'The Biggest Loser': Just Heart Attacks Waiting to Happen

biggest loser T shirtLike a lot of you, I got sucked in to The Biggest Loser phenomenon. I tried to resist, but inadvertently clicked to one show during the weigh-in portion, and continued to watch in somewhat horrified fascination as person after person came to the scale and posted a weight loss of 8, 9, even 10 pounds for the week.

The contestants get praised for setting records for the fastest weight loss and the first to lose 100 pounds, with the emphasis on quick results. The other half of the show focuses on the long, tough workouts, with trainers alternately barking out orders or playing touchy-feely shrink. It's really "grabby" TV; what makes it such good TV, though, is exactly what makes it terrible, terrible dieting advice.


Dietitian Susan Dopart put it bluntly in The Huffington Post, saying, "This show does America a disservice by focusing on short-term gains rather than long-term success."

She points out, rightfully, that losing weight that fast is unhealthy and puts your body into panic mode. This slows down your metabolism, so it's harder to keep the weight off. The most successful approach is to commit to losing weight, exercise regularly, and reduce your food intake by 10 to 20 percent.

Former contestants are coming out against the show's approach, as well. Some have claimed contestants would drink very little water in the 24 hours leading up to a weigh-in, and would work out with layers of clothing on in order to sweat as much as possible. About half have gained all or most of their weight back.

Even trainer Jillian Michaels has said she's afraid the show's going to kill someone, because they take obese, sedentary people and throw them into a program of six-hour workouts and major calorie restriction. Dr. Charles Burant, director of the Michigan Metabolomics and Obesity Center, told The New York Times last fall he's waiting for the first heart attack on The Biggest Loser, because of the stresses rapid weight loss can put on the heart.

And certainly, someone being rushed to the hospital has become a standard of the show. Seems like it happens at least once a season, usually when they're making these people engage in truly questionable behavior like running a mile in the heat on their first day or running a marathon with a month to train and no previous running experience.

My personal beefs with the show are:

  • It discourages people who are sitting on the couch watching the show from actually doing anything. It sets up successful weight loss as something that is only achievable if you have several hours a day to go to the gym, a trainer at your disposal, and someone else cooking your food. The key to successful weight loss is to make it fit your life, not to retreat from your life and then come home thinner but with the same old challenges.
  • We almost never see what they eat. I mean, this Aussie guy shows up sometimes and tries to convince them turkey burgers are just as appealing as a fast food version, but usually we know nothing of their nutrition. I'd like to know more about that, because exercise is only one weapon in the weight loss arsenal.

Do you watch The Biggest Loser? Do you think it helps or hurts people's weight loss efforts?


Image via NBCUniversalStore.com

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