The Rider And The Elephant And The Biggest Losers

Readers send me links to articles all the time.  (Bless all of you who do.)  Some articles are particularly newsworthy or timely and become fodder for blog posts.  Others don’t and end up in what I now think of as the Cold Case Files.  They’re old, but still worth digging out now and then for a second look.

I just came across one that deserves a second look because it relates to my recent posts on how U.S. News ranked the popular diets and The Rider And The Elephant.  I poked fun at how U.S. News ranked the Slim Fast diet #13 while placing the paleo diet 35th out of 35 – because it’s just so darned hard to follow, you see.  What I didn’t mention in that post is that the Biggest Loser diet was ranked #9.  The U.S. News panel of experts had this to say about eating like a Biggest Loser:

The diet received high marks for short-term weight loss, safety and soundness as a regimen for diabetes, and it was rated moderately effective for heart health.

Good for short-term weight loss — and it must not be hard to follow, because according to the (ahem) logic the panelists cited while putting paleo at the bottom of the list, a difficult diet should earn a bad score.

We know the Biggest Loser diet is good for short-term weight loss because we see people losing impressive amounts of weight during weekly weigh-ins on the TV show, right? Uh-huh … so let’s take a look at an article from an Australian news service I found in my Cold Case Files:

Andrew ‘Cosi’ Costello was a contestant on the Biggest Loser in 2008 … Today, Cosi writes exclusively for about what contestants really have to go through on the hit Channel 10 show.

“The only thing that really disappoints me about the Biggest Loser is the length of time between the weigh-ins. Have you ever wondered how the contestants manage to lose a staggering 12 kilos in a single week? We don’t. In my series a weekly weigh-in was NEVER filmed after just one week of working out. In fact the longest gap from one weigh-in to the next was three and a half weeks. That’s 25 days between weigh-ins, not seven. That “week” I lost more than nine kilos. I had to stand on the scales and was asked to say the line, “wow, it’s a great result, I’ve worked really hard this week”. The producers made sure that we never gave this secret away, because if we did, it created a nightmare for them in the editing suite. The shortest gap from weigh-in to weigh-in during our series was 16 days. That’s a fact.”

So that short-tem weight loss isn’t as impressive as the U.S. News panelists think it is.

“The thing is, overweight people get inspired by watching the Biggest Loser. They get off the couch and they hit the gym. But after a week in the real world, some people might only lose 1kg so they feel like they’ve failed and they give up.  That’s where the show is misleading. You need to remember it’s a TV show, it’s not all real. In fact, not even the scales we stood on were real.”

Awesome.  So people watching the show try starving themselves and horsewhipping themselves into hours of exercise so they can achieve a similarly awesome seven-day weight loss … except the weight loss might have actually required 25 days and was measured on a not-real scale, at least while the cameras were rolling.

“I would say that about 75 per cent of the contestants from my series in 2008 are back to their starting weight. About 25 per cent had had gastric banding or surgery.”

If 75 percent are back to the their starting weight and 25 percent had bariatric surgery, that would leave … hang on, let me get out the calculator … almost nobody achieving long-term weight loss.

Yes, but … uh … the short-term weight loss is good.  Just ask the experts consulted by U.S. News.

“Anyone can lose weight in a controlled environment; I’d say it’s almost impossible not to lose weight on the Biggest Loser.  But the show doesn’t address the reasons why people like me are so obsessed and addicted to eating excess amounts of food; it doesn’t get to the root of the problem.”

Bingo.  People who go on The Biggest Loser are (as the article makes clear) agreeing to be in lockdown.  Same goes for people who participate in metabolic ward studies.  And yes, under those circumstances, you can probably demonstrate that all weight-loss diets work as long as the dieter sticks to the diet, as some internet cowboys like to point out.  So what?  All that tells us is that if you lock the elephant in a cell, he doesn’t run away — because he can’t.  But he’ll be miserable the whole time, and when he’s no longer in lockdown, he won’t be hanging around for long – even if the rider thinks he should.

When Ancel Keys conducted his semi-starvation study in the 1940s, the participants were in lockdown.  Yup, they lost weight.  They also lost their energy, their ability to concentrate, their sex drive, their desire to talk about much of anything besides food, and – in a couple of cases – their sanity.  One man bit off his own finger to get released from the study.  That’s an elephant being pretty damned determined to run away.  Soon after the study ended, all of the men regained the lost weight, and some gained more than they’d lost.  After being starved, the elephant wanted to protect itself against future starvation.

So again, I don’t give a rat’s rear-end what the (ahem) experts consulted by U.S. News consider a good diet.  A good diet is a diet that keeps the elephant happy instead of dragging him to a place he doesn’t want to go.  And I doubt the Biggest Loser diet fits that definition for most people.


37 thoughts on “The Rider And The Elephant And The Biggest Losers

  1. Alex R

    A truly useful Biggest Loser show would be mostly a cooking show, with a couple specials on basic physiology/hormones, and on strength training.

      1. Craig Rich

        I was going to mention the cracked article too. Another one came out recently:

        Every time I learn something about that show (which I’ve never watched), I remember that I can’t believe anything I see on tv. There are many websites dedicated to showing how few people who go on the show actually keep the weight off. More evidence that the “experts” aren’t so bright. Thanks for your awesome posts.

      2. Boundless

        TBL is far more sinister than just being a crock.

        It sends a seriously discouraging message to anyone who wants to lose weight – that it’s really hard, involves a lot of exercise, plus difficult portion control (which it does whilst eating the appetite-provoking sponsor’s products).

        I also hear that any contestant or staffer who who discovers the secret of low carb, and makes the fatal error of mentioning it, rather quickly becomes an unperson.

        Exercise is great, of course, and essential for health, but is horribly inefficient for weight loss per se, both because of the enormous exertion required per calorie, and because it tends to build muscle mass, which isn’t exactly weightless.

        1. Tom Naughton Post author

          Good point. Imagine how many people see all that starvation and exercise and think, “If that’s what it takes, I give up.”

  2. Ulfric Douglas

    “Contestants collapsing, 8 hour work-outs, peeing urine, vomiting…”
    You do know that peeing urine is quite normal and I’ve heard many folk do just that…

      1. Esther

        I thought the peeing urine comment was a little strange so I read the link. According to the article, one of the contestants was peeing blood, I think that’s what the poster really meant to say.

        1. jackisback

          At least I made you read it. 😛 But yes, blood in urine from kidney failure. Not a good way to lose weight by any measure.

  3. Desmond

    So what did U.S. News rank high for long-term weight loss? The Leg-Amputation-Diet? It does work, and makes for helluvagood TV!

      1. Thomas E.

        Actually, the cynic in me says, with the modern diet, the loss of any possible exercise would probably allow anyone using the Leg-amputation-diet to regain all the weight.

  4. Michael Steadman

    In addition to the above-cited points, people also need to remember that The Biggest Loser is a television show, hence about entertainment; that’s the purpose of all TV, to entertain. Plus, the show is a half-baked product placement infomercial for Subway, Brita Filters and Planet Fitness. It does a nice job of entertaining with its dramatic “transformations,” but it’s hardly a good source for health. Thanks for the much-needed smackdown this show needed!

  5. Bret

    All The Biggest Loser gives its participants are ruined joints, fatigued muscles, slowed metabolisms, and therefore (consistent with the Keys study you mentioned) fatter bodies a few months later. And much of the viewing public, ignorant of all the aforementioned, just eats it up. Barf.

    The producers made sure that we never gave this secret away, because if we did, it created a nightmare for them in the editing suite.

    Reminds me of an old Penn & Teller BS episode that mentioned how the snake oil salesmen in the weight loss industry pay naturally thin people to eat up while they’re sedentary (due to injury, hospital bed rest, whatever) and then, when they return to their normal lifestyle and lose the weight, say the gimmicky industry product was responsible. Of course, a rabid nondisclosure agreement keeps these guilty consciences from speaking up and busting the chicanery.

    So again, I don’t give a rat’s rear-end what the (ahem) experts consulted by U.S. News consider a good diet.

    Hear, hear! I’ll take the wisdom of crowds over the vision of the anointed any day.

    1. Tom Naughton Post author

      I saw that Penn & Teller show. It was a good one — well, all their “Bull@#$%” shows were good ones in my book.

  6. Thomas E.

    Thought I would add, many thanks for your book recommendation of “Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts”

    I am about 1/3 of the way through it, and it explains several people who have been in my life.

    Interestingly, I am over half way through “Low Carb, High Fat Food Revolution: Advice and Recipes to Improve Your Health and Reduce Your Weight” by Andreas Eenfeldt, MD. It was most interesting to read his commentary on the state of the world (re: science and medical) with the first few chapters of “Mistakes Were Made” under my belt.

    I highly recommend both books!

    1. Tom Naughton Post author

      I first heard about “Mistake Were Made” from Dr. Mike Eades. The book doesn’t talk at all about nutrition (as you probably know by now), but it does a brilliant job of explaining why people refuse to change their beliefs.

      1. Firebird

        This is now one of my favorite all time quotes:

        “One of the saddest lessons of history is this: If we’ve been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. We’re no longer interested in finding out the truth. The bamboozle has captured us. It’s simply too painful to acknowledge, even to ourselves, that we’ve been taken. Once you give a charlatan power over you, you almost never get it back.”

        ― Carl Sagan

        1. Tom Naughton Post author

          Very relevant quote. I guess it’s human nature. We just don’t like accepting that we’ve been fooled. Con men certainly figured out that one a long time ago.

  7. Bo Tomas

    Well if they did LCHF they would loose at least 2 kilos a week , remember this croud is 150 plus kilos to begin with so they will loose a lot per week the first year

    When they reach about 85 -90 kg then they have to start counting calories and do pushups to get the sixpack.

    For uberfat people: Eat less and run more in the forest….. Hogwash!
    You eat to loose the weigt with ample fat, stressing fat folks with exercice only hurting them.

    Biggest Looser is torture and inhumane. And make no medical sence whatsoever.

    you will exercising yourself to the hospital if you following Biggest Loosser model.

    And besides almost all of them gain back all of there wheigt in a coulpe of years.

    Start running when you are fit and slim….

    Apologizing for my bad spelling, I am not American/english.

    /Bo Tomas

    Thank you Mr Naughton for a great blog, i think you are Great sir 🙂

    1. Tom Naughton Post author

      No apologies necessary. Your IP address is in Sweden, and trust me, your English is way better than my Swedish.


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