Earlier this month, the biggest weight-loss show in America — and perhaps abroad, airing in over 90 countries — “The Biggest Loser: Couples” debuted, just in time to motivate us to continue our own weight and fitness resolutions.
The Biggest Loser demonstrates that you can lose large amounts of weight and lead a healthier lifestyle without the help of surgery. That all it takes to achieve an optimal weight is hard work, sweat — and lots of tears.
It also shows us precisely how to reach short-term weight-loss, leaving us captivated with the contestants and excited to see the final results. And our excitement shows: The Biggest Loser is a ratings success and an advertiser’s dream, spawning cookbooks and workout DVDs and launching the careers of its expert trainers.
Long-Term Weight Loss?
What The Biggest Loser hasn’t been so successful at showing us is how to maintain this weight loss in the long run.
A recent article in The New York Times discussed the difficulties of maintaining long-term weight loss: Dieting alone is rarely successful, moderate exercise isn’t enough and willpower has nothing to do with weight loss.
“Scientists recently have come to understand that the brain exerts astonishing control over body composition and how much individuals eat. There are physiological mechanisms that keep us from losing weight,” said Dr. Matthew W. Gilman, the director of the obesity prevention program at Harvard Medical School/Pilgrim Health Care.
“Scientists now believe that each individual has a genetically determined weight range spanning perhaps 30 pounds.”
This isn’t to say that lasting weight loss is impossible. But The Biggest Loser glosses over the idea of “long-term.” Instead, the show promotes the idea that shedding a substantial amount of weight rapidly makes for a healthy lifestyle.
So is The Biggest Loser shelling out fantasy and false hope?
Blogger “Weetabix” at Elastic Waist refers to the show as “a carefully contrived fiction” and “an experiment in social conditioning.” She writes:
“If you give people enough money and put them into team environments, you can get them to do anything, even things that are painful and potentially harmful to their metabolisms. You can scream at them and walk on their legs and they will do it, even when you make them cry 14 times a day, they will do it. And you can trot out past winners and say, ‘Look, it works. See? It totally works.’”
Does The Biggest Loser work? We see the contestants lose a lot of weight and seemingly adopt healthier habits. Real, right?
Well, that depends. Take the final weigh-in. Though many contestants probably take the healthy approach, some go to great lengths to achieve impressive numbers on the scale.
Season 1 winner Ryan Benson discussed the drastic measures he took on this Myspace blog:
“I wanted to win so bad that the last ten days before the final weigh-in I didn’t eat one piece of solid food! If you’ve heard of “The Master Cleanse” that’s what I did. Its basically drinking lemonade made with water, fresh squeezed lemon juice, pure maple syrup, and cayenne pepper. The rules of the show said we couldn’t use any weight-loss drugs, well I didn’t take any drugs, I just starved myself! Twenty-four hours before the final weigh-in I stopped putting ANYTHING in my body, liquid or solid, then I started using some old high school wrestling tricks. I wore a rubber suit while jogging on the treadmill, and then spent a lot of time in the steam room. In the final 24 hours I probably dropped 10-13 lbs in just pure water weight. By the time of the final weigh-in I was peeing blood.”
Season 3 contestant Kai Hibbard also blogged about the risky measures she took for the finale. The New York Times reports:
“She recently wrote on a blog that in the two weeks before the finale she severely dehydrated herself using asparagus (a diuretic), colonics and six-hour stretches of hopping in and out of a sauna. She lost 19 pounds, which as she joked, rebounded to her rear end almost immediately.’”
According to Time, the show has strict rules against these kinds of tactics and even tests the contestants:
“The show tries to prevent unhealthy behavior by making contestants keep food journals (to make sure they’re not starving themselves) and threatening penalties if tests show they are too dehydrated (although an executive producer says no violations have been uncovered yet).”
That’s interesting because you’d think Benson and Hibbard’s dangerous strategies would’ve shown up on some test, especially one that evaluates dehydration.
If it isn’t crash diets and plain starvation before the finale weigh-in, then it’s intensive exercise afterward. For instance, to maintain her weight loss, season 1 contestant Kelly Minner works out one to four hours a day, six days a week.
An Unhealthy Approach
Not surprisingly, many experts believe The Biggest Loser approaches weight loss in an unhealthy way. Here are some quotes from various weight-loss and nutrition experts:
- Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, LD, director of nutrition for WebMD Health and the WebMD Weight Loss Clinic, writes: “The Biggest Loser competition might indeed result in big losses, but it defies all the professional wisdom about safe and effective weight loss. That’s because the contestants are not addressing lifestyle behaviors and eating habits that they need to change permanently, not just during a nine-week race. This approach is similar to a fad diet, and we all know about them: You can lose weight on just about any diet, but when it’s over you gain the weight right back — unless you’ve changed your behaviors.” (see her article on Medicine Net).
- According to the New York Times : “Most medical professionals say dieters should lose weight slowly. Not only are they more likely to keep it off that way, but shedding more than 10 pounds weekly, as some contestants routinely do, is dangerous. ‘Whether it’s gallbladder disease, hair falling out, skin getting dry,’ said Karen Kovach, the chief scientific officer at Weight Watchers, ‘the more rapid the weight loss, the greater the risk.’ She added: ‘You get above a kilogram a week, the risk really shoots up.’”
The article also states “a responsible viewer who wanted to engage in a weight-loss blitz under medical supervision would be hard-pressed to find a doctor willing to sign on. ‘What would I advise someone who wants to engage in a program associated with increased risks of gallstones, cardiac arrhythmias and electrolyte abnormalities, and that has been shown to be less likely to lead to long-term success in maintenance of a reduced body weight than losing weight more slowly?’ asks Dr. Michael Rosenbaum, a doctor at Columbia University who has spent over 20 years studying the physiology of weight loss. ‘I would advise them not to do it.’”
Aside from the harm the show brings its own contestants when they engage in drastic measures, The Biggest Loser can also shape viewers’ ideas about weight loss, perpetuating harmful myths and leading viewers to compare their results to the contestants’. In essence, The Biggest Loser shows that:
- Rapid weight-loss works
- If you aren’t dropping double-digits each week, you’re somehow failing
- The number on the scale is first and foremost
- Eating well means depriving yourself (this resembles the crash diet mentality, something that isn’t realistic for your entire life)
- Willpower is the answer to weight loss
For many, The Biggest Loser serves as incredible inspiration to lead a healthier lifestyle, but as with anything on TV, what you see isn’t necessarily what you get. Instant weight loss doesn’t equal lifetime health. As “Weetabix” of the Elastic Waist explains: “…in reality, it’s about what you can do, how you can move, and being the best version of yourself that you can be.”
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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 17 Jan 2009
Published on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.
Tartakovsky, M. (2009). Minding the Media: The Impact of The Biggest Loser. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 10, 2013, from http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2009/01/17/minding-the-media-the-impact-of-the-biggest-loser/