Danny Cahill weighed in at 430 pounds when Biggest Loser Season 8 began in 2009. Over the course of 13 episodes and nearly seven months, he lost 239 pounds to win the contest. But in the seven years since, he’s regained about 100 of the lost pounds. Worse yet, last year he learned that thanks to the show’s rigorous workout regimen, his metabolism had been so altered that he had to work out harder and eat fewer calories than other people his size just to maintain his weight. Cahill has retooled his diet to evenly include fats, carbs and protein and adopted a workout routine based on high-intensity interval training four times a week. Now he has more energy and time, while also no longer breaking his body in an effort to be thin.
I remember finishing the show and the show doctor saying I’d need to work out two hours a day, six days a week to keep the weight off. I thought, “That’s easy.” I’d just been through working out all the time. So heck yeah, cutting down from seven hours a day to two, I could do that! But I soon found out it wasn’t that easy when you get back in the real world.
Well, I should say it was relatively easy the first couple of years. I kept the weight off, but I was exercising so much and still cutting so many calories, it affected my resting metabolic rate. It basically meant my body wanted me to keep eating and working out like I was on the show. But that was impossible. I work for a living. I have a family.
I looked good, but I was exhausted.
They’ve equated working out with losing weight in the U.S. for too long. I think it’s backward. It’s how you eat. And it’s not just cutting calories; it’s eating the right foods. People go for sugar-free stuff and the fat-free stuff because they think fat is the enemy. But it’s not. I eat more fat now, and I feel better than I have in years, especially since I learned what was really happening to me.
I had no reason to believe my metabolism was damaged. But then the National Institutes of Health released their research on Biggest Loser contestants. That’s when I learned I had to eat less and work out more than other people my size. Our resting metabolic rates were lower after the show’s intense regimen. Imagine you climb a mountain, get to the top and find out that not only do you have to keep going, but the incline is steeper now, too.
At first, I was mad, sad and hopeless. I was mad when some of the show trainers said the findings were “an excuse for those who fell off the wagon.” At the same time, I felt vindicated. It was good to have confirmation that there was more to the story than being “lazy” and overeating. It allowed me to regain some peace and to begin improving my life.
We also learned that the extreme calorie-cutting and intense exercise on the show caused a big change in our hormones. Leptin is a hormone that regulates metabolism. It helps tell you whether you’re full or not. Our leptin levels before the show were normal, but after the show, they were depleted. Even six years later, when we did the NIH tests, our leptin levels were still really low. I started doing research. I had to find a way to get healthy again without killing myself. That’s how I learned I needed healthy fats in my food and probiotics. Gut health is a big deal.
The meals I eat now are 30–40 percent of calories from fat, 30 percent protein and 30–40 percent carbs. Generally, I try to avoid sugar, which meant incorporating fat back into my life. I feel good about myself and very educated about what “health” is — not a number on the scale but an overall picture of life.
Being on the go in America is hard because a lot of people are forced to eat out or eat quickly. It’s not like when we used to cook every meal. I try to by cooking things in advance. But sometimes that doesn’t work. When it doesn’t, I found a bar that’s all good fat, protein and carbs. It’s made out of nuts and has some dark chocolate for sweetness. I don’t live off it, but with it, I don’t go through the drive-thru, which a lot of people do — putting them at 800–1,000 calories for one meal.
In other words, it’s not a magic pill. Forget about magic pills. There’s no such thing. You need to find several tools in your belt. Intense exercise is needed, but I don’t think hours of it is necessary. If you get on a treadmill or an elliptical and grind an hour of cardio every day, your body is going to adjust and say, “I’m going to slow down so we don’t starve.”
After being on Biggest Loser, I don’t want to be stuck on a treadmill for hours and hours and hours. I use a tabata-style timer. I’ll do different bursts always to failure. So if I do pushups, I don’t do a hundred. I do as many as I can, as fast as I can, but no more. I rest shortly, and then I do it again. Timer goes off, I rest for 30 seconds, and then I might switch to something else. Box jumps. Other things. I found that when I do that, 30 minutes of exercise four times a week does it. It’s just better for me to be doing these short bursts of energy and really using my muscles, instead of getting on an elliptical and going slow for as long as humanly possible.
I live by the motto, “Do what’s hardest first.” So I work out in the morning. Then it’s done. In the evening it’s easier to want to watch a show or do just about anything else other than exercise. I know that’s the case with me.
Think of it as getting strong as opposed to losing weight. And do the exercises that make you strong. More muscle burns more fat. It’s a good deal. You eat to lose weight. You exercise to get healthy.
My family is right along with me. We go on hikes together and stuff like that. It feels really good to be healthy with your family. It got me down after the show when I was either working at my job or working out at the gym, and I didn’t see them as much. Now I’m not missing anything and I’m getting healthier. No over-exercising. No calorie deprivation. It’s something that I can actually sustain.
—As told to Ben Feldheim