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.’”