The Biggest Loser – a reality show which is essentially a race to see who can lose weight the fastest - is one of the most popular in Television history. I’ve known about The Biggest Loser since it debuted in 2005 because people ask me all the time what I think of the program and of course, the burning question: “How do they lose so much weight?”
Until now, I’ve only seen video clips, browsed forum threads and read news about the show. To give informed answers to questions in the future, I finally wanted to see first-hand what this was really all about. So I sat through the entire two-hour 8th season premiere on September 15th.
Despite its worldwide popularity, The Biggest Loser is controversial and responses to the show are highly polarized. Most viewers seem to be either die-hard loyal fans who defend the show tooth and nail or critics who loathe the program to the point of disgust or outrage.
Most fitness professionals and personal trainers dislike the show, mainly due to what they say is inappropriate training program design and extreme (teetering on dangerous) overtraining.
The mixed reviews for the show aren’t surprising because The Biggest Loser clearly has pros and cons. Having finally watched a full episode, it reinforced my previous belief that the cons outweigh the pros. But in any complete and objective review, it’s only fair to show both sides, so here they are:
BIGGEST LOSER PROS
The Power of Accountability
Accountability is one of the most powerful motivational forces. The producers of The Biggest Loser have set up the conditions and environment with so much accountability, it’s impossible for contestants not to lose weight. This program uses all four levels of accountability which I have discussed in previous blogs: (1) accountability to self, (2) accountability to a partner, (3) accountability to a group, and (4) accountability to the public.
The Spirit of Competition
The most impressive and dramatic body, health and fitness transformations I’ve ever seen have come as a result of competition. You can count me as one of them. I’ve competed in natural bodybuilding more than two dozen times. Why do I still do it after all these years? Because competition is motivating and competition brings out the best performances.
I’m in shape all year round, but I’ve always hit my best shape – PEAK condition - for competition. An organized event with rewards gives people a goal and helps them get moving and give it their best. Although there are downsides to the way the Biggest Loser competition is judged, a healthy competition is a good thing in my book.
The drive of emotions
The producers of The Biggest Loser have done a meticulous job with contestant selection by finding individuals with touching life stories (as contrived as they may be, to encourage made-for TV drama ranging from romance to backstabbing).
It’s Television, so they need storylines and human interest and there’s no shortage of that here. I’m sure many viewers have to break out the Kleenex – it’s a real tear jerker that pulls at the heart strings.
If this program stirs up some emotions in viewers that stimulate them to get up off the couch and start a health and fitness program, then that’s a good thing. People are not inspired to action with logic, they are driven to action with emotion and only later justify their decisions and actions with logic.
Hope and inspiration
Having inspirational role models moves people from “What’s the use; I’ve tried everything and nothing will ever work for me” to, “If they can do it, I can do it.”
I’m tempted to say that these are not the right role models for the public and I do NOT recommend anyone at home try to duplicate what these contestants are doing. However, I can see the value of extreme role models purely for inspiration.
When a 65 year old runs a 135 mile ultramarathon, it makes a 20 or 30-something runner ask, “What’s stopping me from running a paltry 26.2 miles?” If an amputee sprints around a track on prosthetic legs, it makes sedentary able-bodied people, say, “What’s my excuse?” When a 425 pound person loses half his bodyweight, someone with only 40 pounds of excess fat says, “What’s stopping me?”
Seeing those who have already done it forces you to answer, “Nothing was stopping me but my own excuses and limiting beliefs. Now I see it’s not hopeless… it’s possible!”
The reality of hard work
Unlike most weight loss programs which promise results without effort, The Biggest Loser shows the contestants busting their butts. Arguably the biggest loser goes too far, replete with brutal training montages and plenty of crying, screaming, puking and falling down. That’s television for you.
Fitness for life can be enjoyable and even become part of your fun and recreation time. But to think that spectacular and quick results can be achieved without incredibly hard work is naïve. For above average results, it takes an above average effort. For mind blowing results, it takes a mind blowing effort. With effort and hard work, amazing transformations can happen.
BIGGEST LOSER CONS
The Biggest Loser is judged on weight loss, not body composition.
There is no doubt that contestants are losing huge amounts of fat – far above the average, which is usually 1-2 pounds per week. Even obese individuals rarely lose more than 3 pounds of pure fat per week consistently in a real world situation.
The results on the show – often 10 pounds a week with 20-25 not uncommon for first and last week - should not be surprising when you calculate the massive caloric deficit achieved from 4-6 hours of daily training and physical activity, combined with low calorie dieting.
What many fans seem to ignore is that weight loss is not the same as fat loss. Body weight includes muscle, bones, internal organs, water, glycogen and don’t forget the contents of the digestive tract. The weight loss on The Biggest Loser is deceiving. Much of the loss is water. Many contestants may be losing muscle and other lean tissue.
The solution would be simple: judge the competition on body composition, not body weight. Body fat testing is admittedly prone to error, but with the big budget of this show, there’s no reason they couldn’t use gold standard testing methods such as hydrostatic weighing or DEXA scans. They used a Bod Pod in the last episode, but the contest wasn’t judged on the results of those tests (it was more like, “look how fat you are!”)
What’s most alarming to me is that because the show is judged on weight loss, not body composition, contestants are penalized for gaining muscle and actually rewarded for losing muscle. Think about that one for a while.
Rapid weight loss competition encourages physically dangerous practices
The network, the trainers and other supporters of the show say they do not promote or endorse drugs or any unhealthy methods of weight loss. Official statements notwithstanding, the inherent nature of the show promotes dangerous behavior.
Listen to what Biggest Loser season one winner Ryan Benson had to say on his 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, lemon juice, 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.
Was this healthy? Heck no! My wife wanted to kill me if I didn’t do it to myself first. But I was in a different place, I knew winning the show could put us in a better place financially and I was willing to do some crazy stuff. All this torture I put myself through has had no lasting effects on me (that I know of) and at the time it was sort of a fun adventure for me – but I am sure it reeked havoc on my system.
In the five days after the show was over I gained about 32 lbs. Not from eating, just from getting my system back to normal (mostly re-hydrating myself). So in five days I was back up to 240 – crazy!”
It’s unknown whether any Biggest Loser contestants have taken diuretics (they’re not allowed, but then again Major League baseball players aren’t allowed to take roids either). The greater the rewards and monetary incentives, the greater the willingness to cheat. One thing that’s clear is that even non-drug manipulation of water and electrolyte balance is incredibly dangerous. Would you trade $250,000 for a kidney?
The media often sensationalizes anabolic steroids as a big problem in sports and performance enhancement. What’s been underplayed is another drug used (un-medically supervised) by athletes to shed water and make weight classes – diuretics. It’s not the steroids, but the diuretics, combined with extreme dieting, which have resulted in more confirmed deaths, coronary events, kidney problems and emergency room visits.
Benson wasn’t alone. Kai Hibbard (season 3) answered a question about this on her my space blog:
Q: I’m curious on just how much did you all dehydrate yourselves before the BIG WEIGH IN?
A: I dehydrated off 19 pounds in the last two weeks before the BIG weigh in. I stopped eating solid food after eating only protein and asparagus (a diuretic) then I had two colonics and spent the night before the weigh in and out of a sauna. there really was no “diet” the day of the weigh in, we weigh in as dehydrated as possible on empty stomachs after 2 hour workouts in the morning.
As with Benson, Hibbard’s final week weight came flying back:
“I actually put on about 31 pounds in two weeks. After my body had a chance to stabilize I spent all last year hovering between 159 and 175, I fight everyday to find some stability.”
The Biggest Loser pushes overtraining to the point of high injury risk
On the first season 8 episode, just minutes after getting off the bus, contestants faced the first workout “challenge.” The group of morbidly obese contestants (weighing up to 460 pounds), were instructed to take a 1 mile run down the beach. It was NOT a go at your own pace type of thing, it was a RACE with a prize for the winner.
One of them collapsed just short of the finish line, at first looking dehydrated and fatigued and then progressing into looking seriously ill, incoherent and unconscious. She was flown by medivac chopper to the hospital. The hospitalization was weaved into the drama of the episode, but alarmingly trivialized.
It was not the first time. Contestants from previous seasons have also been admitted to the hospital and one suffered a stress fracture.
Later during the workout, contestants were shown climbing a Jacob’s ladder, pushing sleds, doing intense cardio and calisthenics, lifting weights and performing plyometrics. These did not look like beginner-level workouts and the form on some of the exercises was sloppy enough to make a professional strength and conditioning coach cringe.
Before the show (off camera), the contestants took a stress test to screen out people who might be at risk for a heart attack, and no doubt, they all signed airtight liability releases. There was also a disclaimer on the screen for the viewing audience. But aside from that, there seemed to be a disturbing absence of proper risk warnings in light of the physical tasks they were asked to perform.
There was also no mention that 4-6 hours of training per day for weight loss is gross overtraining, almost certain to bring overuse injuries, and something that no one at home should EVER try to emulate, even if they could.
The Biggest Loser has no relevance to real world situations
The producers of The Biggest Loser have created the perfect environment for success. Contestants have personal trainers, nutritionists, group support, accountability, a national audience, and the biggest carrot imaginable – a prize of $250,000 and a potential platform to launch a motivational speaking or fitness career.
The participants move out of their homes and onto The Biggest Loser “Ranch” where they have no job other than losing weight. There are no kids to worry about, no work, no social obligations, no chores, nothing – just working out and dieting.
This is a totally artificial and controlled environment with no relevance to the average person. In the real world, people who work out 4-6 hours a day for weight loss are not called inspirational and dedicated, they are called obsessive-compulsive or exercise anorexics.
Shouldn’t contestants (and viewers) be taught to exercise in a way that fits into a normal person’s daily life, between work, family and social obligations? Achieving health and fitness as part of total life balance is probably one of the biggest missing pieces in the obesity crisis, yet you won’t find solutions for that challenge on The Biggest Loser.
The Biggest Loser trainers are walking a fine line between tough love and abuse
I’ve listened to an interview or two with Biggest Loser trainer Jillian Michaels and she was motivating, informative and seemed like a good spokesperson for fitness. That’s why I was shocked by her yelling profanities in the face of the contestants. She was dropping F-bomb after F-bomb.
I believe strongly that a good coach sometimes has to get in a client’s face and be very tough. People are motivated by different styles of leadership and coaching, but in general, most people need to be pushed, not coddled, out of their comfort zones and they will always perform beyond what they believed they could accomplish when they are put under pressure.
Read the biographies of some of the great coaches like Vince Lombardi. Read about the great military leaders like General Patton. You’ll see they were not soft on their players or troops. It was tough love. It was necessary for victory. It was not however, disrespectful, rude, humiliating or unprofessional (when Patton crossed the line, he was reprimanded… watch the movie, it’s a classic).
Then again, this was television and Jillian makes for good TV, I‘ll give you that.
On The Biggest Loser, normal rates of weight loss are penalized and frowned on as failure
One of my first exposures to this show was a video clip of the weigh ins, which I saw a couple years ago. A blue team member lost 20 pounds in one week. Mouths were open, gasps were heard, jaws were hitting the floor, followed by congratulations and applause.
When the other blue teammate stepped on the scale and registered “only” an 8 pound loss, the congratulations quickly faded, heads were shaking, facial expressions turned to contempt and blue team member number two sulked off in shame because it appeared as if she did something horribly wrong and that only one member of the team pulled her weight .
When an 8 pound weight loss is seen as a failure, imagine what viewers at home will think about a perfectly normal 1-2 pound weekly weight loss.
The Biggest Loser encourages unrealistic weight loss expectations
Surely any clear-thinking person realizes The Biggest Loser is a contest and at home they are NOT going to drop 25 pounds their first week and 8-10 pounds every week after that. However, more and more people are posting on forums online and asking their trainers why they “only” lost 3-5 pounds their first week or why they can’t lose more than 2 pounds per week.
When people get discouraged with perfectly reasonable weight loss, it makes our job as fitness professionals and health educators much harder. This is a big reason why most trainers hate this show.
Do you know how difficult it is to persuade a Biggest Loser fan that 3 pounds per week is exceptionally good fat loss? A 3 pound weekly weight loss of pure fat is outstanding and above average, but it’s more difficult than ever today to get people to accept slow and steady weight loss as a best practice for healthy, maintainable results.
Is it fair to pin the blame on one reality TV show? Well, not entirely. We can pin blame on a combination of human nature and the approach of the weight loss industry at large, including diet program, pill and supplement advertising, especially those which show “results not typical” (or even phony) before and after pictures. But reality TV courtesy of The Biggest Loser is certainly one of the culprits.
The Biggest Loser teaches you absolutely nothing about setting realistic goals. It actually encourages the opposite.
The Biggest Loser does not teach real-world lifestyle strategies
I haven’t watched enough of the show to assess whether the participants are given any kind of nutrition, exercise and health education that they can take home with them and make a part of their lifestyles for the long term.
Even if the contestants get psychological counseling, fitness education, motivational tools and time with dieticians - off camera or on - the structure of the competition leads me to think it is all for naught.
Participants and viewers are not learning about nutrition and training as a lifestyle, because the inherent nature of the show only teaches them how to crash diet, crash exercise and achieve short-term weight loss.
In particular, where is the emphasis on nutrition? I guess there’s not much time to film nutrition education when 45 minutes of the show is spent on the high drama of the weigh-in and elimination round.
The Biggest Loser doesn’t focus on lifelong maintenance
Weight loss is easy. Whether you lose 1-2 pounds a week or 10 pounds a week, either way, maintenance is going to be the true challenge.
A study from Oxford showed that 80% of weight losers will gain all the weight back within 3-5 years. A report from the National Weight Control Registry suggested that this relapse rate could be as high as 95%.
It’s not a foregone conclusion that you’ll regain weight after a large and or rapid weight loss. Some can keep it off. Most won’t, and if you lose weight rapidly, the odds are against you. Without a plan for maintenance, the odds are close to nil.
Where is the focus in The Biggest Loser on teaching contestants maintenance strategies for keeping the weight off after they get back into the real world?
“The Biggest Loser”: Much worse than a clever name
I have one final con; more of a personal pet peeve, really. I despise the name of the show. No one wants to be a loser. Anyone who sets a goal and achieves it is a winner, but in this show, if you win, you’re a loser.
The words “lose” and “loser” should be stricken from your vocabulary. Release, shed, discard, incinerate or burn the fat, but don’t lose it and for your own sake, please don’t call yourself a loser.
“But it’s just semantics, Tom.” Precisely, and the hidden meanings of words, names and labels carry great power. They can shape a person’s identity, affect self-esteem and influence behavior.
As a show so widely broadcast and publicized, which spotlights the worldwide obesity problem and encourages people to do something about it, The Biggest Loser could have been something great. But it falls short in many areas. There are unredeemable flaws weaved into the very fabric of the show.
The trainers and physicians get on their soapboxes and tell the contestants how sick they are. But is this show really about health? Depending on how you approach it, getting skinny doesn’t always mean getting healthy – physically or psychologically.
Not only do the cons outweigh the pros, if you go back and look at my list of positive qualities in the show, you can find every one of them somewhere else in a more healthy context. It’s important to have role models, but this show is no model for physically and emotionally healthy weight loss.
The Biggest Loser is just Television, where the bottom line is ratings and sponsors. If you can, draw some inspiration from the show, but not your education. If you watch, then please recognize this show for what it is – entertainment; show business. Nothing more. nothing less.
About Tom Venuto
Tom Venuto is a lifetime natural (steroid-free) bodybuilder, freelance writer and author of Burn The Fat, Feed The Muscle (e-book) and the #1 Amazon best-seller, The Body Fat Solution (Avery/Penguin, hardcover). Tom’s articles are featured on hundreds of websites worldwide and he has been featured in IRONMAN, Australian IRONMAN, Natural Bodybuilding, Muscular Development, Men’s Fitness, Men’s Exercise as well as on dozens of radio shows including Martha Stewart healthy living (Sirius), ESPN-1250 and WCBS. Tom is also the founder and CEO of the premier fat loss support community, the Burn The Fat Inner Circle