The Biggest Loser — Motivating or Harmful?

Like many people in the U.S., last night I watched the premiere of season 10 of NBC’s “The Biggest Loser”. I haven’t seen every season, but I’ve seen quite a few, as well as watched some of the seasons of the Australian version of the show. To be honest, I have really mixed feelings about TBL.

On one hand, there is a serious problem in America, and all over the world. People are putting on weight at a rate that has never been seen before in history. It’s not a surprise either. The small size drink at Burger King is the size that a large used to be. A typical meal at IHOP or a comparable restaurant has over 1,000 calories in it. Aside from the major portion distortion in this country, there is the fact that we’re all so busy. Work. School. People are tired before they ever get out of bed and it leads to poor choices. Not to mention how much time we all spend glued to our television sets, computers and cell phones. I know, I know. The pot calling the kettle black. It’s true though. There is nothing in the culture that promotes healthy living. People wake up one day, 100 pounds overweight and have no idea how it happened or what to do about it. Even worse are the children who are starting out with all of these lousy philosophies and habits. Kids are growing up these days without the knowledge to be anything but unhealthy.

So with such a big obesity problem, obviously a TV show like TBL must be a good idea, right?

Well, yes and no.

The way I see it is there are several pros to the public being exposed to shows like The Biggest Loser and Losing It With Jillian:

  • The audience is exposed to the idea that weight can be lost without medication or surgery through the use of proper nutrition and exercise.
  • The audience is exposed to the idea that anyone can lose weight, if they try.
  • The audience is exposed to the idea that weight loss isn’t merely a physical transformation, but also a mental and emotional change that can be just as difficult.
  • The public is exposed to the outreach programs that former contestants and the trainers provide.

When you are obese, you often feel like there is no answer to the problem. You feel helpless and unsure of where you would even begin if you were to try to get healthy. All of the major diets out there promote drastic changes, most of which include caloric deprivation and intense workout schedules. Most of these plans are near to impossible for the average person to stick to long enough to lose a significant amount of weight, and if the person does manage to achieve the “results not typical” endpoint, they almost always put ALL of the weight back on…or worse, they put on MORE weight than they started with. This leaves the person frustrated, depressed and feeling worthless. So they look to surgery or pills to solve their problems.

Weight Loss game shows are positive, because they actually do teach the contestants (and the viewers at home) about nutrition and fueling their body. They talk about calories in and calories out. The contestants aren’t on drugs, they’re not having surgery. They’re just eating and exercising, which is in fact, all one has to do to lose weight. The viewer sees these individuals starting out the process at extreme weights and then through hard work and sweat, they lose the weight. They see the back stories for all of the contestants and they watch the emotional breakthroughs (and breakdowns) each person goes through to get to the finale. The audience starts to think that if these people who have the same problems and struggles as they do can lose all of the weight, then they can too. It inspires people to get up off of the couch. Why? Because the audience feels that this is the real deal.

Which leads me to the cons:

  • This is NOT the real deal.
  • The audience is exposed to unrealistic weight loss goals.
  • The audience is exposed to unrealistic fitness goals.
  • The audience is misled to believe that the results are typical.
  • The audience is misled to believe that the nutrition and fitness advice presented to them is actually what got the contestants to their goal weights.
  • The audience is exposed to a bombardment of product placement.
  • I repeat, this is NOT the real deal.

The fact of the matter is, The Biggest Loser is a GAME SHOW. Pure and simple. The problem is that many people don’t view it as such. Even one of the people on last night’s show said something to the effect of, “This is the only diet plan that he’s ever seen that works. Where the people keep it off.” People view TBL as a diet plan. While as a game show and a motivational tool it may excel, as a diet plan, TBL completely fails.

The show has people losing 10 pounds a week, which is in no way healthy or responsible. The amount of weight these contestants lose weekly is more weight than people who’ve had gastric bypass lose in the same time period. Healthy weight loss is somewhere in the ballpark of 1-2 pounds per week, with the understanding that sometimes you may lose more, sometimes you may lose less and sometimes you may lose nothing. Sometimes you may even gain. Why? Because that’s the way the body works. Why does it work that way? Probably because dramatic weight loss can lead to heart attacks and all sorts of other medical complications. So all of these people at home who believe this is a healthy diet plan try to emulate it on their own and when they don’t lose 15 pounds in 5 days they freak out and consider themselves failures. They feel that they aren’t good enough, that even the weight loss plan where everyone can succeed doesn’t work for them. It’s crushing. Or life threatening if they overdo it and tax their bodies beyond what they are capable of handling.

So why do these contestants lose so much on the ranch? Because it is television. If people didn’t lose dramatic amounts of weight, no one would watch the show. If you remember back to the first season, the weigh ins were in no way as extreme. Sure it was probably more weight than you would lose at home, but it wasn’t 20lbs in a week. Then all of a sudden people were dropping MASSIVE amounts of weight. America has this problem with instant gratification. The network knows this, so they’re providing the viewer with just that. Instant weight loss. How? Well, some past contestants, like Kai Hibbard suggest dehydration and caloric deprivation (yes, just like in all of your typical fad diets) take place. Other contestants have admitted the same thing. Aside from that, there is of course the less dramatic reason–the ranch is a controlled environment. There are no cupcakes on the counter, beer in the fridge nor is there pizza delivery when you are on the ranch. All of your choices are healthy, so obviously you’re going to be eating better than if you were in reach of a Jack in the Box.

The least important aspect of TBL that really irks me is the product placement. Yes, yes. I know. Without advertising there is no money to produce the shows. But, really, you don’t need Glad Ware to keep your food fresh, nor do you need to eat a certain type of gelatin or yogurt for a snack. You don’t need fancy gym equipment nor a BodyBugg to lose weight. Anyone can lose weight. Sure, I sometimes buy something to aid in my weight loss/fitness efforts. I just bought new shoes on Monday and I do have a Polar Heart Rate Monitor…but I didn’t get these things straight off the bat. It was probably 6-8 months of weight loss before I bothered to get a heart rate monitor and I only got the shoes because my body is falling apart. People at home think, “Gee, I want to get healthy, but I can’t afford the healthy snacks, Brita filters and fancy watches. I guess I’ll just have to be fat.” If only these people knew they could just drink from the tap…this isn’t Mexico, after all!

So I guess you’re wondering why I watch the show despite all of these bad examples being set.

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For the same reason everyone else does. I like final weigh ins with the dramatic before and after shots. I like to see the contestants work through the same emotional struggles I went through while losing weight. I like the excitement. Plus, I won’t lie to you. I do find motivation in the show, despite its faults. When I see these people pushing through their workouts, Bob and Jillian yelling at them, it motivates me to try harder. The next time I’m working out, I remind myself that if they can go another 30 seconds, then so can I. This is the positive part of the show. If it wasn’t for this aspect, I probably wouldn’t bother tuning in at all.

I think it is great that so many people have been inspired to get up off of the couch and do something about their lives because of this show. I really do. I just worry about those who will be harmed by their desperation to achieve what they see on TV. The BIggest Loser spends lots of time taking credit for all of the good that the show spreads, but I think it only fair that they take some responsibility for the harm it causes as well.

What do you guys think of The BIggest Loser?

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4 Responses to The Biggest Loser — Motivating or Harmful?

  1. I think I agree with you pretty much on all aspects. I find the show entertaining, but hate how sponsorships get worked into the show. I also don’t like the emphasis on ALL exercise, and little guidance with eating healthfully. I actually haven’t it watched it in a long time so I’m not sure if this has changed much, but I’m not a huge fan of the show.

    • girlinchucks says:

      I think that it really just needs to be separated in the public’s mind from a “diet plan”. It’s a game show. It’s like when people eat bugs for a ton of money. I mean, yes, these people need to lose weight, but they don’t need to work out 8 hours a day and eat 1200 calories to do it. Thy don’t need to be beaten down mentally and physically to get to those emotional breakthroughs–they come naturally. It just sort of feels like they are being exploited because they are in a helpless situation. Sure, they signed up for the program. Signed legal documents. Made promises. But still, something doesn’t seem right.

      BUT, at the same time, it’s nice that people are encouraged to lose weight when watching the show. I guess for everything positive, there is also an opposite reaction.

  2. brightbakes says:

    Bravo. Well written.
    Cathy B. @ brightbakes

  3. Susan says:

    Hi there – I saw your link on SparkPeople (I’m SeppieSusan there) and I totally agree with you! I’ve stopped watching the show because I’m sick of the product placement stuff and the unbalanced emphasis on exercise over nutrition. Well that, and my husband makes fun of the whole concept. We watched a movie instead on Tuesday night.

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