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Why weight loss is a rigged game

Samarth Bansal
Samarth Bansal
12 min read

👋 Dear friends, I am excited to introduce Truth Be Told (TBT), a weekly food and fitness newsletter I co-created with Shashank Mehta and his team at The Whole Truth foods. We want to make it the most trusted source of personal health journalism in India and publish stories to help our readers navigate the mazy world of "health".

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✍️ I wrote the story published yesterday — a story close to my heart, and thought I should share it here. It emerged from personal experience: a chance event got me started on a fitness routine, and I lost 20kg over seven months. What did I learn? Sustainable weight loss is harder than we imagine. It's a wrestling battle with rigged rules to make you lose. Our body is playing for the opposite team — a grand conspiracy. The story highlights seven of those invisible rules and my strategies to find a way around them. (12-minute read.)

PS: The Interval should return soon (late September, hopefully). Thank you for subscribing. It means a lot.

Ask anyone who has tried losing weight and failed.

They follow a ‘diet plan’ that excludes the food they love and includes what they don’t. They start hitting the gym. They follow mystery solutions: jeera water in the morning and green tea in the evening.

The program begins with virtuous intentions and bursts of motivation. The weighing scale moves. A few kilos are lost. They feel good.

Until life happens and everything falls apart.

They get a new job and can’t follow the diet. They are told something is wrong. The lost kilos reappear. Guilt and self-blame enter. Life goes on—until the next weight-loss cycle.

Is that you? Or someone you know?

That was me. I grew up as a chubby kid in a North Delhi household where breakfast meant aloo parathas; chole bhature and kachori-samosas were a weekly necessity; gorging on fried namkeens was the norm.

When you remain ‘obese’ all through adulthood, the world feels morally obligated to send a reminder: “eat less, move more” — as if I didn’t know that already.

I worried about the health impact of carrying (a lot of) extra fat. “What is the point of working hard to build a career when I can’t care for myself?” I often thought. “WTF is wrong with me?”

I failed every time I tried to lose weight. Every transformation story felt fake. I stopped caring.

I told you all this to set the context for what comes next. Things changed during the 2020 coronavirus lockdown. A chance event got me started on a fitness routine and ended with a 20kg weight loss over seven months. I did it.

And yet again, the society sent a reminder: Get some photos for Insta because this won’t last. Diets don’t work.

I am writing this article eighteen months after exiting my fat loss phase. Know what? I am only healthier and happier. I didn’t just lose weight. I sustainably lost weight.

I have lost count of the number of people who asked me: “How did you do it?”

The short answer is this: I cut back on added sugar and refined grains, said no to ultra-processed foods, and added plenty of vegetables, protein and whole foods to my diet. I counted calories and exercised regularly.

But all that only helps lose weight. Not to keep it off for life.

The problem is a misunderstanding of the fundamental challenge. In popular discourse, fitness transformation is presented as a problem of individual choice: people know what to do yet choose not to. So fat people are systematically shamed — they are perceived as ‘indisciplined, careless, gluttonous, couch potatoes who can’t follow the simple rule of eating less and moving more’.

That’s just wrong.

Long-term weight loss is a complex systemic problem. It’s like a wrestling battle where the rules are rigged to make you lose. You are thrown in the ring against multiple opponents: our biology, psychology, and society are together fighting against you. The body is playing for the opposite team — a grand conspiracy.

I can say this with authority because I have been on both sides. And the lesson I have learnt is this: our best bet to win this battle is first to identify those rigged rules and then find strategies to fight them.

It’s not easy, but that does not mean you have no agency or can’t do it. It’s just more challenging than we think it is.

What follows are the seven invisible rules I identified and the strategies that worked for me in finding my way around them.

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1. Science is confusing. Non-scientific advice is bullshit.

I followed the ‘calories in, calories out’ model (CICO) for fat-loss, which says the key to losing weight is to stay in a calorie deficit. (You can read more about it in this guide.)

I counted every damn calorie I consumed. After years of remaining ignorant about what went inside my food and not understanding the link between nutrition and feelings, I now had some visibility. I could sense the bodily signals about fullness and cravings. Tracking macros revealed my diet was imbalanced and led me to change it. I started seeing results in two weeks.

Just when I thought I had cracked the code, I was told my method was wrong: ‘CICO is the biggest myth. A lie. Stop counting calories. Read Gary Taubes’.

These were fitness nerds. Then there was the unsolicited advice from every tom dick and harry: eat this and not that; do this exercise but not that.

Too much information.

I had a two-fold strategy to fight against the unending stream of gyaan.

One, favour action over inaction: Most of us want to live a healthier life and don’t want a PhD in nutrition. So start somewhere—one thing at a time. See what happens and evolve based on results. Don’t stress about the ‘absolute right’ thing to do. (We will explore the calorie debate in future TBT articles.)

Two, do what makes you comfortable: I am a numbers person (math degree and all), so measurement works like magic. Calorie counting was my thing. However, it may not be for others. Experiment and discover what works best for you. I also found reasonable substitutions daily were far better than drastic changes. They lead to faster course correction and will likely stick long-term.

2. Dieting creates mental conditions that make it hard to diet.

Our brain plays games with us when we restrict calories. The body acts like it is starving and fights back. Feeling hungry captures thinking and attention. It forces trade-offs: ‘If I eat the slice of cake on my friend’s birthday, should I skip the main course? But this restaurant’s chef is known for Korean food. What to do?’

So you always think about food. I realised this was a recipe for disaster early on — my cravings would only increase by depriving myself of the food I enjoy eating.

My strategy? Balance and moderation: I ate deep-fried pakoras with chai on a rainy day when mom made some for the family. But only a few. I would have a piece of chole bhature but only once in two weeks. I would take one slice of pizza when my sister ordered one — because pizza is love. I followed the 80-20 rule: 80% of calories from more nutritious food and 20% from less nutritious food.

3. Motivation is overrated.

One of the most irritating ideas promoted by pop culture and motivational books is that if you truly believe and want something, you will get it. (Yes, SRK, I am thinking of your “universe will conspire to make it happen” dialogue from Om Shanti Om. Love you, but that’s just BS.)

I cringe whenever I see ‘no excuses’ and ‘just do it now’ posters because motivation has a tiny shelf life: it does not automatically translate into habits. And that is what matters.

One idea that worked for me: eliminating decisions and following rules.

If every morning you ask yourself, “Should I go to the gym today or tomorrow?” — you know the answer.

Economist Sendhil Mullainathan says:

“There’s a person in my life I just do not trust. Even though I spend a lot of time with this person, I just do not trust them. It’s embarrassing to say, but I don’t trust their motives. I don’t trust them to follow through on anything. And that person is me.”

Hard relate.

He suggests replacing daily decision-making with following a pre-decided list of rules. Sit down, think about what you want to achieve, and make rules — the ones you’d follow without thinking much. So you don’t need to make choices every day.

a) During the lockdown, all I could do was a home workout. I did not plan much. I only had to decide what my weekly workout mix needed to look like (balancing strength and cardio) and then, as a rule, go to the app and do whatever session was available every day.

The result? For fifty-two weeks in a row, I exercised every week without exception — hour-long sessions, four-five times a week.

b) That’s also how I added movement to everyday life: I made a rule to never use the elevator or escalator in malls and metro stations. If I am not on a video call, I walk while talking on the phone. And then I didn’t need to obsess about step count. It just happened.

4. Metabolism slows disproportionately to weight loss.

Enough of psychology. Onto the worst opponent: our biology.

Start with metabolism.

If you lie down on your bed for the whole day and do nothing, you still burn a lot of calories. That’s the energy body expends to maintain vital organ functions like breathing — to stay alive. This is called resting metabolism and accounts for more than half of the energy burned every day.

This free-for-all yet significant calorie burn goes down during weight loss.

Here is why: Our body is built for survival. So when we dramatically reduce the calorie intake, it starts operating in low power mode, so survival isn’t threatened. It means you may have to eat further less to continue losing fat.

This is especially visible among people who lose weight fast by starving and torturing their bodies. They get results and then gain back the weight, and then the next cycle is insanely tricky because their metabolism is screwed by then.

Fortunately, my friend, who had suffered this, alerted me before I started my journey. He warned me against running for hours and crash dieting — the biggest mistake, he told me.

Is there a way out?

Yes. We can raise our resting metabolic rate. One way is building muscle.

When you lose weight, you can lose both fat and muscle. So the goal should be to lose more fat and less muscle because muscle burns more calories than fat. And metabolism increases in proportion to muscle mass. So retaining muscle is one way to prevent metabolism from dropping down significantly.

That’s why strength and resistance exercises are strongly recommended at least twice a week — and I did that. My mix included more strength sessions than cardio, primarily for this reason. So while it’s a fact that the primary lever of fat loss is through our diets, exercise matters.

5. Feeling hungry is not the same as being hungry.

Our hormones conspire against us.

As we start losing weight, we feel more hungry (the levels of the hunger hormone, ghrelin, spike up), and we feel less full (the satiety hormone, leptin, drops, meaning the much-needed stop-eating signal remains unsent, and we want more food.)

The hormones are tricking us: we do not need the extra calories the hormones are telling us we do. It’s just a feeling. Our body is asking for these needless calories because it feels attacked even when there is none. It can function well on a restricted diet because it has the energy needed to fulfil its functions.

It’s at those times when calorie counting really helped. I was on a reasonable calorie deficit — never went to extremes — so I was confident my body was getting what it needed. I was eating food that mostly satiated me (more on that in a bit), and still, if I felt hungry, I had this internal dialogue to tell my body ‘to shut the fuck up’ and adhere to logic. (True story.) I was activating my brain to override misleading hunger cues.

The litmus test: When I had late-night cravings close to bedtime, I would sleep instead of turning to snacks — and always felt good after waking up the next morning.

6. The body will crave fat and sugar

Remember leptin, the satiety hormone? Well, it screws us in one more way.

When leptin levels rise, it reduces the reward value of food. So your pleasure and want for food decrease. You feel satiated.

But during weight loss, as leptin levels go down, the opposite happens: the pleasure value of food goes up — if you’ve ever found yourself imagining burgers and fries and cola and cake, you know what I mean.

And unfortunately, the foods we crave are the ones loaded with sugar, salt and fat. The unholy trifecta that delivers a dopamine hit but is exactly the stuff to avoid.

The way to fight this is to focus on quality rather than quantity. Let me explain.

Ultra-processed foods are the ones which are heavily modified and contain a long list of ingredients. They are designed for addiction. They are engineered to give pleasure and offer reward way beyond what’s available in natural food. They are optimised in chemistry labs to release high amounts of dopamine so that it’s irresistible.

Learning about the science of processed food made me a bit angry. Giving up on it was almost like an act of resistance: “I won’t let you manipulate me.”

My practical learning is that once you go off, the body adapts. I don’t keep any of this junk in my pantry, and my body does not crave it anymore. You can fight this.

Quality is the lever that allows you to maintain quantity.

Food tricks us: for the same calorie count, high-quality foods will make you feel full, and low-quality foods will make you want to eat more.

That’s why whole foods matter. They automatically control portions. They’re low in calories per volume and high in nutrients. The fibre adds bulk which keeps you full.

I have successfully managed to maintain my weight for the long term because I didn’t just cut down on calories: I changed the composition of my diet.

7. Life happens

The friend who got me started on my fitness journey — who explained the fundamentals to me and told me most of the things I needed to know in great detail — has gone through seven weight-loss cycles. Cumulatively, he has lost 105kgs. Beat that.

And he is back to where he was every time and is now on his eighth run. The guy who knows most of what there is to be known about fitness has struggled to keep off weight for the last fourteen years.

“Fat affects the way you think. It affects every decision you make. It is a vicious cycle,” he told me. “I know I need to make lifestyle changes. I know I need to build habits. But I tend to overeat and turn to alcohol whenever the stress of work and life takes over.”

He gained 30 kilos in the last year. During this time, he quit his job and started preparing for the next one; the new guys sent him abroad, the environment and culture changed, and there were tensions in the workplace. He was stressed.

And stress screws things. It leads people to overeat. The stress hormone cortisol tells our body to prepare for a fight for survival — and pushes us to seek quick energy carbs and calorie-dense foods.

In addition, food high in fat and sugar dampens our stress response. So we seek comfort food to soothe ourselves and chemically control our stress response.

I have experienced this, and I bet you have too. Last month, I had this big verbal fight with my parents. I could not get anything done and turned to jalebis for instant relaxation. Of course, all of us know that’s not the solution, but when you are in the middle of a situation when the world appears to have fallen apart, all you want is to feel good.

I can’t stress enough how crucial this is. People fall off their weight loss progress because, hey, life happens. Things break in the family. The new job sucks. Relationship struggles. Social media anxiety. The list goes on.

The solution is what anyone dealing with mental health will tell you: we need to establish mechanisms to relieve stress that don’t rely on food because food is an escape. Not the solution.

That’s what I did. The unseen part — and the most crucial bit — of my fat-loss journey was when it happened.

One, the lockdown was on: no going out, no social obligations, and total control of what I was eating. It allowed me to cultivate habits because the alternatives were artificially constrained.

Two, I was at the stage in my life where I consciously decided to rethink my priorities from scratch. I had left my full-time job and entered the world of freelance journalism. I had no shitty bosses to deal with. No toxic colleagues. I reduced my workload. I built a thoughtful relationship with money and worked on my finances. I thought more clearly about what I wanted in my career and how to get there.

In short, I started making mindful choices—and my fat-loss journey overlapped with this phase. Despite the pandemic’s uncertainty, I was much at peace in my head.

That played a critical role in helping me make sustainable lifestyle changes that resulted in sustained weight loss. That is the whole truth.


We are not in the same wrestling ring, but the invisible rules are there for all. Depending on who you are, they may change — my friend has hypothyroidism, meaning the game is further rigged against him.

It’s important to acknowledge this complex interplay of our biology, psychology and societal forces that make this process hard. So we can craft our fitness journeys with love and care — not torture and guilt.