The New York Times recently covered a study by an arm of the National Institute of Health, which focused on contestants of The Biggest Loser six years after their season aired. The study showed that all but one person regained most of the weight they lost -- a predictable, if not inevitable, result.
While researchers attributed this to the contestants' Resting Metabolism Rate, they failed to highlight the true reason for such outcomes -- The Biggest Loser is a farce.
To say I hate this show is an understatement. If Jillian Michaels stood on a podium and shouted "Nathane Jackson hates The Biggest Loser and everything it stands for!" into a megaphone, it would still be an understatement. The reasons are simple: The show is built around extremism; many featured trainers are downright abusive; and the long term impact of the show subjects participants and viewers to physical and mental damage that can permanently hinder their efforts to lose weight and live a healthier life.
How Big Is It?
It's not called The Biggest Loser for nothing. Extremes make good TV but should never be associated with fat loss -- most certainly not with obesity. Still, TBL quadruples down on "eat less and exercise more" a philosophy that, while not invalid, is just one factor that influences fat loss. An excessive calorie deficit invariably leads to short term weight loss, but maintaining a TBL extreme calorie deficit is practically impossible once the cameras and prize incentives are gone.
The workout routines prescribed by trainers are also extreme and repeatedly proven dangerous, with numerous reports of shin splints, knee inflammation, hip dysfunction, and even contestants urinating blood. That's just to name a few. So many negative outcomes would be impossible if people received proper screening prior to (and periodically throughout) their training regime.
Movement assessments identify existing injuries and prevent future ones by determining suitable exercises for an individual's unique physical conditioning. The fact contestants who experience serious injuries are allowed (and possibly even forced) to continue should be criminal.
Profit Over Well-Being
Like any television show, TBL's primary concern is getting high ratings and reaping the resulting profits. That requires excitement, drama, high stakes, and big emotion! The show benefits from injured people and gets paid when they are abused - that's why it hires trainers whose idea of motivation is to fat-shame and verbally berate clients.
Not only does the audience love it, but they've come to expect it - even from their own personal trainers. Sadly, with few exceptions, education doesn't equal big ratings, and that's why the show doesn't teach people long term skills necessary to maintain a healthy weight and lifestyle.
The show claims to have medical doctors on staff to ensure the safety and well-being of contestants, but as a nutritionist with nearly two decades experience as a trainer and strength and conditioning coach, I would love to speak to the "professional" who signs off on four-plus hours of daily exercise and a calorie restricted diet that wouldn't nourish my right leg.
Because You're Worthless
TBL wants you to think the physical injury, extreme dieting, and psychological abuse endured by contestants are worth it to lose an enormous amount of weight. Even if that were true (it's not), the results boasted on finale night are short lived for contestants.
Previously motivated individuals are left at a disadvantage that spreads to viewers, both from watching the show, and reading the emerging studies and first hand accounts of both the process and aftermath. It trickles into my own practice daily, draining client motivation and creating excuses to give up. This problem is compounded by well-meaning, but poorly executed, rebuttals.
While most contestants returned to "obese" status as reported in the New York Times piece mentioned above, the study they reference lacked proper controls for accurately testing Resting Metabolic Rate (RMR) at various points of the contestants' journey, and overemphasized RMR's role in weight loss, creating false perceptions and self-fulfilling prophecies for the layperson, such as:
"I'm fighting a losing battle."
"If I diet, I risk messing up my metabolism forever."
"What's the point?"
"There is no hope, I may as well eat what I want."
Balancing the Scales
The rate of weight loss for TBL contestants is exceptionally quick. Even my most successful fat loss clients will attest that their journey to living lean was anything but fast. A safe and maintainable rate of weight loss is one to two pounds per week, the exception being a person who is 300 pounds or above, who may be able to shed three pounds in a week.
By comparison, a TBL contestant may lose 100 or more pounds over 14 weeks at "the ranch," but when the show is done, they are ejected from reel life into their unaltered real life, ill-prepared for what comes next. They are now responsible for managing their workouts, meal planning and preparation, grocery shopping, and avoiding regression to the unhealthy habits that led them to TBL in the first place -- but their coaches have failed to teach them how to do any of it.
Overcoming obesity is extremely difficult and requires adherence to a sustainable, calorie-restricted diet that incorporates "diet breaks" for physiological and psychological benefit. Performing strength training and low intensity cardio a few times (each) per week will help improve lean body mass and burn a few extra calories. I also highly recommend dedicating energy to some of the other, less talked about fat loss factors, such as:
- Re-shaping the environment at home and office.
- Stress management practices.
- Shifts in mindset.
- Lifestyle habits.
- Sleep hygiene.
- Finding emotional support.
- Willpower v. Skillpower
Obesity doesn't happen overnight and neither does weight loss. Success comes down to consistency in diet and exercise, a large helping of patience, and a qualified professional who cares more about your well-being than the endorsement deals they get from working with you.