are no longer thirsty.

In contrast, hunger is regulated in your stomach and intestines. While you’re eating, nerves in the stomach wall detect that the stomach is stretching and send satiety signals to the brain. The intestines also release nerve regulators and hormones. At the same time, the level of the hunger hormone (called ghrelin), which is released by the stomach when it’s empty, is suppressed. All this helps you feel full.

Because liquids travel more quickly than food through the intestinal tract, they alter the rate of nutrient absorption, which can affect satiety hormones and signals.

Several theories may help explain why liquid calories cause lower satiety, increasing overall calorie intake, but the process is still not fully understood. The mouth feel of a liquid versus solid food may generate different signals; it takes less time and involvement to gulp down a drink, and that might reduce the psychological satisfaction of eating.

New research has found that ghrelin doesn’t work as well with liquids: “When the number and type of calories are the same, the calories in liquid form won’t suppress ghrelin as effectively as if the same calories were in solid form,” says David E. Cummings, associate professor of medicine at the University of Washington and the Veterans Affairs Puget Sound Health Care System.

A study that will be published soon in the journal Appetite tested the effect of drinking water, diet cola, regular cola, 1 percent milk and pulpy orange juice during meals. It found that drinking water or diet cola had no effect on the total caloric intake of the meal. But with the caloric beverages, each of which contained 150 calories, the subjects consumed 105 more calories overall at each meal.

“People need to be mindful of the calories in beverages,” says Barbara J. Rolls, who conducted the study and is co-author of “The Volumetrics Weight-Control Plan” (HarperTorch, 2003). “Most people think calories in beverages don’t count and that’s how they get into trouble.”

When you consider that an appropriately sized meal is anywhere from 400 to 700 calories, and one 44-ounce Super Big Gulp is 800 calories, you understand the scope of the problem. A 16-ounce Starbucks blended coffee Frappuccino is 470 calories. A single mixed drink can set you back 300 calories or more. One glass of wine contains at least 100 calories. Double or triple these numbers at any given party, tack on the calories in your meals, and you can understand how weight gain is the inevitable.

My clients who have become aware of liquid calories have achieved impressive results. Take Bob Levey, former Washington Post columnist, who wrote about the importance of cutting out his daily lemonade in his successful weight loss effort. Another client, Julie, easily switched from her daily Frappuccino to a cafe skim latte (coffee with steamed nonfat milk) and saved 250 calories. My friend Linda slowly phased out her daily soda ounces by filling her glass with increasing amounts of ice each week. She lost 30 pounds over a year.

Since liquid calories don’t contribute to feelings of satiety, cutting back on them doesn’t make people feel deprived; most find the change is an easy one to make. There are so many great substitutes. The one liquid that’s important to keep drinking is water. In the wintertime, I love sipping (mostly water) herbal teas through the day. In the summer, it’s seltzer with a twist of lemon or lime, and the occasional diet soda.

Of course, if we are mindful of our calorie intake, a moderate daily dose of wine or other caloric beverage can easily be integrated into our routines. Moderation is the key.

Katherine Tallmadge is a Washington nutritionist and author of “Diet Simple” (Lifeline Press, 2004). Send e-mails to her at food@washpost.com.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company

Stoking Your Metabolism, Eat More to Lose Weight

photo by ADA

by Katherine E. Tallmadge, M.A., R.D.

Naomi, like many American women, is a wounded veteran of the diet wars

She had tried everything, especially if it promised quick results. The cleansing fast with nine days of lemon juice. The cabbage soup diet. The no-carbohydrate diet. Eating only fruits and vegetables. The diets would all “work” — she’d lose weight quickly, but the pounds had a way of coming back.

She would lose nine pounds in nine days, but gain back 15 in four days.

After a dozen years of yo-yo dieting, she wasn’t just getting nowhere, she was losing ground.

When she hit 200 pound she finally sought help from an expert and discovered the reason for her troubles. Because of her long-term serial dieting, her metabolism — the rate at which her body burns calories — had dropped by about 20 percent. This meant that, just to stay the same weight, she had to slash her caloric intake by 20 percent. To lose weight, she’d have to cut her consumption even more –and thereby risk slowing down her metabolism again.

She had been a severe calorie restrictor on and off for many years, and that stripped her body of muscle mass. Restrictive dieting and muscle mass loss are the main reasons why most people have low metabolisms.

This was Naomi’’s harsh introduction to the complex, sometimes baffling world of the human metabolism, which embeds one of the cruelest ironies in all of dietdom. Restricting calories — which is necessary to lose weight — can slow down the body’s metabolism, stunting one’s ability to burn calories, making weight loss virtually impossible.

Subjecting the body to repeated ‘famines’ causes a chronic dieter’s body to slow down into survival mod..

The less you eat, the more your body slows down, requiring you to eat even less.  And when, out of frustration or exhaustion, you resume “normal” eating, your body grabs onto those extra calories and sends them into deep storage with a vengeance.

A growing body of scientific evidence confirms that the human body is an extraordinarily adaptive and delicate instrument whose instinctive drive for survival complicates the plans of even the most dedicated dieter. Henderson’s woes and those of others show clearly that losing weight and keeping it off require a careful understanding of the body and, specifically, its metabolic needs.

Each body’s calorie needs are largely determined by two factors: one’s level of physical activity and one’s resting metabolic rate (RMR).

About one third of the calories you burn are the result of physical activity, which includes anything other than resting–brushing your teeth, folding clothes, working at your computer, walking around the block, or exercising in your health club.

he other two-thirds are burned as a result of regular metabolic function. This includes the calories needed to sustain basic function: maintain body temperature, heart beat, breathing, organ repair and basic chemical reactions. Because RMR accounts for a large majority of calories burned, keeping your RMR high is essential to losing weight and keeping it off. In fact, it is more important to your weight-loss plan than is physical activity.

All of which raises the questions: How do you find out what your RMR is? And how can you raise it?

Your RMR is influenced by a variety of factors including genetics, body size, muscle mass, age, gender, body weight, pregnancy, hormonal status and, yes, physical condition. (More on this below, but the main point is that a fit and muscular body burns more calories while at rest than an unfit, less muscular one.) To make things more difficult, RMR naturally declines through adulthood at about 2 percent per decade, usually because of muscle loss. Chronic dieters exacerbate muscle loss through repeated quick weight reductions.

You can determine your RMR using Diet Simple’s Formula for Calculating Your Resting Metabolic Rate and Calorie Needs — free of charge and in the comfort of your own home and use that figure and a controlled diet to determine whether your RMR is lower than normal. First, determine what your RMR should be. Then continue the calculation to account for your level of physical activity and see how many calories you need to consume just to maintain your weight. Next, subtract 250 to 500 calories to determine a safe daily weight loss calorie level, which should produce a 1/2- to one-pound per-week weight loss.

Using the Diet Simple Formula, for a 150 pound, 5’4″ 40-year old lightly exercising woman, that would mean consuming about 1,978 calories per day to maintain weight and about 1,428 – 1,728 calories daily to lose weight. For a 200 pound, 6’1″ 50-year-old regularly exercising man, that would mean about 3,060 calories per day to maintain weight and about 2,560 to 2,810 calories daily to lose. (see examples)

Once you’ve done the math, spend at least one week –or up to a month — eating the calorie level you calculated should lead to a 1/2- to one-pound per-week weight loss. If you do not lose weight, and you’re sure you’ve calculated your calorie needs and your food intake correctly (cheating here will do you no good, folks), then that’s the sign your metabolism is probably low. This is an indication that you may benefit from visiting a clinic and getting tested to verify your metabolic status.

Using this equation is just a formalized way of discovering what many dieters do by trial and error. The dieter is eating what he or she believes is a weight-shedding calorie level, and documents it rigorously, yet the weight is not coming off.

If your metabolism is normal, in a way you’re lucky. Losing weight probably will require nothing more — to be fair, that probably should be “nothing less” — than consuming slightly fewer calories than you burn each day. Yes, it requires will power, and yes, it requires some exercise, but it can work, particularly if you run a modest daily caloric deficit (250 to 500 calories per day) and take the weight off slowly.

If, on the other hand, your metabolism is low, you might decide to meet with a doctor to find out why, and to learn what to do next. Your metabolism would be considered low enough to act on if it is six percent or lower than the equation predicts.

In addition to the repeated calorie restriction of yo-yo dieting, other factors that can contribute to lower metabolism include genetics and thyroid abnormalities. Thyroid levels can be tested in a physician’s office. It’s important to request a full thyroid work-up, including active thyroid (T-3), which isn’t usually tested, according to experts. If abnormal, it should be treated with medication. Once treated, a normal diet and exercise regimen should be able to take the weight off.

But a past of severe calorie restriction is the most common — and easily controllable — cause of a low RMR. And that requires a different plan of attack.

It doesn’t take a long history of dieting failures to affect metabolism. In fact, large increases or decreases in calorie intake for as little as several days can raise or lower RMR. Though for chronic dieters, because their bodies have been primed to go into survival mode — their metabolisms can lower in just 24 to 48 hours, according to experts.

It is widely accepted that, in response to starving, the body reduces levels of various hormones and chemicals that help determine metabolic rate: insulin, active thyroid hormone, norepinephrine (similar to adrenaline). This is a powerful survival mechanism, as it permits the body to slow the nervous, cardiovascular, and gastrointestinal systems to help it conserve resources of energy and calories during a period of assumed scarcity of food.

The groups most likely to have provoked their bodies into below normal metabolism are long term, yo-yo dieters; dieters who restrict their calories too severely; and people with eating disorders such as bulimia and anorexia nervosa, who either starve or alternate starving with binging.

The change in metabolic rate as a result of food restriction may vary from person to person. Studies show if a 200 pound woman is limited to 800 calories a day, after three weeks her metabolism may decline by 15 percent — possibly prompting further, unrealistic calorie reductions which cannot be sustained. Remarkably, exercise may actually exacerbate the problem. If a person isn’t consuming enough calories and is exercising,the body — which automatically does the math and reacts to an even more severe calorie deficit — will reduce its metabolism further.

Most people are told to eat less and exercise more, and it may not work for every person.

A low RMR has other consequences. The decline in metabolism makes it almost impossible to maintain weight loss. For example, if the metabolism for a 150-pound woman is just 6 percent below normal, that means she must eat 100 fewer calories per day to avoid weight gain. If it drops to 25 percent below normal, she must reduce daily consumption by 400 calories to stay even. This is a huge food deficit that few can maintain over a life time and contributes to the long term failure rates of diets, according to the experts.

So the dilemma is this: If restricting calories lowers the metabolism, endangering health and making weight loss and weight maintenance nearly impossible, how can weight loss be accomplished without wrecking the RMR? The answer, at the risk of appearing flip: Very carefully.

Experts agree that if the calorie restriction is minimal, the weight loss slow, and a cardiovascular exercise and muscle building program initiated, weight loss can be achieved safely and effectively, and a low metabolism can be reversed.


Three factors are crucial for losing weight, maintaining it and keeping metabolism high.

First, since metabolism is dependent on lean body mass, muscle-building is an important type of exercise, regardless of whether your metabolism is high or low. The more lean muscle you have, the more calories your body burns. And since muscle mass naturally declines as you age, building muscle as you age is essential to keeping lean. In fact, as you become stronger and use heavier weights in your workout — an indication that you’ve gained muscle — you can eat more food because your need for calories naturally increases with muscle gain.

An average woman will lose five to seven pounds of muscle between age 35 to age 50 due to disuse. Add restrictive dieting to the equation, and even more muscle can be lost. For every pound of muscle lost, you lose the capacity to burn 35 to 50 calories per day. That means if you’ve lost seven pounds of muscle at 50 calories per muscle, that’s 350 calories you can’t eat just to prevent weight gain, let alone lose weight.

The American College of Sports Medicine recommends strength training all of your major muscle groups twice a week.

Second, cardiovascular activity burns body fat and calories (and, of course, improves your heart and general health). As you improve cardiovascularly, your body becomes more efficient and burns more fat with each exercise bout. A fit body also continues to burn more calories even after the workout has ended. The recommendation by most health groups is to accumulate at least 30 minutes per day of cardiovascular activity for health and weight maintenance. You may need to exercise more to lose weight, according to metabolic experts. I recommend all my clients wear pedometers to determine their overall activity level daily. I have found, likeit or not, 10,000 steps per day maintains health and weight. But if you want to lose weight, 12,000 steps or more is necessary.

The final element is diet. If you want to lose weight without affecting your metabolism negatively, the key is keeping calories as high as possible — but still slightly lower than what is needed to maintain weight. The metabolic experts recommend a daily caloric deficit of no more than 250 to 500 calories below the calorie level necessary to maintain your weight. Using the formula that 3,500 calories equals one pound, a daily deficit of 250 to 500 calories would produce losses of 1/2 – to one- pound every week. To prevent lowering metabolism, it’s important not to cut calories more than 500 per day under what would be needed for maintenance.

A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, showed exercising women who lost 20 pounds in about 4 months — a slow rate compared with most diets — experienced no decrease in metabolism.

Studies confirm that weight losses on very low calorie diets produce reductions in RMR. And the thinking among weight loss researchers for years has been that this lowering of RMR during weight losses could not be prevented. They asserted that once a person lost weight, he would have to live with a metabolism which is lower than his same weight counterparts who never had to lose weight.

But metabolic experts today disagree with these long-held beliefs. They say these studies, conducted at some of the nation’s most prestigious institutions, were all done with very low calorie diets or modified fasts (such as the Optifast program), and this is the reason metabolisms dropped. The drop in RMR is not inevitable, they argue, if the weight is lost slowly, and calories are not restricted drastically.

So, don’t starve! If you eat the amount of calories necessary to sustain your metabolism, RMR does not decrease during weight loss. The key is avoiding starvation diets, and building and maintaining lean body mass through cardiovascular and resistance exercise.

If you’re starting with a low RMR, chances are you are eating too little. Once you raise your daily calorie intake using the recommended method, your metabolism will begin to rise. Your body will begin to reverse the negative physiological consequences of semi-starvation. In response to more food, the blood insulin level increases, hormone levels improve, the nervous, cardiovascular and gastrointestinal systems begin functioning up to speed.

But this process takes time, and you may maintain or even gain a few pounds at first. Normalizing metabolism, which is necessary before permanent weight loss can take place, may take several months for a chronic dieter. For an anorexic, it may take years. It depends on the severity of the problem. And, at first, you may experience an increase in weight, due mostly to increased water gain, but also because it takes time for the metabolism to reverse. An increase in water weight may occur once normal eating is resumed after starving. That’s one reason weight seems to rush back on as soon as normal eating is resumed after a restrictive diet.  One way to reduce this discouraging, but expected, water gain is to keep carbohydrate intake lower than normal during the calorie-increasing process, as carbohydrates attract water and may increase water weight if you’ve been starving.  (One reason a low carbohydrate diet seems to work so well is it causes water loss!)

Simply increase calories incrementally to reduce sudden weight gain. This gives the metabolism time to adjust to the new calorie levels and minimizes water gain. For instance, add an extra 100 calories every week or every two weeks,

Naomi’s RMR was low due to chronic dieting coupled with a lack of exercise. It was markedly improved in about four months via exercise – and calorie restriction only slightly below what her body required. It took two years to lose the unwanted 20 pounds and bring the metabolism completely back to normal. And because Naomi built so much muscle, her size changed more that the pounds on the scale reflected. She proudly proclaims she went from a size 18 to a size 12.

She first had to build up the muscle and then use the muscle to burn the excess fat on her body. The secret to a high metabolism and weight control is to combine aerobic activity and weight training.

But Naomi’s diet needed a makeover too. When she was gaining weight, she was eating a high starch and fat diet, with most of the calories eaten in the evenings.

She rearranged her diet, reflecting the U.S. Dietary Guidelines (15 to 20 percent protein; 20 to 30 percent fat, 50 to 55 percent carbohydrates). She added more protein, fruits and vegetables and reduced fat and starches. Her nutrition program started with about 1600 calories But as she gained muscle and normalized her metabolism, she was able to add 100 more and continue to lose weight — a veritable feast compared to the depressingly restrictive diets she was used to.

She began spreading her calories more evenly through the day (a key principle in Diet Simple). Other metabolic experts agree this is an important step for a variety of reasons. Evidence suggests a pattern of eating three large meals per day, including planned mid-morning and afternoon snacks, if desired, increases metabolism slightly. After eating, food stimulates an increase in the metabolism. So increasing the number of meals eaten starting in the morning takes the best advantage of this phenomenon, called the “thermic effect of food.” (Protein and carbohydrate have a higher thermic effect than fat.)

People who skip breakfast or lunch may have lower metabolisms.  But, most importantly, eating a breakfast, lunch, and dinner of equal size decreases food cravings and overeating in the evenings — a cardinal sin, according to metabolism experts. Other evidence suggests people who eat heavily in the evenings are heavier than those who eat the same calories spread throughout the day.

Understanding the importance of spreading out her meals and spending time taking care of herself with regular physical activity were important breakthroughs. When coupled with an understanding of her metabolism, this has allowed her to live a more vigorous and slender life.

Most importantly, with a calorie level that is satisfying and a well-trained body, your results are more likely to endure over a life time.

Diet Simple’s Formula for Calculating Your Resting Metabolic Rate and Calorie Needs*

(for people over 17 years old)


1. Begin with a base of 655 calories      655_______

2. Multiply your weight in pounds X 4.3      __________

3. Multiply your height in inches X 4.7      __________

4. Add together the totals from #1, #2, and #3  ___________

5. Multiply your age X 4.7                 ___________

6. Subtract result of #5 from total of #4 ___________ (your normal RMR)

7. Multiply #6 by your activity factor**___________ (your daily maintenance calories)

8. Subtract 250 calories ________ (your daily weight loss calories)

**For most of my client, I use 1.3 as their activity factor and it seems to be correct.


1. Begin with a base of 66 calories             66______

2. Multiply your weight in pounds X 6.3           ________

3. Multiply your height in inches X 12.7            ________

4. Add together the totals from #1, #2, and #3     ________

5. Multiply your age X 6.8                       ________

6. Subtract result of #5 from total of #4      ________ (your normal RMR)

7. Multiply #6 by your activity factor**      _______ (your daily maintenance calories)

8. Subtract 250 – 500 calories    ________ (your weight loss level)

**For most of my client, I use 1.3 as their activity factor and it seems to work for most of us desk jockeys…

For activity, multiply:

RMR times 1.2 for extremely low levels of activity (sedentary)

RMR times 1.3 for light physical activity (2 – 4 hours/week)

RMR times 1.4 for moderate physical activity (4 – 7 hours/week), and

RMR times 1.6 for high levels of activity (regular exercise or manual labor)

Some athletes may double or even triple their RMR to determine their daily calorie needs

*Based on the Harris Benedict Equation

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