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The Secret Behind The Biggest Loser Diet Plan

The Biggest Loser Biggest Idiot

The TV show “The Biggest Loser” Is the epitome of what’s wrong with the current health industry.

Wait, isn’t it good that 7 million people are tuning in to watch a game show on weight loss, when the United States is in the middle of a weight crisis?

Yep, but rather than encouraging people to make permanent lifestyle changes, it’s yet another show encouraging rapid weight loss solutions, at any cost, regardless of the long-term effectiveness or negative side effects.

Participants have urinated blood, dehydrated “off” 30 pounds for weigh-in (and regained it a day later), and have used laxatives and colonics to shed weight as rapidly as possible.

… But here’s the sad part. Many of the “biggest losers” gain the weight back.

Actually it’s not surprising at all, in previous articles (like this one, regarding the “eat less to weight less” myth) I’ve shown that there’s looooooads of research showing that overly-restricting your calories often leads to re-lapse… a very high percentage of the time.

Dr. Freedhoff, talked about this in his article The Real Biggest Losers? The Show’s Audience [Article]:

While I personally find the show to be an emotionally and physically abusive, mis-informative, horror show, it’s clearly beloved and trusted by many — that record premiere was reported to have been viewed by over 7-million people. And while my personal opinions shouldn’t concern you, the peer-reviewed medical literature stemming from The Biggest Loser, as well as the AAP’s implicit endorsement of the show, should.

He goes on to talk about how, due to the extreme caloric restriction, the metabolism of these participants had slowed down to an equivalent of 500 calories a day – predisposing them to massive rebound weight gain unless they continued to restrict calories or do a ridiculous amount of exercise.

(Side note: I talk about this more in the low-calorie myth article).

What’s more? After interviewing three of the biggest losers he found that 85-90% regain their weight.

But by far the best proof that this show does not have your best interests in mind comes from one of the executive producers on the show, JD Roth, saying:

“For some of these people this is their last chance,” he said. “And in a country right now that is wrestling with health care issues and the billions of dollars that are spent on obesity issues per year, in a way what a public service to have a show that inspires people to be healthier.” [Article]

Inspires people to be… healthier?

Let me show you why, if you try to emulate what they’re doing in the biggest loser, you’re just going to end up sicker and fatter than the people on the show.

***

There is ZERO Relevance to Real-world Weight Loss for Normal People

One of the “Biggest Losers” that rebounded and gained his weight back, talking about the reality after the show.

Let’s start with all the things wrong with this show.

Obviously, it’s a game show. It’s reality TV. It’s meant to be ridiculous for ratings because people need to be paid and feed their kids. We get it. It’s a lot like the news – there will be sensationalism to catch your attention. There are plenty of viewing dollars at stake.

Here’s what worries me.

10 million viewers a week potentially trying to emulate the dangerous weight loss practices they see on the show. And recently, children have been added into the mix.  So now we’re reinforcing these ultra dangerous (and ineffective/wrong/stupid) practices with kids who are already very impressionable.

What’s more?

The people Googling this:

Biggest Loser Traffic

Side Note: What’s the biggest loser “secret weight loss plan?”

  1. Severe caloric restriction (wanna drop 250 pounds fast and then gain it all back? Eat 1/2 of what you do normally)
  2. Concentration camp amounts of exercise (the biggest losers were reportedly exercising 4-6 hours a day)

In reality, none of these are secrets, and neither of them are healthy long-term approaches to weight loss.

I’m going to show you why you shouldn’t emulate these people, and what you should do instead.

***

Flaw #1 – Severe Caloric Restriction (= Starvation Diet)

By far my biggest beef with this show is that the participants are just put on an absurdly calorie restricted diet.

When the emphasis is simply to lose as much weight as possible, eating as little as possible will work in the short term (in the SHORT term), because the body is literally starving.

Not-so-secret #1: dramatic caloric restriction.

Here’s the problem: I’ve already talked about the very strong link between severe caloric restriction and re-bounding back (regaining the weight you lost).

But it’s more than that – it’s reinforcing this ridiculous (and unscientific) weight loss mantra that you just “keep eating less to weigh less.”

Okay, so I ate 500 less calories a day for the past month. I’m not losing anymore. Drop it another 300 calories? Okay, I’m not losing anymore, drop it by another 500 calories.

On and on this cycle goes until the person has no energy, loses half their muscle, and can barely function throughout the day all while wondering they aren’t losing weight anymore.

What’s worse is that children are being brought on the show.

So now, despite kids already being bombarded with images of ultra fit men and women, they’re subconsciously getting the idea that they need to just keep eating less to weigh less.

Now we have eating disorders on the rise… and bad weight loss role models on the rise.

For some reason this seems to be the same approach everywhere, we notice ourselves getting a bit bigger, and we think “time to stop eating dinner!”

Don’t do that. Please.

There are better, real, sustainable approaches to weight loss that don’t leave you praying for death.

***

Flaw #2 – Olympic Athlete Levels of Daily Exercise – 4-6 Hours of Exercise (a DAY)

Seriously? No wonder there is so much garbage diet information. No wonder people think that celebrities need to invest disgusting amounts of time in the gym.

In one of my articles I profiled celebrities that had “gotten huge” for movie roles.  Most of the information on the internet is pure garbage regarding their training and eating routines.  Those routines you see are meant to sell magazines, not tell you the truth.

So when people see the new “X-men Wolverine” movie coming out, they Google “the wolverine workout.”

And guess what they come out thinking? … That wolverine was lifting weights 4 hours a day, 7 days a week before his movie release.

And people believe it! And they pass the information onto their friends that also say “Yeah that sounds right. That’s a ton of exercise.”

But let me set it straight here: no matter what your weight loss (or muscle gain) goal is – you will never need to exercise 4 hours a day. 

People on the Biggest Loser are putting in Olympic Athlete hours worth of exercise. Not only is this totally ridiculous, it’s totally unrealistic and unnecessary.

***

Flaw #3: Focusing Solely on Weight Loss… Rather than Change In Body Composition (Or Happiness/How You Feel/Energy, etc.)

My dad recently wanted to start getting healthier and lose weight.

So every morning, he’d wake up, lift weights for an hour in the basement, and then make a nice fresh vegetable juice for breakfast with two eggs.

Months had elapsed and he was getting grumpy about this whole “weight loss” thing. Every morning he was weighing himself on the scale, and it actually hadn’t budged much in three months. He was noticing maybe a 3-5 pound difference in his weight, but it wasn’t anything dramatic. He needed to lose a lot more by his standards.

When I asked him if he looked like he had lost weight, he said he did notice looking much different.. but the scale wasn’t showing it, so was it all in his head?

No, what was happening was that he was making muscular gains and wasn’t accounting for that in his weight. So even though his belly had gotten smaller, the scale didn’t show it – and he was only measuring his progress by the scale. Don’t do that!

I think everyone wants results quickly. It’s human nature. But health is a notoriously tough thing to change because results come slowly.

So when you aren’t seeing results, just focus on improving. If you can only do 1 pushup now, try 2 next time. Believe me, your body will look much different when you can do 50.

There’s this absurd idea that if you aren’t losing a minimum of 10 pounds a week, then you’re not “dieting right.”  Let me be blunt here: if you weigh 450 pounds, you can lose 10 pounds a week. But if you’re off your normal weight by 30, 50, or 100 pounds, you won’t be losing 10 pounds a week.

Lauryn that lost 100 pounds relatively quickly.

Lamine lost 66 pounds in something like 6 months.

The cool thing? Neither one of them mentioned going hungry. They didn’t change the intake.. just their food choices.

***

Flaw #4: Obsession With the Outcome, Instead of the Process

Psychological research has repeatedly shown that focusing on the outcome (e.g. our goal) tends to make us more unhappy and is less effective compared to focusing on the process.

Yes, this is basically the cheesy way of saying “Life is a journey not a destination” but there are more than a few grains of truth in that saying.

Health is a process. It takes time, lots of it.

It takes focus.

It requires energy.

And it’s probably going to entail more than a few failures.

This is the long way of me saying this: if you are constantly focused on your arbitrary goal of “50 pounds lost,” in the short run you’re probably going to lose site of that goal and quit when the going gets tough.

But if you invest into changing your habits, rather than relying on willpower, and if you find ways to enjoy the process and take it slow, you will inevitably reach your destination.

***

So What Should You do Instead?

Sky

I understand that the Biggest Loser is supposed to serve some kind of morbid inspiration to a country that is sick and overweight.

But it’s just plain terrible advice to emulate if you are looking for real, sustainable weight loss. Flat out I think it’s bad advice.

Here’s what I think you should be doing instead:

1) Focus on eating the right food, and when you do, the right amount will take care of itself.

I have profiled several success stories so far of dramatic weight loss – 100+ pounds, and 66 pounds. Neither of the people counted calories and neither of them starved themselves.

What they instead focused on was eating the right kinds of foods. Depending on where your current body weight is, just shifting to the right types of foods will naturally result in the right number of calories.

I profiled this dramatically in this little experiment I did called [Shocking – In Pictures] Why You’re Fat.

Besides the obvious no-fun of starving yourself, dramatically dropping your caloric intake is a great way to end up with stalled weight loss, decrease energy, poor sleep, and PMS (even if you’re a guy).

Focus on eating real food.

2) Ignore exercise (if you hate it) until you’ve built good food habits.

Food should be the king of your weight loss pyramid.

I’ve talked about it time and time again, but changing your eating habits will account for the majority of your success. Call that 60%, 70%, 80%, or 90% – the majority.

Personal trainers constantly complain that their clients train with them every week, but don’t change what they eat. Months pass, and they don’t see results.  The reality is that it’s very easy to out-eat your exercise. Extremely easy.

If you hate exercise, just focus on dominating your food and getting better food habits. Check out my food control program, too.

3) Set goals but ignore them – focus on progress.

I’m a huge fan of ignoring goals.

“What!? Preposterous! Aren’t goals the way to see results?”

Here’s the thing: Goals are great to temporarily motivate you, but what happens when you get obsessed with the goal and ignore the other 364 days working toward the goal?

You get miserable. You get tunnel vision. Your goal is “lose 50 pounds at all costs” and when the scale doesn’t move, you aren’t happy. You’re relying on the goal to make you happy. Forget that. That’s garbage.

Your health is part of your life – and you need to be happy before you do anything.

So here’s my suggestion to have fun, stay happy, and get results all without focusing on your goal:

Just focus on progress.

If you can only do one pushup, work on getting to 5.

If you can’t do a pull-up, work on doing one strict pullup.

If you can only run a 1/2 mile, work towards that 1 mile.

If you drink soda every day, try working towards your first week soda-free.

Health is inseparable from life… and it’s all a journey. Try to stay sane and have fun as much as possible. The more you treat it like a beast to conquer, chances are the less fun it’s going to become.

Thoughts on The Biggest Loser?

What are your thoughts about this show?

My biggest beef with it is really just two things: You don’t need to starve yourself or exercise 4 hours a day to get fit. Not even close.

And one more thing: Just obsessing over the scale, to the exclusion of the many other factors that make you healthy and happy is a fool’s game.

Being healthy is just as much internal as it is external, and you need to work on both to really feel whole.

Leave a comment below with your thoughts on the biggest loser. Is it good for the modern world? Bad? Neither?

– Alex

Image: Freedigitalphotos.net

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22 comments… add one

  1. Hi Alex

    Brilliant article!

    I’ve never seen “The Biggest Loser” (don’t watch TV haven’t got time) but it sounds horrific!
    But what is really scarey is that moronic parents allow their kids to watch it and join in.

    Keep up the great work of telling the truth.

    Dave

    PS If my client agrees, I”ll include a link to your site in the diet book I’m currently ghosting.

    Reply
    1. Hey David,

      It’s pretty scary that kids are being allowed on the show now.. I’m not quite sure where they’re going with this or what it’ll mean.

      By all means share the site with whomever, I’d greatly appreciate it!

      Best,
      Alex

      Reply
  2. Alex, I agree with you. The show is doing more harm than good. It seems like a lot of people now think the only way to lose weight is to become a contestant on the show.

    Reply
    1. I agree Mary.. I’m just worried about it furthering weight loss stereotypes and misinformation, all while spreading a hatred for people with weight issues.

      – Alex

      Reply
  3. I used to watch the Biggest Lose because I considered it entertaining, but in time I came to the same realization as you, Alex, and I started wondering why on Earth would anyone endorse this kind of approach to weight loss? It’s not healthy, that’s clear, and although some of the contestants change their lifestyle and manage to keep their results after they leave the show, many of them gain it all back. As a normal person, working or studying, having family and a social life, it is impossible to work out daily for 4 to 6 hours. It’s ridiculous!

    The thing is that the show producers place their bets on the fact that those people are desperate, they’d do anything to lose weight.

    I have seen very few TV shows that encouraged forming healthier habits, thus leading to weight loss, and while the results weren’t as dramatic as those recorded in the Bigger Loser, they were definitely for long term and achieved in a manner which wasn’t harmful for either body or mind.

    Reply
    1. Hey Lina,

      I’m glad you realized it too!

      I guess the sad part is that we all ‘know’ we need to change our habits for long term success.. but the problem is that it’s a lot less sexy and doesn’t sell magazine covers or advertising space ;).

      Sensationalism sells!

      – Alex

      Reply
  4. This person TRULY IS the Biggest Idiot. He skipped Number 3 above! It’s not 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 7, etc. There’s a 3 in there moron!

    Reply
    1. Thanks Danny, I’ll go fix that.

      – Alex

      Reply
  5. Alex,

    I say you start your own show. Such good advice!!! YOU GET IT!

    Reply
  6. Great article, Alex! What I have a hard time believing on these shows is that the participants don’t have more injuries (or perhaps they do and we don’t see those parts) — injuries like Planter’s Fascitis, strained tendons, knee/hip/elbow injuries, etc. I also don’t see a lot of stretching out. I would think that almost everyone over a certain age who is quite overweight and has not been active, would sustain some type and level of injury if they all of a sudden started intensely exercising every day.

    Look forward to your articles.

    Reply
  7. I used to like to watch the Biggest Loser and was, for a time, obsessed with weight loss shows. In recent times I’ve realized how sickening they are. It makes me to mad to watch The Biggest Loser, but especially Extreme Makover Weight Loss. The goals that are set are so ridiculous. Families suffer as one spouse spends endless hours at the gym neglecting the other spouse and the kids. All those hours build up for the hope of skin removal surgery and a $50K walmart gift card. Everyone cheers and is so excited for these people who have a newly cultivated eating disorder.

    Reply
    1. Jill,

      Terrifying, huh? And these are the role models we’re setting for the future generations. :/

      Reply
  8. I just came across your site. I really like your approach to ‘The Biggest Loser’. I have lost 110lbs. and it took a long time to get over the premonition that I would lose 5+ lbs. a week. In reality I’ve lost an average of 1.5 lbs a week, sometimes more an sometimes less, over a 16 month period of time. Your advice is exactly what I’ve been doing and it works!!! Great site!

    Reply
    1. Hi Stacy,

      You’re absolutely right. That’s one of the tough things… weight loss can’t be really drilled down to a numerical value. It simply doesn’t work like that. It’s also hard to predict weight lost.

      Reply
  9. I like your emphasis here on progress. As long as you are progressing, steadily, then you are “winning.” Also, I think you are right about food. If you are eating veggies & fruit, its not like you need to count calories. You can’t overeat on many of the right foods. Start there.

    Reply
    1. Amen Skippy!

      Reply
  10. I agree and disagree with this article. Yes, the biggest loser is not the ideal way for most people to lose weight. But that does not mean it is a bad way to! There are tons of methods for losing weight. You try and claim like the methods in this show are “horrific” but you are being overly dramatic. Facts are most the contests come out looking lean, muscular, and vibrant, not in poor health at all.

    **80% of all people who lose a large amount of weight gain some or most of it back. They’re right on par with the normal statistic.

    **We don’t know if the contestants are even on very low calorie diets. Watching the show, they don’t really show what their real daily diets are, but it does seem like contestants have a ton of control in what they eat. A lot of the people on the show come out looking very muscular, which is impossible if they were “starving”. Even if they are on highly restrictive diets, these can be used without putting your body into starvation mode. Tons of studies have shown that it takes several months of severely restricting calories for your body to actually go into “starvation mode”. IMO it’s harmful that people like you keep throwing out this myth that it is easy to go into starvation mode, it’s not.

    **Exorcising that much is not that dangerous. If they were all getting injuries, they wouldn’t be able to do the programs every day for months. Injuries get worse not better. All the contestants are screened for health before being allowed on the show. I assume anyone at even low risk of injury is screened out immediately. Just because they don’t show stretching in the few minutes of exorcise shots doesn’t mean they don’t do it.

    In the real world focusing on the number on the scale doesn’t work very well. Contestants are losing 20 pounds of water weight and then (acting) bewildered when they gain 5 pounds the next week. Yes, measuring body fat percentage is the best way to do it, however, weight is a simple. If you are going to do a tv contest and fitness, I can’t think of a better way to do it.

    This is a game show first and a health show second. Safe to assume 80% – 90% of the contestants wouldn’t have tried the show if there wasn’t a big cash prize to win. Because their motivation is the money and not weight loss, they gain it back. But the 10%-20% who really want to make a life style change, the program works for them, and they keep the weight off.

    The Biggest Loser is just like any other weight loss program. People doing it for the right reasons succeed long term (20%) and the majority doing it for wrong reasons fall back into their same habits (80%). If you think you are part of the 20% choose whatever program will work for you. If you want to lose the weight in three months (which is hard when you have to work) do the Biggest Loser program. If you want to do it over 1-2 years, do that. It’s your preference. But if you really are a part of the 20% you will succeed, no matter what program you choose, unless it truly is a bad program. The biggest loser is not a bad program.

    Reply
  11. Thankyou for a great article, Alex. I came across this article after the latest American biggest loser has shocked the audience with her gaunt 47kg frame. I support anyone tackling their health and weight issues, but this sort of show is just dangerous for all. It sets up ridiculous expectations and instils a failure mindset in watchers, and the methods employed on the show are extreme and barbaric to contestants, as you explain. Why? So they can give the viewing audience what they want: Rapid, extreme results, tears, tantrums, injuries, a true specticle. It’s quite disturbing. As a health psychologist, I can hardly think of a worse way to help people deal with the long term behavioural and emotional issues that have led them to be morbidly obese.

    Reply
    1. Hi Vanessa,

      “Why? So they can give the viewing audience what they want: Rapid, extreme results, tears, tantrums, injuries, a true specticle. It’s quite disturbing.”

      You are absolutely right. It’s just sensationalist media like anything – and people will continue to watch it as long as it’s shocking. Unfortunately it’s a quantum leap backward for those trying to learn the healthy way to lose weight.

      Reply
  12. Really, really enjoyed this article. I have battled my weight my whole life – restrictive diets, goal setting – all it did was sabotage me over and over again. I LOVE what you said about progress. I hit rock bottom two years ago in this vicious cycle, and ended up in therapy with a counselor specializing in eating disorders. At first everything she said was alien to me and I fought it – the importance of self-care no matter where you are in this journey, the need to stop punishing yourself, the need to listen to your body in terms of eating, to eat with no distractions and enjoy it, the need to move your body every day but without strict goals or setting a minimum of time to do it each day. Anything other than that is self- defeating for most people, especially people like me. She refused to use the word “diet” and said she had never watched “The Biggest Loser” because the premise was the antithesis of what she taught her clients.
    What I wouldn’t believe was that all of this would get me to a healthy place physically and emotionally. Whoever heard of not setting goals? How could you not do a “full workout”, or “miss” a workout and not feel terrible about it? After lots of stops and starts, I got on the treadmill one day. No pressure, no plans. That was a year ago and now I do 45 minutes almost every day. I like it. If I “miss” a day I don’t beat myself up anymore. I also have no foods that are off limits. I think about what I really want, and when I do I end up eating healthier, or I eat less of the sweets/snack foods. I realize that so much of my eating is emotional and/or mindless.
    Since then I’ve lost almost 40 pounds (don’t tell my therapist, I was supposed to throw my scale away ;), and I feel free FINALLY. I don’t hate myself anymore. I’ve never gone this long successfully. And it’s because I look at now as a journey, not a goal. Progress, as you said.
    Thanks so much for this great blog.

    Reply
  13. I have watched Biggest loser and I always cried because I could never do the things they were doing. I had to stop watching. I do count calories to a point but it is more about writing them down to be accountable for what I eat. I work out 3 times a week at the gym, I love it and I am getting stronger. I also try to walk outside, weather permitting. Today I walked at the mall and did something I had not done in a very long time I walked for an hour with out having to sit down once. I have lost 55 lbs. I still have a long way to go but I am 55 lbs closer than I was.

    Reply
    1. Alexx,

      Congratulations on losing 55 pounds! That’s amazing. Keep us posted with your progress :)

      Reply

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