There’s a popular show on television heading into its fifteenth season. It revolves around sixteen contestants vying for approval and facing weekly elimination to get at the elusive goal that has been stirring in the hearts of girls since they were teens.
Only one will ultimately succeed but sadly, as the New York Times stated in its article, longterm success is almost impossible to hang on to. After five years most of the contestants will be even worse off than when they started.
The show I speak of is not The Bachelor, rather, The Biggest Loser – although all of the same qualities seem to apply. Just like almost everyone in the world has searched for love, often in all the wrong places, including villas with fifteen other sketchy/over-groomed/needlessly aggressive/”not here to make friends” bachelors, almost every American has searched just as hard to find weigh loss.
Because of the absurd set up, The Biggest Loser sends a wrong and discouraging message both in the initial viewing, and now, in the longterm follow up. And considering the dire consequences of obesity in America, this is not just depressing, but dangerous.
In the real world lasting love and lasting lean are hard to find. The divorce rate is depressing, but worse, check out the stats on weight loss. Just throw in the towel already. The likelihood of losing weight and keeping it off longterm is way under ten percent. You might as well give up now. Or so much of the messaging we receive would have us believe.
Enter The Biggest Loser. Surely a custom engineered television show with all of the greatest medical minds in Hollywood can come to the rescue. But if after twelve weeks of grueling exercise to the tune of seven hours a day with a paid professional motivating/shaming you can’t get you thin, what possibly can? Well maybe the tiny micromeals? Not yet. Gorging on asparagus, because it’s a natural diuretic dontcha know? Still not there. How about dehydrating to the point of peeing blood when the cameras are off? Because these are all of the things that happen on and, more importantly, off camera during the show.
The custom engineering makes it a hugely entertaining hit. When you give struggling contestants on the brink of collapse the option to either phone a loved one or eat a piece a delicious cake?! It’s intense. We relate. We cheer. The emotions!
Ultimately, even in their success, we are discouraged. Who in their day to day lives has the time and resources and masochistic tendencies to try and pull off this kind of “success”? Is this really the only way it can be done. In terms of teaching and setting an example for weight loss, it’s about as good as turning to House Wives of Your Favorite City for solid relationship and business advice. The show routinely has people losing ten whole pounds a week for three months. Ten. A week. It’s bordering on the absurd.
But we live in a world where more people watch cat videos than can name our vice president, so absurd it is. So the National Institutes of Health tracked the contestants of Season 8 for five years and recently released their longterm findings. It didn’t work out so well for our contestants.
To quote The New York Times : “When the show began, the contestants, though hugely overweight, had normal metabolisms for their size, meaning they were burning a normal number of calories for people of their weight. When it ended, their metabolisms had slowed radically and their bodies were not burning enough calories to maintain their thinner sizes. … What shocked the researchers was what happened next: As the years went by and the numbers on the scale climbed, the contestants’ metabolisms did not recover. They became even slower, and the pounds kept piling on. It was as if their bodies were intensifying their effort to pull the contestants back to their original weight.” The article quoted Dr. Michael Rosenbaum who said, “The difficulty in keeping weight off reflects biology, not a pathological lack of willpower.”
So here it’s discouraging again, right? Even if you are hugely successful at losing weight, you’re bound to put it all back on and worse, you’re metabolism won’t recover! Are you really surprised though? Because there’s no way that shaving off ten pounds of weight a week could possibly disrupt your metabolism in a dramatic and seemingly longterm fashion?
It takes a woman nine whole months to make a huge 10 pound baby. These contestants are giving birth to a belly baby every single week. Have you seen what happened to Octomom? Or Kate Plus 8. That’s only eight. They are destroyed after the ordeal.
Trying to lose that much weight that quickly doesn’t even happen when you’re starving on a desert island. So to call The Biggest Loser unrealistic, by any definition, is an understatement. In the defense of the research, if you delve into the technical aspects of the NIH study, as with most scientific literature, it gets complicated and vague and lacks any hard and fast real world advice.
That’s the way it goes with research. (It’s also the reason we have no idea whether coffee is “good” or “bad,” and someone is screaming about “the latest research” every other week on the Huffington Post.) Solid recommendations should be based on huge amounts of evidence and not just twelve reality television celebs. The study acknowledges this.
(As an aside, I do love that the studies these days are talking about weight gain not being a “a pathological lack of willpower.” Finally.)
The problem lies in the fact that once the media picks up on these things, opinions start to form and people’s personal health decisions are made. One commenter wrote to The Times that she was just plain done with trying to lose weight, and was going to just accept herself as heavy. Done and done.
Accepting yourself is obviously a great thing regardless of your weight, or any other factor, but having a discouraging, and dare I say, misleading, article that breaks the camel’s back for a woman’s motivation for controlling her weight sucks.
Misleading because there are many people that have succeeded in longterm weight loss. They are in the National Registry, and I have personally worked with hundreds of them myself over the last fifteen years. As have many of my colleagues.
To try and convince anyone to put down the remote and stop watching the human train wreck that is The Biggest Loser is obviously a losing battle. To ask that people get on their treadmill while watching, that’s a little bit more reasonable.
More so, to advise people to not be discouraged when bizarre torture fails to turn into longterm health success is probably the best I can hope for. And let’s face it, if you took sixteen unwilling participants and put them through twelve weeks of The Biggest Loser, you would absolutely call it torture. “Here Jenny, you can call your worried mother OR smell this chocolate cake!”
Instead of calling the show The Biggest Loser, they should just cut to the chase and call it The Hunger Games. Because like all games, it’s entertainment, and when we look to it for sensible advice or examples of success, we become the biggest losers.