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.
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.
The people Googling this:
Side Note: What’s the biggest loser “secret weight loss plan?”
Severe caloric restriction (wanna drop 250 pounds fast and then gain it all back? Eat 1/2 of what you do normally)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?