The Reality Of ‘The Big­gest Loser’


Sur­prise, sur­prise, reality tele­vi­sion is of­ten not reality. Yes,

The Big­gest Loser has been quite suc­cess­ful for NBC. But the lat­est news is that the show may not be quite as suc­cess­ful for its con­tes­tants as por­trayed. A study pub­lished in the jour­nal Obe­sity checked on 14 of the show’s con­tes­tants six years af­ter they had com­pleted the show (which is a 30-week weight loss com­pe­ti­tion) and found that many had re­gained a fair amount of the weight that they had lost dur­ing the com­pe­ti­tion. In fact, con­tes­tants had sig­nif­i­cantly slower metabolic rates com­pared to peo­ple who had never been over­weight. Rapidly los­ing so much weight may have slowed their metabolism. Thus, the con­tes­tants would gain more weight than oth­ers would from con­sum­ing the same amount of food and drink and ex­er­cis­ing the same amount. It was as if the con­tes­tants’ bod­ies were try­ing to re­gain the lost weight.

The Big­gest Loser de­buted in the fall of 2004 and fea­tures con­tes­tants at­tempt­ing to lose weight who en­gage in a se­ries of diet and phys­i­cal ac­tiv­ity com­pe­ti­tions. The show di­vides con­tes­tants into teams that then work with a per­sonal trainer and pro­ceed through a gaunt­let of temp­ta­tion, eat­ing and drink­ing re­stric­tions, ex­er­cise com­pe­ti­tions, weigh-ins and vot­ing out those who lose the least weight over dif­fer­ent episodes. In the end, a win­ner emerges based on most weight and per­cent­age body fat lost. Con­tes­tants have lost mas­sive amounts of weight. In one sea­son, Michael Ven­trella lost 264 pounds and Ash­ley John­ston 183 pounds. Danny Cahill lost 55.58% of his weight and Rachel Fred­er­ick­son 59.62%. (They ba­si­cally be­came half the peo­ple that they once were.) In just a sin­gle week, Moses Kinikini lost 41 pounds while Patti An­der­son and Sonya Jones each lost 23 pounds. These large re­ported num­bers helped pro­pel the show’s pop­u­lar­ity and seemed to be an in­spi­ra­tion for peo­ple try­ing to lose weight.

But was such mas­sive weight loss re­al­is­tic and truly ef­fec­tive? Maybe not, ac­cord­ing to the study, whose lead au­thor was Erin Fothergill, a clin­i­cal metabolic re­search fel­low at the Na­tional In­sti­tute of Di­a­betes and Di­ges­tive and Kid­ney Dis­eases (NIDDK), and se­nior au­thor was Kevin D. Hall, PhD, a se­nior in­ves­ti­ga­tor at the NIDDK, which is part of the Na­tional In­sti­tutes of Health. The study sug­gests that the body does not take weight loss “lightly.” The trou­ble may be that once your body is used to a cer­tain weight and drops be­low that weight, it fights to re­gain that weight, which may be the body’s sur­vival in­stinct. We call this home­osta­sis, which is de­fined as “the ten­dency of the body to seek and main­tain a con­di­tion of bal­ance or equilib­rium within its in­ter­nal en­vi­ron­ment, even when faced with ex­ter­nal changes.” In essence, home­osta­sis means that the body fights change in an ef­fort to sur­vive and main­tain what it thinks should be the sta­tus quo. Tell that to your sig­nif­i­cant other next time she or he wants you to change.

So, if the body loses a lot of weight quickly, the body may re­duce the num­ber of calo­ries that it reg­u­larly burns in or­der to re­gain the lost weight. A large pro­por­tion of the calo­ries burned each day comes from the basal metabolic rate (BMR), which is the amount of en­ergy the body con­sumes to per­form its reg­u­lar in­ter­nal daily func­tions. Think of the BMR as con­sum­ing fuel to keep the in­sides of your body go­ing. In other words, sit­ting mo­tion­less all day would still burn calo­ries from your body’s in­ter­nal en­gine run­ning, per­form­ing tasks such as pump­ing your heart, cir­cu­lat­ing your blood, read­ing Forbes ar­ti­cles, breath­ing in and out, trans­mit­ting elec­tric sig­nals across nerve cells and your brain, etc. (Yes, even watch­ing reality tele­vi­sion con­sumes en­ergy.) So, when the body be­lieves that it needs to con­serve en­ergy, it low­ers the BMR and com­pletes these tasks more ef­fi­ciently, us­ing less en­ergy, burn­ing fewer calo­ries.

Even dur­ing phys­i­cal ac­tiv­ity, the body can vary how many calo­ries a par­tic­u­lar ac­tiv­ity burns. De­spite what those dis­plays on the gym tread­mills say, run­ning a mile does not nec­es­sar­ily burn the same calo­ries each time. The calo­ries burned may vary dur­ing dif­fer­ent times and cir­cum­stances and for dif­fer­ent peo­ple. Run­ning a mile one day may burn a

dif­fer­ent num­ber of calo­ries from run­ning a mile on an­other day. There­fore, if you lose ten pounds, the same amount of ex­er­cise may not con­tinue to burn as many calo­ries. Alas, your body is smarter and more com­plex than you think.

All of this sug­gests that pre­vent­ing weight gain in the first place is a lot more ef­fec­tive than try­ing to lose weight. And at an early age, the body may learn to stay at (or get used to be­ing) a cer­tain weight. Think of be­ing a cer­tain weight al­most like a habit. Once the habit is es­tab­lished, it can be hard to break. There­fore, tack­ling child­hood obe­sity is es­pe­cially im­por­tant. Over­weight chil­dren may be a lot more likely to stay over­weight as adults.

So add the Obe­sity study’s new find­ing to these other rea­sons why putting ev­ery­one on The Big­gest Loser would not solve the obe­sity epi­demic:

• Most peo­ple do not have a team of peo­ple to help them lose weight: If you are a Hol­ly­wood ac­tor or pro­fes­sional ath­lete, you may have a diet and phys­i­cal fit­ness en­tourage. How­ever, most peo­ple can only muster a pack of dogs, stuffed an­i­mals or fleas to fol­low them at all mo­ments of the day.

• Weight man­age­ment and obe­sity is a sys­tems prob­lem: Weight prob­lems do not sim­ply re­sult from the lack of will or dis­ci­pline. Your diet, ex­er­cise and metabolism are af­fected by who is around you, what food and drink sur­rounds you, how easy it is for you to walk and ex­er­cise, what your job is, how stress­ful your life is, what med­i­ca­tions you take, what you can af­ford and many other sys­tems around you. There­fore, if you want to lose weight, you need to look at how ev­ery­thing around you may be lead­ing to weight gain.

• Such rapid weight loss could be un­healthy: Some con­tes­tants tried to lose weight by de­hy­drat­ing them­selves, which, of course, could have all kinds of bad health con­se­quences and is not real weight loss, as drink­ing wa­ter will only bring back the weight. Ex­treme ex­er­cise can lead to in­juries. The com­pet­i­tive and some­times cut-throat na­ture of the show could also lead to emo­tional trauma.

So does this mean that ev­ery­one who is over­weight should just give up? No, ab­so­lutely not. Los­ing weight is more about grad­ual and sustainable changes. You’ve got to ad­dress the sys­tems around you lead­ing to your cur­rent weight. Los­ing weight can be like try­ing to break a habit. Quit­ting cold turkey with­out chang­ing the things that led to the habit in the first place may re­sult in you even­tu­ally re­sum­ing the habit. You have to get the body to re­al­ize that it needs a new set point, a new goal for home­osta­sis.

Also, you may not want to use reality shows as your sole guide (shock­ing, I know). Reality shows of­ten make life seem sim­pler than it re­ally is. For in­stance, they can por­tray peo­ple as oned­i­men­sional and play on stereo­types such as the dumb blonde, the red­neck, the angry woman, the nerd or the en­tire cast of Jer­sey Shore. Sure, The Big­gest

Loser may make for in­trigu­ing theater, and it has brought needed at­ten­tion to some im­por­tant health is­sues. The show may have even in­spired some peo­ple to change their lives for the bet­ter. But, if you are de­pend­ing solely on

The Big­gest Loser for med­i­cal or health ad­vice, that may not be reality and may be your loss.

Kai Hib­bard, a con­tes­tant on the The Big­gest Loser in 2006, has crit­i­cized the tele­vi­sion show for what she calls dras­tic weight-loss meth­ods. When she saw a re­cently pub­lished study that found that many com­peti­tors left the show with a slower metabolism, she said: ”I re­ally was danc­ing around my liv­ing room, scream­ing ‘vin­di­ca­tion.’”

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