Biggest Loser is Oblivious to Its Failures

It’s simply naive to believe that NBC’s “Biggest Loser” is about “changing lives.” It’s got to be the most heavily merchandised television show in history. From $3000-per-week “resorts” and cruises to in-show commercials and a broad range of branded products, it’s a money machine that exploits the public’s fascination with watching presumably broken and messed up fatties suffer for their wanton gluttony until they puke in the gym.

But if Biggest Loser is changing any lives, there’s a good chance it’s for the worse. Every week we see contestants disappointed that they only lost 8 or 9 pounds in a week while the trainers bemoan that they’re working under their potential. The primary message of the show is that people get fat because of something in them that is broken and wounded and they can “fix” themselves if they get motivated and want it badly enough.

In his excellent blog, Dr. Yoni Freedhoff has discussed the damage that can result from the type of “extreme lifestyle interventions” that Biggest Loser promotes. The message is that you need a LOT of rigorous daily exercise to lose weight and throwing up and passing out are GOALS. The show’s trainers taunt contestants in the gym while making jokes about pushing them to their breaking point. In this blog post by Dr. Freedhoff, he cites a study that shows extreme weight loss can accelerate the body’s rate of adaptation, dropping the metabolism LOWER than it would have been if the same amount of weight loss had been achieved by less severe measures. Besides that, we can all understand how adopting an insane exercise schedule is very difficult to maintain. When you stop, the weight will come back. I experienced that myself when I tried a 12-week bodybuilder’s regimen. I wanted the experience and part of it for me was seeing how much work it would take to achieve a certain level of results. I liked the results but I decided that I wasn’t willing to work at that level of intensity indefinitely!

But other people will rely on extreme weight loss. A blogger I know of dropped a lot of weight a few years ago by killing himself in the gym every day. He gained it all back and then some, no surprise. But he’s doing it again! Last I heard, he’s proudly announcing that he’s dropped 100lbs in about 100 days. He’s running so much that he’s having to ice his legs. So what happens when he decides he can’t run like that every day? Or when he reaches his goal and he thinks he’s “done”? That is what likely happens when the Biggest Losers get back home and the novelty of being a sort-of reality “star” wears off. For many, it never even happens. According to this article, Michael Ventrella found that after the show was over, no one was interested in promoting him even though he had been the big winner with a huge weight loss.

Biggest Loser does not publicize its failures. Former contestants are contractually bound not to say certain things about the show. Dr. Freedhoff has attempted to speak to former contestants and found that only a couple of people would talk to him under cover of anonymity. So I was a little surprised when I saw this new TV commercial for Subway. Winner Danni Allen appears in a Subway commercial admitting “to keep from going back to the old me, it’s going to take work.” She’s joined in the commercial by Courtney Crozier who lost 110 lbs in season 11:

Courtney pipes in that “It takes willpower to keep active and make better choices every day.”

But does it seem like that’s what Courtney’s been doing? Here she is, in the commercial:

She looks to me as if she’s gained most, if not all, of her weight back. Who thought she best represented the success achieved by Biggest Loser contestants after they leave the show? What am I missing here???

Biggest Loser perpetuates the worst of fat shaming and blaming. It promotes grossly unrealistic and downright dangerous behaviors and attitudes about weight and weight loss. Oh it’s “changing lives” alright. A television show on a major network will be able to extend influence. This study found that watching Biggest Loser actually lead people to form more negative attitudes and perceptions of fat people by making assumptions that managing weight is something that is within our control, for all of us.

A major part of why we struggle with our weight is because we believe what we are told. We ignore our own body’s tendencies and traits while we fight a futile battle to do what we’re told works for other people. You can realize what you need to do for yourself when you accept that it will have to be for the rest of your life.


    • JoAnn on January 18, 2014 at 11:06 am

    Oh I hate this show for all the reasons you mention. I know so many people who love it and find it inspiring. I cannot watch it. It strikes me as just so mean spirited. It certainly perpetuates the idea that most fat people are simply not working hard enough. I’m convinced that I always worked hard, but I was working on the wrong things for me and never saw results. Accepting that certain types of foods and workouts were not helping this middle aged body did help. Then using the measurement of effectiveness did.

    I now wonder why I spent so much time, energy and money on things that clearly didn’t work for me. Oh wait, because I also blamed myself for every failure. It was never a poorly designed program or a trainer who was wrong. It was always me not doing enough, not working hard enough etc. It’s a relief to move into a place where I accept my body’s idiosyncrasies and do what works for me. It’s not fast but it is effective.

    I’m working on accepting that the lines are pretty narrow for me. When I stray too far, I pack it on quickly. Sometimes it doesn’t feel fair. Oh well. Being fat was hard. Being pretty controlled with food is hard. I’ve picked my hard. I like being smaller and all the things this smaller, fitter body can do.

    1. You know I am all about accepting reality! People resist it and fight it. They’re so sure if they keep looking, they’ll find the magic secret! But it’s never going to happen.

      I find it very comforting to acknowledge what’s real and know what I face. I think there’s a difference between accepting that something’s going to take hard work and dealing with the ruthless beatdowns of repeated failure and endless struggle.

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