Saturday, January 9, 2010

The Biggest Loser

How many of you are fans of The Biggest Loser? One reader asked for my opinion on the show, wondering if it is a good show for people to watch for inspiration when they are trying to lose weight. Excellent question.

Having worked in the weight loss industry for over 16 years, I have many opinions on the approach The Biggest Loser is using. First of all, we need to remember the primary goal of the show is to entertain and to make money. It has to be--otherwise it gets cancelled. They do this by making people want to watch what happens every week: who's going to make it, who isn't? They don't prioritize what is best for each individual's long term success. Let's take a look...

The Strengths:
  • Shows that weight loss is possible, even for those who have lots of body fat to lose.
  • Presents the importance of nutrition, exercise and group support (team spirit!)
  • Shows that determination and focus are necessary for success.
  • Inspires many to start losing their own weight.
  • Belief: if they can do it, I can do it.
  • Gives ideas for weight loss.
The Weaknesses:
  • Contestants experience unrealistic weight loss. Safe weight loss is no more that 2# each week. When viewers lose their own awesome 1 or 2#, they often feel like a failure, since that is the message the show delivers. That's just nuts! Losing more than 2# per week can be dangerous: muscle mass and bone density have been shown to be lost at rates of 3 and more pounds per week. Yikes! The show never mentions that.
  • Unrealistic workouts. When you lose weight, the best thing that you can do is to exercise the way you are willing to continue for the rest of you life---not just while you lose the weight. I have seen this happen way too often. When people exercise for 2 hours a day and more to lose the weight, and then go back to 1/2 hour per day to maintain their weight loss, they end up gaining weight. On the show, contestants exercise for hours each day. When they go back "off the farm," to their normal life of work and daily stresses, they are going to have a very rude awakening as to what it takes to eat and exercise to maintain or lose weight.
  • Constant monitoring/support. Out in the real world, people who lose weight have to dig deep inside themselves and find internal resources that help them succeed: control, focus, determination, etc. This is actually critical for their long term success. Successful weight losers often find some help from support systems in groups, from coaches or at least on other person, but they also learn handle themselves individually, too. External support doesn't normally come 24/7. On the show, the contestants are under constant supervision and coaching. Are they given a chance to learn to monitor themselves?
  • Artificially safe food environment. The Biggest Loser contestants aren't doing their own grocery shopping, making dinner for their families, eating out and making real life food decisions. It's much easier to lose weight this way! But, the struggle of making your own food choices is part of the learning process which that is critical to long term success in changing into that healthy, svelte, buff person....and learning to stay that way forever.
  • Long term behavior changes. Telling the contestants how they should behave when they get home is one thing, but does it help when they haven't been doing it that way through the entire show? Its kind of like taking a basketball team and having them practice for the entire season running plays from one play book, practicing them over and over...everything works great. Now its play-off time. You have an entirely different play book with a new set of plays. Your coach won't be there, but you are told to just read those new plays, and you'll be fine. Practicing those plays is so overrated, right? Wrong! Practice is what we need. How many of those Biggest Loser contestants have been interviewed much later, and how many gained weight back?
If you enjoy watching The Biggest Loser because it motivates you and it fires you up to be successful getting you going on your own healthy eating and exercise program, watch it!! Just don't watch this show as a model for how to lose weight or for what to expect as you are losing weight. Remember, its just entertainment!

And, as for me, the negative coaching (yelling?) presenting a 1# weight loss as a failure, workouts until you drop, unrealistic drives me crazy. I am a positive, encouraging coach and work with what is best for individuals, and it has worked wonderfully for years!

Don't Give Up What You Want the Most For What You Want at the Moment....


  1. This show drives me crazy! I have heard contestants who have maintained weight loss later say that they are exercising 3-4 hours per day. How is that reasonable for most of us? I saw part of a follow-up show called "Confessions of a Reality Show Loser" that featured the winner of season 3, and he had gained back 75% of the weight he had lost. Very sad.
    This is a good reminder that if I lose 1/2 lb., that is a success! And, really, if I gain a lb. and get back on the program, that is a success too. Be that frog...

  2. I heard the exercise is closer to 6 hours a day, with 2-3 hours of circuit training with the trainer--the rest is cardio on their own.

    I also read in their book that in order to maintain the weight loss, contestants are told by the doctor (Dr. H on the show) that they will have to work out at a high intensity for 1-11/2 every day for the rest of their life!

    I think it just sets up unrealistic goals for many people....and people think the only way you can be successful is to work out for excessive time and be a "perfect" eater. It kind of reinforces the "all or nothing" mentality that many weight loss organizations tout.

  3. Yeah, Amy! I am glad you can see that in spite of the show. A half pound loss is terrific--think of losing 2 sticks of butter off your body. If you do that every week for a year, it adds up to 52 sticks of butter melted away...26 pounds! Celebrate real success!!

    I didn't know there was a Biggest Loser book out there, probably because I wasn't looking. Committing to 1 1/2 hours of HIGH intensity exercise for the rest of your life would turn most people off before they even started. You hit it right on: totally unrealistic.

  4. Being a fan of the show, I completely understand that it is not realistic to lose weight that way. I like the tips and the emotional involvement in the show. It also motivates me to try to avoid ever becoming that heavy.

    However, I have heard several of my friends say that watching it makes them feel like eating junk food. Pretty interesting.


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