I love the television program the Biggest Loser. It is my guilty pleasure. What grabs me every episode is the sheer determination and dedication in most participants to firstly, succumb to sheer torture each and every day and secondly, their obvious desire to be the biggest winner.
Yet regardless of my fascination with the program, I always knew it couldn’t be very good for contestants. I however, never wanted to dig too deep into the reasons why. My reasoning – when you know how bad something is it becomes hard to watch (or eat in the case of learning the calories in a McDonald’s McChicken). Unfortunately or fortunately (depending on how you look at it), I came across a number of blog posts written by Dr. Yoni Freedhoff (a physician in Ottawa) that touched upon the deleterious effects the show has on contestants. And not just during the show, but long after the days of 6 hour work outs.
Freedhoff discusses how rapid weight loss affects the metabolism. Losing so much weight, so quickly slows the metabolism to almost a crawl. Thus, the individuals that lose weight the fastest suffer the most in the long-run. They have to battle a slowing metabolism in addition to living and exercising in the real world – not in a secluded private ranch with personal trainers to abuse them.
Freedhoff references an abstract published at the most recent Obesity Society Annual Scientific Assembly by Darcy Johannsen. Johannsen went to the ranch during season 8 and measured a number of variables including changes in body mass, metabolism and percentage of fat at baseline, week 8 and week 30. What Johannsen found isn’t surprising. There was a rapid reduction in weight (approximately 128 pounds which was composed of 81% fat and 19% free fat mass) with drastic reductions in metabolism. At week 6 the metabolism had slowed by 244 calories per day. At week 30 this number was 504 calories per day. As Freedhoff states, this is equivalent to eating an extra meal per day.
While I was digging for more information I came across an article published in USA Today which also discusses the findings of Johannsen. Yet, the article didn’t touch upon the slowing metabolism and the long-term issues of being a contestant. It only talked about the fat loss and the excess skin associated with drastic weight loss. While weight loss is beneficial, the manner in which you lose it is extremely important for long-term weight management success.
The biggest issue with the Biggest Loser (in my opinion) is that the weight loss strategy employed (to keep viewers hooked) is just not maintainable. Exercising for 4-6 hours per day on a severely calorie restricted diet is akin to torture. Participants are away from families, away from work, away from the worries of bills, grocery shopping and general life worries. They have been plunked down in an idyllic setting surrounded by exercise equipment and only healthy food options (which viewers are keenly aware of due to shameless product placement). And to my horror, in the newly formatted show contestants under the supervision of the new trainers not located at the ranch had all their meals prepared for them. Thus, they learned absolutely nothing about the calorie composition of certain foods and how to prepare their meals. This is extremely unfortunate as caloric intake accounts for the majority of the battle with weight.
So will I continue to watch the show? Probably. I’ve always known that rapid weight loss is bad and not a long-term strategy for health. However, it is important to remember that this show indirectly influences health behaviour change. Viewers and dedicated fans across the country have been inspired by contestants to lose weight on their own. The Biggest Loser is also a part of the Pound for Pound Challenge which has individuals pledge to lose weight. In return the organization donates their pledge weight in food to needy families. This is inspiring. This demonstrates the national and perhaps international (may be stretching it a little here) influence this program has.
All in all, rapid weight loss is not a long-term solution to keeping the weight off. Lose it slow. Lose it doing an activity or a change in diet that you can sustain. And most importantly, make it fun.