From 2004-2016, the famous weight loss reality TV show The Biggest Loser aired on NBC. I was definitely aware of this show as it aired, but I was busy watching SpongeBob SquarePants, iCarly, and other wonderful programming instead.
Before investigating the show and its effects for this article, I had only seen 2 or 3 episodes during its original airing. From afar, I viewed it as providing inspiration to Americans that weight loss is possible if you just work hard enough and push yourself. Given my limited knowledge, I deemed it hopeful, especially given the “obesity epidemic” I had learned so much about. Yikes.
Since I wasn’t a frequent viewer, I didn’t give it too much thought. At least not until I took an advanced metabolism class in college. My professor discussed a study that had come out a year earlier that investigated the long-term metabolic effects contestants on the show experienced. I was horrified, and it opened my eyes to the problematic nature of weight loss reality shows and extreme, rapid weight loss in the long term.
Today, we will be investigating The Biggest Loser follow-up study I learned about in college. We’ll also discuss the awful effects weight loss reality TV has on the contestants and on, quite frankly, everyone else in the country and world. I’m not exaggerating when I say world, either, as The Biggest Loser has gained popularity in over 30 countries worldwide.
The Show’s Premise and Problems
The Biggest Loser follows contestants through a weight loss competition for a cash payout to the person that loses the most weight. Participants are weighed each week, shirtless might I add, and their weights flash in the background on national television. The contestants are divided into teams that are lead by trainers who design workout regimens and meal plans. The contestants then do their best to stick with said regimens and plans.
There were various challenges designed to test a participants’ willpower *eye roll* and add an entertainment factor. Participants who won a challenge may have received immunity and advanced to the next week without the threat of elimination or received some other prize (like an elliptical). The team that lost the least percentage of weight in a week had to vote off one of the participants on their team. Eventually, the competition morphed into one-on-one to determine who was, I hate to say it, The Biggest Loser.
On its surface, it may not seem like a super problematic or toxic show. The contestants just exercised like eight hours a day and ate 1,200 calories. That kind of will power and determination deserves admiration, right? If everyone could just quit their jobs, work out over forty hours a week, and starve themselves too, they could achieve a certain amount of success. So what’s the problem?
I now see this show as a disgusting premise for many reasons, but mostly because of how much it actively demeaned participants. For starters, the title of the show has a double meaning that makes me sick to my stomach. Right off the bat, participants are not-so-subtly deemed losers even though the title mostly refers to weight loss.
The trainers and coaches, often viewed as heroes, were sometimes downright nasty to participants. Jillian Michaels has a history of saying truly horrific stuff, such as:
- “I’m proud I made him vomit”
- “I don’t care if people die in this floor. You better die looking good”
- And my personal favorite, “it’s fun watching other people suffer like that.”
Phew, that’s a whole lot of messed up to take in at once. In the clip I watched where Jillian Michaels was proud of making someone vomit, contestants were donning tank tops that displayed their weight on them. Jillian Michaels should also feel proud that this fact nearly made me vomit. The coaching techniques employed in the show added drama that made it irresistible to millions of viewers, but it’s a pretty sick form of entertainment.
Additionally, some of the challenges on the show, Temptations, offered contestants some kind of advantage if they ate calorie-dense foods. These segments belittle and sought to shame contestants while perpetuating the idea that “bad” foods will made a person gain weight instantly, further moving people away from intuitive eating and body acceptance.
These challenges are honestly horrible: in one episode, contestants earned a two pound advantage at their next weigh in if they ate desserts scattered on a table. Other times, the contestants could earn a phone call to a loved one by eating donuts or other high-fat foods, which supposedly put their weigh ins at stake. The alternative was to turn down hearing their spouse’s or their kid’s voice if they passed on the “temptation” and stuck to their diet plan. Dangling a phone call home in front of contestants’ faces seems just plain inhumane to me.
The list of problems continues with the fact that contestants supposedly received medical supervision, but they all had to sign a boatload of waivers, including one that states:
“No warranty, representation or guarantee has been made as to the qualifications or credentials of the medical professionals who examine me or perform any procedures on me in connection with my participation in the series, or their ability to diagnose medical conditions that may affect my fitness to participate in the series1“
Um, excuse me? This document states that the so-called health professionals that supervised participants’ health weren’t guaranteed to even have actual medical credentials or qualifications? That’s alarming AF, especially when dealing with something as harmful as extreme and rapid weight loss.
Aside from a potential lack of qualified health professionals, some contestants claim that coaches and doctors gave them diet pills to help accelerate their weight loss. Plenty of other allegations exist surrounding the practices used on set too, but contestants also signed waivers about not speaking out against the show. One Huffpost article reported that if former participants do speak out, the network can fine them over $1 million.2
Kai Hibbard participated on the show, and she has since spoken out and written about how The Biggest Loser has affected her in the long term. She struggled with disordered eating and compulsive exercise, especially following the birth of her son.3 It’s a tragic article to read, but it’s also important to get a first-person account of the horrors that followed being a contestant on the show. Check out her article on the National Eating Disorders Association website to learn more about her experiences.
Kai Hibbard wrote the article in response to learning that USA, the network, picked the show up and brought it back… with more of a focus on health and less on weight, apparently. They supposedly have more methods to keep participants safe, like doctors checking vitals and nutritionists creating meal plans. But at its root, this show still encourages extreme weight loss and not body acceptance or wellness. It will also still increase weight bias in our country, which we will talk about in just a bit.
I could continue listing the problematic nature of the show for days, but I’d rather move on and talk about how contestants fared after the show ended.
The 6-Year Follow-Up Study
Okay, so the show sucked, and the reboot does too. But those who made it to the end after enduring several weeks of isolated hell were all good after they got their prize money and got the heck out, right? Not exactly.
The Biggest Loser follow-up study was conducted six years after contestants left the show. It consisted of 14 participants- six men and eight women. Aside from one participant in the study, these former contestants had, on average, gained back most of the weight they had rapidly lost on the show.
The most concerning part is that contestants’ resting metabolic rate slowed down significantly without recovery in the six years after the show. They burned several hundred fewer calories per day, on average, than they did before being on The Biggest Loser, despite weighing close to what they did before the show and exercising much more in the years after.
One author of the paper, Dr. Kevin Hall, beautifully compares rapid weight loss and weight regain to a spring:
“The more effort you exert to lose weight, the more it stretches out, and the harder it will spring back, regaining and holding onto the fat that was lost.4“
The paper discusses the fact that contestants who lost the most weight the fastest seemed to also gain it back more rapidly than others, making the spring metaphor incredibly relevant.
Because of the contestants’ metabolic changes, they must continue exercising at higher rates and/or eat much less than people of similar weights just to maintain their body composition. The intensive exercise routine and diet regimen on the show really screwed contestants, and their metabolisms, over in the long term.
People often believe that exercise can “rev” or “boost” or “turbo-charge” your metabolism. The contestants continued spending tons of time exercising, and their metabolisms were still significantly slower than ever after being on the show. As far as we can tell, they could live with this slowed metabolism for the rest of their lives.
Despite the questionable practices and the possibility of causing long-term harm to participants’ bodies, shows like The Biggest Loser at least provide weight loss motivation and warm, fuzzy feelings to viewers, right? Well, research suggests that shows of this nature actually tend to increase weight bias instead.
Weight Loss Reality TV and Weight Bias
Extreme weight loss shows attempt to paint themselves as motivational stories for viewers also hoping to lose weight, or simply as feel-good entertainment. People often look to these shows for advice and inspiration, much like they turn to fitspo accounts on social media in hopes that it will give them a boost of motivation to get through their vigorous workout and juice cleanses. That’s pretty scary.
Even scarier is the fact that many recent studies have found a positive correlation between watching extreme weight loss shows and negative attitudes toward people with obesity. In the past, I thought shows like The Biggest Loser and My 600 Pound Life helped show viewers that those in larger bodies deserve empathy. Unfortunately, that doesn’t appear to be the case.
In a study from 2012, participants were shown a full episode of either The Biggest Loser or an equivalent reality show not relating to weight or weight loss. Researchers measured participants’ levels of weight bias immediately after watching the show as well as one week later. The group that watched The Biggest Loser showed significantly higher levels of weight bias and dislike of people with obesity. This group also more strongly believed that one’s weight was in their control.5
Another study found that weight loss shows might have even harsher effects on adolescents’ perceptions on obesity. Similarly to the last study, researchers had one group of teens watch clips from The Biggest Loser: Teens. The other group watched clips from an educational TV show not related to weight loss.
After each participant viewed their designated clips, they were asked a series of questions that measured beliefs and attitudes about people with obesity. The group that watched The Biggest Loser: Teens showed significantly higher rates of negative implicit bias toward people in larger bodies. Participants who expressed fear about being obese also displayed higher explicit biases, as The Biggest Loser: Teens clips reinforced the idea that people are obese because they aren’t working hard enough.6
While it cannot be said that watching extreme weight loss shows causes people to have more negative thoughts about those with obesity or that they cause more weight bias, they do appear to be related. And that, right there, is enough of a reason for me to never spend another minute tuning in.
I wonder if a realty show about Health At Every Size or intuitive eating would have a positive effect on people’s perceptions of those with obesity. I suppose that a show where people learn to accept and take care of their bodies regardless of size probably wouldn’t make enough money to get made anyway. Help people learn to love their bodies and get away from diet products isn’t super lucrative for the dieting industry.
One of my favorite book and movie series was The Hunger Games trilogy when I was growing up. I loved the strong female lead, and the idea of a messed up reality show where the final child contestant remaining was crowned the winner. This was fascinating to me. The second and third book of the series beautifully illustrated the physical and emotional trauma the former winners of the games endured for the rest of their lives.
Having people compete in a weight loss reality show may not be on the same level of messed up as as making children fight each other to the death. But in both cases, contestants suffered negative long-term effects (death or severe trauma in The Hunger Games) from being on a tv show made for the entertainment of the viewers. What does the fact that the original The Biggest Loser had millions of viewers say about the values of the culture we live in?
Despite sometimes feeling like harmless, or even wholesome, entertainment, extreme weight loss shows leave permanent physical and mental wounds for contestants that may never heal. Plus, they may help reinforce negative stereotypes and weight bias that constantly and consistently harm people in larger bodies who are just trying to live their lives and have nothing to do with the show.
We have to be careful about what we choose to watch, because tuning into a show is like voting for it to exist, just like every dollar spent on a product is a vote for a company to keep selling it. Watching shows like this only incentivizes networks to continue profiting off people in larger bodies who want to lose drastic amounts of weight because diet culture tells them that’s what they want.
Take stock of the types of media you subject yourself to as frequently as possible, and think about the consequences of consuming such media. There was clearly a large enough demand for a reboot of The Biggest Loser that made USA want to pick it up, and more of us need to divert our “votes” toward things that aren’t correlated with increased bias of any kind.
As Always, A Book Recommendation
The The Body is Not an Apology by Sonia Renee Tayor is a powerful, fascinating read. She talks about how people who appear “different” often feel like they need to apologize for how they look. This book focuses mostly on body acceptance for those in larger bodies, but she also dives into race, sexual orientation, disabilities and more.
The author embraces the idea of “radical self-love”, which is well beyond body acceptance. It’s the notion of loving yourself, your whole self, unconditionally and unapologetically. We may feel so far away from radical self-love, but according to Sonia Renee Taylor, it’s a worthwhile endeavor.
As a proud Indie Bound affiliate, I get a small commission on books and products sold using the links on my website. It doesn’t cost you anything extra! I only recommend books that I truly love and believe in, and your purchases on Indie Bound through my website support both my work and small bookstores. Thanks!
- On Reality Show to Lose Weight, Health Can Take a Back Seat – NYTimes
- Biggest Loser: Contestants Admit Dangerous Practices, Can’t Speak Out – Huffpost
- Why NOT to Watch The Biggest Loser Reboot
- The Effects of Reality Television on Weight Bias: An Examination of The Biggest Loser
- “Weak, Sad, and Lazy Fatties”: Adolescents’ Explicit and Implicit Weight Bias Following Exposure to Weight Loss Reality TV Shows
- 6 Years After The Biggest Loser, Metabolism is Slower, and Weight is Back Up
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