Producers of The Biggest Loser claim that the series has adopted a more holistic focus. But does rebranding a weight loss competition as a pursuit of wellness do anything to lessen the dangers?
The Biggest Loser reality TV show returned to prime time television last week after a three-year hiatus. The show, which first aired in 2004 and ran for 17 seasons, suspended production after the 2016 season amidst a storm of negative publicity.
For those not familiar with the original franchise, it was a reality show in which contestants with severe obesity competed to see who could lose the most weight over a few months.They followed strict diets.They spent hours a day working out. (They literally had to quit their jobs to participate). If they faltered in their efforts, they were screamed at by coaches and trainers. They were forced to sit in a room with a table full of junk food to see if they would succumb to temptation. They were weighed on giant scales on national TV, and those who lost the least were kicked off the show. All with cameras (and tears) rolling.
Personally, I found it absolutely barbaric, as well as medically and nutritionally irresponsible. But apparently, it made for great entertainment. The show was wildly popular for 12 years.
Why Biggest Loser contestants failed
At the end of each season, the person who had lost the largest percentage of their weight won a big cash prize. But for winners and losers alike, the weight loss came at a steep price. The end of the show supposedly marked the beginning of a wonderful new life in a newly thin body. For most of the contestants, however, it marked the beginning of a lifelong nightmare.
Contestants ended up with severely depressed metabolisms as a result of the extreme weight loss. They gained weight even when eating a meager amount of calories.
A study published in May 2016 in the journal Obesity found that the vast majority of contestants on the show subsequently regained much of the weight they had lost during the competition. Many ended up heavier than before the show began. And it wasn't for lack of effort or discipline. It turned out that the contestants ended up with severely depressed metabolisms as a result of the extreme weight loss. They gained weight even when eating a meager amount of calories.
It was heartbreaking to see how much damage this show did, both to the contestants as well as millions of viewers who were inspired to pursue similarly extreme regimens. Even if they didn't take it to such extremes, t with a dangerously warped view of how to lose weight.
For one thing, the show's incentives were backward. The faster you lose weight, the less likely it is to be body fat, and the more likely you are to regain it. Secondly, the use of extreme amounts of exercise solely to burn calories is unhealthy and unsustainable. And finally, people may be willing to do almost anything for a short period of time—especially with lots of cash on the line—but when it comes to weight loss, all that really counts is what you are willing to do for the rest of your life.
Is The Biggest Loser reboot better?
I was happy to see the show end in 2016. But now the show is back, ostensibly with a new focus on health and wellness. According to promoters, the show's contestants are "competing not only to lose weight but also to improve their overall well-being." The show's coaches will no longer bully people at the gym but will instead lead group discussions. In a nod to the fact that the real work begins when the show ends, departing contestants will now be given a gym membership and access to a nutritionist.
It's not just about pounds lost any more, they say. It's about getting the contestant started on a path to a healthy lifestyle. But all of this is window dressing.
It's not just about pounds lost anymore, they say. It's about getting the contestant started on a path to a healthy lifestyle. But all of this is window dressing. The show is still a competition to see who can lose the most weight, the quickest. By any means possible.
The new format, with it's gloss of wellness, still does not address the primary criticisms of the original concept. People who lose this much weight this quickly are likely to experience lasting damage to their metabolism. Giving someone a gym membership doesn't change the fact that most of these people will not be able to continue exercising 4-6 hours a day for the rest of their lives (nor should they). And I pity the poor nutritionist who has to explain to these people that they will always have to severely restrict their calories to avoid regaining the weight they've lost. (And they might regain it anyway.)
What do you say we send a message? Let's not reward irresponsible programming by watching it. Let's not participate in perpetuating damaging notions about dieting, exercise, and weight loss. Let's make it less lucrative to exploit and abuse people who suffer from obesity.
Tips for healthy weight loss
- Take it slow. It may take you a bit longer to reach your goal, but when you lose weight slowly, more of it is likely to be fat loss.
- Exercise for your health and wellbeing and not just to burn calories.
- Make it a lifestyle. Choose an approach you'll be happy to stick with long-term. Because if whatever you're doing to lose weight isn't sustainable, neither is the weight loss.