If 'The Biggest Loser' Doesn't Work, Why Is It Still On The Air?

The NBC show's lead doctor is "evaluating" the findings of a recent study that raised questions about its drastic approach to weight loss.
Stephen Kmet works out during season 17 of NBC's "The Biggest Loser."
NBC via Getty Images
Stephen Kmet works out during season 17 of NBC's "The Biggest Loser."

By now, you’ve probably seen the headlines all over your News Feed.

Last week, a study published in the journal Obesity found that all but one of the former contestants researchers tracked from the first through eighth seasons of NBC’s “The Biggest Loser” had gained back at least some of the weight they lost during the 30-week reality TV competition.

More troublingly, even six years after they completed the show, all of study participants had dramatically slower metabolisms and less of the hormone leptin, two factors that collude to make maintaining such dramatic weight loss in the long term extremely challenging — if not impossible.

While the study’s results may have come as a surprise to some “Biggest Loser” fans, they were not shocking to medical professionals.

Dr. Arya Sharma, professor of medicine and chair in obesity research and management at the University of Alberta, traces the concept of this metabolic and hormonal adaptation in response to dramatic weight loss back to the Minnesota Starvation Experiment, which was conducted in the 1940s. In that project, researchers found that participants' metabolic rates decreased dramatically after they voluntarily starved themselves.

Considering those results, "no one should be surprised" by what happened to "The Biggest Loser" contestants, Sharma told The Huffington Post by phone.

Sharma believes “The Biggest Loser” sends the “exact, 100 percent wrong message” on what it takes to effectively and sustainably lose weight. And he's doubtful of the level of support contestants receive -- both during, and especially after, the show.

“They should have been able to predict these outcomes or at least warn people. Maybe they did and maybe they didn’t,” Sharma said. “You’d have to be pretty crazy to sign up for this show now.”

The show's host, Bob Harper, appeared Fridayon Today and addressed the study, calling it “super interesting.” Harper said the research spoke to the difficulty of sustaining weight loss using any approach, rather than an indictment of the NBC show specifically.

"Our bodies want to be the weight that we've been for such a long time," Harper told Today’s Savannah Guthrie. "That's why it's such a battle. … That’s why you have to be so diligent.”

If the approach to weight loss championed by the show isn't the one recommended by medical professionals, why has "The Biggest Loser" remained a hit since it debuted in 2004, expanding to dozens of international editions, video games, cookbooks and resorts? And is it ethical for the show to remain on the air given its impact on participants and viewers?

Of course, all “Biggest Loser” contestants do sign onto the show knowing, to some degree, what they are getting into based on past seasons. The series is known for its intense approach to motivating participants to lose as much weight and exercise as intensely as possible. Screaming and crying are the norm.

Still, some former contestants have spoken openly about their post-show struggles in recent years. Arguably the most vocal among them is season three contestant Kai Hibbard, who said the show caused her to develop an eating disorder. In an essay for xoJane last year, Hibbard called her participation in the show “the biggest mistake I’ve ever made.”

My experience felt more than just physically bad, and the more distance I was able to put between myself and a production team that reminded me I was ‘lucky’ to be treated the way I was, the more I understood how harmful the show actually is,” Hibbard wrote.

Some associated with the show, including other former contestants, have continued to defend the program amid such criticisms, calling its environment a “positive” one. NBC has said in the past that all the contestants are “closely monitored and medically supervised” and that their transformations “speak for themselves.”

"We have comprehensive procedures and support systems in place which we routinely re-evaluate to ensure all contestants receive the best care possible," the show's producers said via spokesman Joe Schlosser. "The lead medical doctor on the show, who has worked with the National Institutes of Health on initiatives in the past relating to ‘The Biggest Loser,’ has been made aware of this most recent study and is in the process of evaluating its findings.”

By some measures, the show is right to defend itself. The new study did show that 57 percent of participants maintained weight loss totaling at least 10 percent of their body weight. That's a significant amount -- and a much higher success rate than similar groups of people whose long-term weight loss success has also been researched. Another study actually found that losing weight quickly lasts longer than losing it slowly.

Sonya Jones competes on season 16 of "The Biggest Loser."
Credit: Vivian Zink/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank/Getty Images
Sonya Jones competes on season 16 of "The Biggest Loser."

Contestants aside, some are questioning what kind of impact "The Biggest Loser" has on its audience.

Some viewers clearly come away from the show feeling inspired — that if these people can change their lives, so can anyone. Given how many people in the U.S. are obese or overweight — approximately 71 percent of adults — this sort of inspirational message clearly has a large audience.

“We live in perennial hope that something will work,” David Levitsky, a professor of human ecology at Cornell University, told HuffPost. “People will never give up on this idea or dream that they can be anything they want. And that idea is sold to us by companies that make a lot of money.”

But the show’s message doesn’t seem to be pushing people into action.

A 2013 study published in the American Journal of Health Behavior found that individuals who watched a “Biggest Loser” workout were actually less motivated to want to go exercise afterward.

Watching the show also appears to increase audiences’ biases against overweight people. Two separate studies have shown that watching “The Biggest Loser” reinforces stereotypes that the obese are lazy or gluttonous, lacking the willpower to lose weight.

That stigma doesn’t help those who are overweight become healthier. In fact, the opposite is true. A 2014 study from University College London found that weight discrimination not only fails to encourage weight loss, but also can spur additional weight gain.

There's a reason for that. Robert Kushner, a professor specializing in nutrition and weight management at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, said the show is “in direct contrast” with “everything we’ve been trying to get across and disseminate to the public [obesity] for years now.”

Kushner added that he sees the show as particularly demeaning to its contestants when you compare it to how individuals with other chronic diseases are treated in the media. That sends a message to viewers.

“You would never do this to someone with another illness like diabetes or cancer,” Kushner told HuffPost. “I find it extremely disturbing that we take individuals and have them stripped down to their underwear and have them weigh in.”

Still, the job of many TV shows is to entertain, not educate. And that's particularly true of reality television, argues Peter Christenson, a professor of media studies at Lewis & Clark College. Considered within the broader genre, “The Biggest Loser” is just one of many shows that “models behaviors and values that are pretty superficial,” Christenson said.

In that sense, Christenson argues, it’s probably irrelevant to many of the show's viewers whether contestants they cheered on during their season kept the weight off or not.

“I would ask the question, ‘What else could we possibly expect?’” Christenson said. “The audience is not interested in whether or not that person six or 10 years later is healthy and slim or whether they’ve ballooned to 450 pounds again. It’s all going to be in the present.”

Some shows take a more nuanced approached to weight loss — Christenson applauded a diet and exercised-focused BBC show called “Honey, We’re Killing the Kids!” that ran a U.S. version on ABC Family beginning in 2006.

That show only ran for two seasons, getting to an issue both Kushner and Sharma raised: Helping people lose a moderate amount of rate slowly over time and maintain that weight loss wouldn’t necessarily make for the most exciting television.

“If a camera crew followed me in my office, the show probably wouldn’t have high ratings,” Kushner said. “‘Are you tracking your diet? Are you weighing yourself? Are you clearing your house of problem foods? Are you walking to the bus stop?’ That’s the stuff I talk about. I don’t think that’s made for TV.”

It's not clear whether "The Biggest Loser" will do another run: A premiere date for the next season has yet to be announced, and ratings were down 30 percent last year and lower than expected this year.

And as for our own weight-loss battles, there is no reason to feel that all hope is lost. Levitsky argues that instead of aiming for a dramatic weight loss, setting one's sights on a more manageable target -- 10 percent of body weight -- could still do a lot of good. After all, that is the weight loss that a majority of "Biggest Loser" participants maintained in the new Obesity journal study.

“Instead of looking for a 200-pound weight loss, if people could just produce a 10 percent weight loss, most of us would be much better off,” Levitsky said.


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