New research is highlighting how dangerous The Biggest Loser is. Researchers found that 6 years after the show ended, their bodies burn 200-800 calories less than most people their size. Most of the participants ended up gaining most or all of their weight back.
There's a reason you'll never see a reunion show. The producers don't want to draw attention to what happens to their participants. The health risks associated with yoyo weight loss gives the show a particularly bad rap. Numerous studies have shown that when weight is regained, the health benefits of losing it in the first place are completely undone, and additional risk factors are added. It’s healthier to remain overweight than yoyo down and up again.
Research has also shown that viewers of the show end up thinking of exercise more negatively, making them less likely to want to exercise. Other studies found that viewers adopted stronger weight shaming views, a viewpoint that is statistically unhelpful in the fight against obesity, and in fact contributes to greater obesity.
In other words, The Biggest Loser is awful for the health of the people who go on it, the people who watch it, and even people who don’t have anything to do with it.
Thankfully there are lessons we can all learn from this type of unethical entertainment. In some ways it functions as a “what not to do” guide to healthy weight loss.
1) Your weight loss techniques should be sustainable.
Avoid any weight loss intervention like The Biggest Loser that focusses on short-term loss without a long-term plan.
After losing weight in a decidedly unrealistic and unsustainable setting, the The Biggest Loser participants must go home and find ways to build new habits into their lives. On the show, weight loss is their full-time job, with multiple full-time support staff assisting them. At home they must somehow try to adapt similar habits into their routine, without support.
This short-term type of intervention results in long-term failure. Your weight loss should happen by setting realistic long-term habits that you can integrate into your daily life.
Some interventions send you prepared meal sizes, recommend meticulous calories counting, or tell you exactly what to eat. If you can't afford these services for the rest of your life, or stick to their restricted style of eating, they're not going to provide long-term change.
2) Your weight loss journey should be enjoyable.
The Biggest Loser depicts the journey towards weight loss as a brutal battle. The exercise regimen includes plenty of screaming, yelling, and crying. The combination of extreme exertion and severely limited calories has caused serious concern. Dr. Ed Tyson, an eating disorder physician in Austin, Texas, commented: “It’s miraculous no one has died yet."
It doesn’t have to be this way. Eating less does not have to be torture. There are eating habits, like mindful eating and intuitive eating, which help you enjoy your food more, while eating less. These habits may take some effort to learn, but once you’ve learned them they don’t take any extra time or willpower from your day. Instead of being a burden on your lifestyle, they make your day more enjoyable!
Similarly, if you hate jogging and lifting weights, but love walks in the park and tennis, then do what you love! Make that your thing, and do it regularly.
Choosing to set habits that you enjoy makes it more likely that you will actually stick to them long-term.
3) Your weight loss should be gradual.
Thanks to the recent study of The Biggest Loser participants, there is now more evidence than ever that rapid weight loss is permanently debilitating to the metabolism. To prevent this, and other issues with rapid weight loss, experts recommend losing no more than one pound a week.
The good news is that losing gradually doesn't mean that you can't have dramatic results. Slow and steady really does add up!
A healthy and sustainable loss of one pound per week results in 52 pounds a year. At this rate even extremely obese individuals can arrive at their goal weight within a few years. Most importantly, they can be better equipped to stay at that weight for the rest of their lives.
4) Your weight loss strategy should be scientifically-based and designed by nutrition professionals
The fact that The Biggest Loser focuses on rapid weight loss raises questions about why their medical advisor didn’t see the related problems coming.
Unfortunately there’s no shortage of doctors who are willing to practice outside of their area of expertise. The show’s interventions were overseen by a celebrity doctor whose background is in immunology and sports medicine. He has very few qualifications to be portrayed as an obesity expert.
A healthy weight loss plan should be designed by someone with an education and background in nutrition and obesity. For example, Registered Dietitians are specifically trained in both of these areas, with many more nutrition research and credit hours built into their education than most doctors.
The season 3 winner of The Biggest Loser said her decision to go on the show was "the biggest mistake of my life." This is the unfortunate consequence of embracing health interventions that aren't designed by the right health professionals.
5) Do away with body shaming
The mindset that gets people on a scale as part of a nationally televised competition is toxic. It focuses far too much on weight and appearance, and not nearly enough on improved health and self-worth.
Our psychological tendency is to repeat behavior that is reinforced. With a long-term goal like weight loss, we don’t get much short-term reinforcement from the appearance of our bodies. Those changes happen gradually.
This is why focusing on being a healthier person is more effective than trying to shame and change your body. If you pay attention to how healthy your body feels, you can notice the effects of eating healthier right away. Ice cream feels much better in small amounts. Hummus feels even better!
Instead of beating yourself up for your flaws, love your body for the amazing miracle of life that it is! Not only is this mindset more enjoyable and beneficial for your mental health, it brings you closer to your long term weight loss goals as well.
6) Your weight loss plan should address the root cause of cravings
Several of The Biggest Loser participants have commented that their food cravings have completely ruined their weight maintenance plans. None of the best intentions to exercise and eat healthy will work if food cravings are dominating your life.
We indulge our food cravings for a variety of reasons. There are emotional and environmental causes that are not necessarily difficult to address, but they must be addressed.
Any approach like The Biggest Loser that focuses entirely on the calories you consume vs. the calories you burn is missing a huge piece of the weight loss puzzle. The question of what goes into our bodies is physical as well as psychological, environmental as well as edible.
There’s no shortage of weight loss solutions out there. The tricky part is evaluating whether they will work for you. If you’re considering something that doesn’t meet the six above criteria, consider looking harder.
Jessica Penner is a Registered Dietitian from Winnipeg, Manitoba. She graduated at the top of her class when she received her BSc majoring in Human Nutritional Sciences.
You can find her busting nutrition myths, posting delectable recipes, and teaching e-courses at Smart Nutrition.
Jessica grew up as a picky eater, but her love for travel forced her to meet the challenge of accepting new foods, and she now loves exploring new flavours in the kitchen. All of that delicious food posed a different problem at first, overeating, but her nutrition education and experience as a Registered Dietitian has brought insight and balance to her eating habits. She loves to share what she’s learned with others to help them rediscover the joy in eating!