Why I Hate “The Biggest Loser”

by Pat Barone, CPCC, MCC
“America’s Weight Loss Catalyst”

I know this may be a controversial stand to take. “The Biggest Loser” is a popular show and many of my fans like it a lot.

It’s not that I haven’t tried to like it. I have!

But the bottom line is it is unhealthy. And I think many of the uses and abuses of the contestants should be a crime.

Now, you may be thinking “but  it helps people lose weight – how can that be unhealthy?”

Well, notice the words used. Losing weight just means the number on the scale changes. And that can be extremely unhealthy. Millions of people have mastered losing weight. They just haven’t mastered the regain phase that comes right on the heels of “losing weight.”

Obviously, I have no problem with people losing fat, but the American focus on losing weight is out of control and causing weight regain with ever increasing speed. (New studies report yo-yoing is more dangerous to overall health than staying heavy.)

Here are my top 9 objections to “The Biggest Loser”:

1. Much of the exercise is unsafe. A lot of the exercise moves and recommendations are unsafe for most people. Behind the scenes, the participants have practiced the moves and gotten used to them. Average viewers may think they can do the move too. You may also see the trainers jump on top of people to intensify the “grit” of the moment. You can almost hear the producers encouraging them off screen – “it’ll make a great shot – jump on his back – make him carry you! Yeah!”

2. The emotions are manipulated. Casting agents and producers screen the contestants over and over again, putting them in unreal and real situations to evoke emotional reaction. If someone isn’t good at over-emotionalizing situations, they don’t make it to the show.

In addition, you see the on-screen manipulation of them, which is sometimes brutal to watch (like our fascination with watching a train wreck) – but you don’t see the offscreen “revving up” process that happens right before they shoot. Manipulation is cheap, dirty and disrespectful. I don’t like to witness it.

3. The motivation comes from a negative source. Over and over, you’ll see the contestants put to shame for their size, behaviors and “weakness.” They are obviously people “to be fixed.” How degrading. No one deserves to be blamed or shamed for their behaviors with food. There’s a reason they do what they do. And that reason will stay there until it is discovered and changed.

4. The time frame isn’t real. You see the show weekly. You might assume that the weight loss you see happen in a week, right? Wrong. The show isn’t shot weekly. Sometimes, there are 10 days, sometimes more, between show tapings. Sorry, just not right! False advertising!

It’s not giving you a realistic expectation, or a healthy one. How many people are comparing their “weeks’” weight loss to the shows? But America (and the show’s sponsors) want a quick fix. If someone can drop 12 pounds in a week, the TV audience wants to think they can do it too. And you can drop 12 pounds of something in a week, but not 12 pounds of fat.

5. The weight loss shown isn’t fat loss. What’s the difference? Well, it’s an important distinction and shows the difference between weight change that is permanent and that which is “rented.”

Weight loss shows up on the scale… temporarily. It comes and goes easily. It may represent a change in water weight, salt and potassium balance, hormonal shift, etc. etc. It may be muscle or other important tissue loss.

Fat loss is when fat is burned. It takes time to do this, and it’s not quick. If you could literally burn a pound of fat in a day (which you can’t-the body can only burn tiny amounts at a time), it would take 10 days to clear your body! Why? Lots of things have to happen to burn that fat in the cells, then remove the remnants and waste products out of the body.

Have you ever felt you did pretty well on an eating plan but, after 2 or 3 days, you weighed more? That’s because your body is retaining water and other fluids in an effort to clear the waste products associated with burning fat. However, if you don’t understand how this works, you might get discouraged and quit your healthy eating! (Is it any wonder the average diet lasts 72 hours?)

“The Biggest Loser” glamorizes and sensationalizes unhealthy weight loss, which is not fat loss, and therefore is not permanent.

6. The contestants are being set up for failure. The exercise and eating routines cannot be maintained after the show ends. The contestants are enduring excessive 7-8 hour exercise routines. Their food is being monitored, prepared and maintained. Again, the body is different than a car engine. If you have excess gasoline or fuel in a car, you can use it up and it will be gone. In the human body, once you use fuel, more is made and, even more dangerous, other things can be used for fuel. Imagine your car running out of gas and simply burning its bumper, or its frame, which it needs to survive!

Plus, the body adjusts constantly. If it has adjusted to 1000 calories and 7 hours of exercise a day, it’ll pack on fat when the contestants go back to real life, even if that real life consists of a reasonable 2000 calories and an hour of exercise every day. The weight will come back fast too. The body thinks it’s been starving (and it has) and it’ll do everything in its physical and psychological power to replace what’s been lost as fast as possible.

The twist? It can’t rebuild muscle, interstitial tissue, tendon, cartilage, organ and bone material, or blood volume easily. But it can pack on fat quickly so that’s what it does. This mechanism is why the human has survived so many centuries. You can’t turn this force of nature off, folks, no matter what anyone tells you.

7. The contestants are being used. Yes, they might make a little money. And I know they agreed to the terms of participating in the show. They might rent some weight loss on the scale. But I’m already seeing a lot of them on Twitter talking about regain. I’m sure they didn’t know the truth before they started. They let their desperation get to them. And nothing good is ever created out of desperation. The big winners here are the show’s producers and network. They’re making big bucks. Why should they care about the legacy of regained weight and broken bodies they leave behind them?

No one should be humiliated into public weighing like cattle.  No human being should have other people judging them based on their weight, size or appearance. 

This show proliferates the dehumanization of people in our society.  It’s shameful.

8. Health is not the emphasis. It’s a numbers game, plain and simple. Sometimes, you see the contestant’s food intake is ridiculously low – obviously in the unhealthy range, bordering on anorexic numbers – and their energy expenditure is high – again, this is not a lesson we want to be teaching kids or anyone who gets their primary education from prime time TV. Who knows how many people are trying to copy these number games at home?

An example of this comes from contestant Kai Hibbard who lost 118 pounds on the show. She later blogged that she ate only asparagus, endured colonics and went through 6-hour stretches in a sauna to dehydrate herself enough to lose 19 pounds for the season finale. She jokingly said the entire weight rebounded to her rear end almost immediately.

9. Money is the emphasis. Beyond the advertising dollars mentioned above, look at all the product placements on the shows. How many people are running out to buy the gadgets, clothing, gym equipment, snacks and other crud used on the show? Product placement in movies and TV is big business. It matters if Tom Hanks drinks a Coke or a Pepsi. It matters if Sarah Jessica Parker computes on a PC or a Mac.

One of my clients called me after a “Biggest Loser” episode and said, quite innocently, “I really don’t think they should advertise fast food on “The Biggest Loser.”  I was so emotionally wrung out after the episode last night, and I felt so bad I haven’t lost 18 pounds this week, I drove straight to [fill in blank] for food!”  

It was really tough for me to say, “Sweetheart, that’s what they want you to do. They didn’t put this show out there to help anyone.  No one’s going to lose weight permanently from this.  The programming is not the important part.  In fact, the only “programming” that’s happening is that they programmed you right into a passive seat in front of their commercial endeavor.  It’s about product placement and advertising and money.  The show is an excuse to sell crappy food and products to you, the overweight TV viewer they have targeted.

Contests and competition don’t lead to permanent weight loss. Even my own gym has a sign that says “208 pounds lost during our Loser contest!” Now, I love my gym but this sign is only powerful and meaningful if it says: “208 pounds lost in 2004 and still gone!” That’s the sign I want to see!

The truth is, contests can bring out the competitive streak in people but it cannot be maintained for very long. If you are a competitive type, use it elsewhere in life. When it comes to your body, be simple and healthy and keep moving. If you like marathons, races and events like that, use them as a motivation to get into and stay in shape.

But life ain’t a race, and even full-time professional athletes have trouble maintaining extremely low body weights and low fat ratios after a few years of competition.

What’s the bottom line here? You have the power of the “click.” Find meaningful programming to watch. Better yet, take a walk instead of tuning in to “The Biggest Loser.” We’ll all be better off for it.

You are welcome to reprint this article as long as you reprint the full article and include the following in its entirety: Reprinted from Pat Barone, America’s Weight Loss Catalyst & Catalyst Coaching® LLC, permanent weight loss coach. © 2000-2012 patbarone.com All Rights Reserved. Get Pat’s free 5 Key Lessons for Permanent Weight Loss here!