The Biggest Loser … Still Crazy After All These Years

Around this time last year, I wrote a post titled The Rider And The Elephant, which briefly summarized a concept from the book The Happiness Hypothesis. Here’s a quote from my post:

The author, a psychologist named Jonathan Haidt, presents an explanation of human behavior that I like so much, I’m borrowing it (with attribution) for the book I’m writing for kids.

As Haidt explains it, your body and your unconscious mind are like an elephant. Your conscious mind – the part of you that thinks and makes plans and vows – is like a rider on top of the elephant. We like to think the rider is in control. But he isn’t, at least not if he tries to guide the elephant somewhere the elephant doesn’t want to go – like, say, into a fire.

And later in the post:

If evolution has hard-wired one survival instinct into every living creature on earth, it’s got to be this: don’t starve. Starvation means death. In our conscious minds, we may believe going hungry for weeks on end is a fine idea if we’ll look good in a swimsuit by summer. But the elephant disagrees… If you simply starve yourself, you’re dragging the elephant somewhere he doesn’t want to go.

I followed that post with one titled The Rider And The Elephant And The Biggest Losers. Here’s a quote from that one:

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.

I don’t suppose many of us need more proof that The Biggest Loser is a b.s. show promoting insane ideas about weight loss. But what the heck, an article about the show from the U.K. Guardian landed in my inbox a few weeks ago, and I can’t pass up an opportunity to take another swipe at a show I believe is causing people to harm themselves. Here are some quotes:

The Biggest Loser is back. After more than a 30% drop in ratings last season, some were questioning if the competitive weight loss reality show would be canceled completely. But after considerable delay, its 17th season will premiere on Monday on NBC. The question is, with so much criticism suggesting the show does more harm than good, whether it should return at all?

“It was the biggest mistake of my life,” Kai Hibbard, the winner of season three told the Guardian. As part of the application process Hibbard had to sign a non-disclosure agreement forbidding her from publicly speaking about the show without first getting approval from a public relations representative from NBC. But her experience has prompted her to be an outspoken critic regardless of a possible lawsuit, though she has received several cease and desist letters from the network.

Winner of season three … that means we’re talking about a woman who’s had more than a decade to reflect on what being a contestant did to her. If she’s still mad, I’m thinking there’s a good reason.

In an interview with the Guardian, Hibbard described incessant fat shaming by trainers, “ridiculous” exercise regimens that were done solely for entertainment purposes, dehydration for weigh-ins, and manipulation by producers to pick winners and create “villains”.

Sounds almost as bad as a presidential primary debate.

“In my season there was a woman named Heather who was made to look like a combative, lazy bitch,” Hibbard said. “But in actuality, she had a torn calf muscle and had developed bursitis in both knees. When she refused to run, they edited it to make her look lazy.”

A torn calf muscle and bursitis in both knees. Boy, that exercise program designed by Jillian Michaels must really rock.

According to Hibbard, the show’s producers try to lead viewers to believe contestants have lost weight faster than they have. “Nobody on the show lost 20 pounds in a week,” she said. “Once, ‘a week’ was actually three weeks because of the shooting schedule.”

Folks, trust me on this: if you ever lose 20 pounds in a week, get yourself in to see an oncologist as quickly as possible.

“There is no good reason to pick up a piece of driftwood and sprint down the beach when you weigh 265 pounds, except that it looks good for the camera,” Hibbard said. The contestants are pushed to do daily workouts that are approximately 10 times the amount that is recommended by the American College of Sports Medicine. The fact that vomit buckets are always nearby, and regularly used, is telling.

Sounds like a perfect regimen for sending cortisol levels through the roof.

According to one former contestant, the extreme weight loss tactics used on the show lead to a high relapse rate. Suzanne Mendonca, from season two, explained to the New York Post last year that the reason why The Biggest Loser is reluctant to do a show reunion is “because we’re all fat again”.

Of course. When you finally let the elephant out of that prison cell, he runs from the fire. Or if you prefer a more scientific explanation:

According to one former contestant, the extreme weight loss tactics used on the show lead to a high relapse rate. Suzanne Mendonca, from season two, explained to the New York Post last year that the reason why The Biggest Loser is reluctant to do a show reunion is “because we’re all fat again”.

Eric Ravussin, a professor of human physiology at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, published a study on The Biggest Loser in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism. His findings help explain why Biggest Loser contestants put back on the weight they lost so quickly.

Ravussin and his team compared 12 people from The Biggest Loser with 12 people who lost similar amounts of weight via gastric bypass surgery. Because of the former’s extreme exercise regimens, the show’s contestants lost less muscle and more fat than the surgery group, but their drop in resting metabolic rate was double that of the gastric bypass group.

In other words, despite all the exercise, the metabolisms of the “biggest losers” crashed hard – much harder than those who lose weight at a gentler pace.

So these poor saps are starved and worked half to death, then they’re sent out into the world with depressed metabolisms and expected to keep the weight off.  Pure insanity.  Way to go, Biggest Loser!

Of course, the average weight-loss “expert” promotes what we could call Biggest Loser Lite: just semi-starve yourself and then spend hours on a treadmill.  Or if you’re a kid, eat your USDA-approved, low-fat, low-calorie school lunch and then Let’s Move!

Jillian Michaels quit the show after a dozen years. She said at the time it was partly because she was being unfairly portrayed as an abusive person. Well, unless the producers had a gun to her head when these scenes were filmed, she was an abusive person:

If you don’t know enough to stop pushing an obese person when he feels dizzy and nauseated, you shouldn’t be a trainer – for anyone. Another incident should have made that clear to the producers long before Michaels quit:

In 2009, contestant Tracey Yukich collapsed after being made to run a mile and had to be airlifted to hospital. It was sold as being heat exhaustion, but Hibbard said her sources reported Yukich suffered from rhabdomyolysis, a serious and potentially fatal condition that can be caused by overexertion.

That’s one good reason to dislike The Biggest Loser. Here’s another:

A 2012 study published in Obesity found that watching a single episode of The Biggest Loser generated significantly higher levels of dislike for people with obesity.

Shame does not encourage weight loss. In fact, it accomplishes the opposite. In a 2013 paper published in PLoS ONE, researchers from Florida State University asserted that not only does stigmatizing obesity lead to poorer mental health outcomes, but the authors stated: “Rather than motivating individuals to lose weight, weight discrimination increases risk for obesity.”

Ya mean fat-shaming people might raise their cortisol levels and trigger even more weight gain? Has anybody informed MeMe Roth?

The Biggest Loser is technically entertainment. But that entertainment comes at a high social cost. Shaming contestants, encouraging dangerous exercise and regimens, promoting nearly impossible weight loss targets leads Dr Freedhoff to the conclusion that “the Biggest Loser is everything that’s wrong with weight loss in America”.

Yup. And yet it still has fans.

Despite the vast amounts of criticism from physicians, obesity researchers and professional trainers, there are still some who praise the show, and say it’s changed their lives. Even the first lady, Michelle Obama, has appeared on it twice.

Great. She’s probably looking for ideas to incorporate into her Healthy, Hunger Free Kids campaign.


50 thoughts on “The Biggest Loser … Still Crazy After All These Years

  1. William Norman

    I’m enjoying “My Diet is Better Than Yours” much better… The idea of competitors on varying diet plans is more appealing.

      1. Helen

        Abel James, “the Fat-Burning Man” is one of the trainers. Without giving you any big spoilers, his contestant, Kurt, is doing amazing. You have to see it!

  2. j

    All these “health shows” (Biggest Loser, Dr. Oz, etc) are entertainment shows…no one should take them seriously..too bad people do..
    I give them as much credibility as I would give a show like Jersey Shore credibility..

    “Even the first lady, Michelle Obama, has appeared on it twice.”

    Hopefully, this doesnt lead to a Biggest Loser Kids Edition spinoff…

    1. Tom Naughton Post author

      Well, the First Lady has already decided kids are fat because school lunches contain too much fat and too many calories, so perhaps she took notes during her Biggest Loser appearances.

    2. Scooze

      The Biggest Loser may be considered “entertainment”, but it affects society. It destroys the health of the contestants, and glorifies a lifestyle that can kill people. Plus as this article points out, people who watch it become less compassionate toward fat people. Terrible.

      1. j

        Entertainment being kind of a loose term here..It’s not too far away from the type of entertainment found in that foretelling ‘documentary’ called Idiocracy..(Ow my b***s, anyone?)

  3. Tom Welsh

    I have never seen the show, nor would I want to. But from your description of it, I wonder whether the underlying idea is rather like the Roman games – a theatre of cruelty, allowing spectators to revel in the pain of the participants.

    As has become customary nowadays, this bloodthirsty sport is carefully disguised under a camouflage of caring. It’s all for their own good, you see – just as bombing brown people in Asia brings them democracy and makes them happier.

  4. Bruce

    Wow. I’ve never watched the shows, but there is something about Jillian Michaels that I could not tolerate if I was on that show. I see her commercials on TV now for whatever it is that she is selling, and I just tune her out. She seems like a nasty piece of work.

    I would however pay good money to see Michelle do a month of Biggest Loser training with Jillian.

    1. Tom Naughton Post author

      If Jillian thinks it’s a good idea to push people until they vomit, I’d rather see her put Ms. Obama’s husband through training. She could start the workout by promising him “If you like your lunch, you can keep your lunch.”

      1. Dianne

        I laughed so hard that my cat gave me a funny look, got up, and left the room muttering. Apparently I had disturbed her nice nap.

  5. Todd

    Whenever I watch the Biggest Loser I want a snack so that explains it. However, when I watch ‘My 600 Pound Life’ I am done eating for the day even though I am nowhere near anyone on that show. Not sure why.

  6. Janknitz

    Abel James was one of the diet “gurus” on My Diet Is Better than Yours. It was the usual “watch the fat people suffer” show, but they didn’t show much of Abel’s contestant (except for putting butter in his coffee) because that wasn’t as exciting as making fat people cry over “the emtional issues that make them fat”.

    Abel’s client lost the most weight but came in second because they went by the percentage of body weight lost. The winner looks like she exercises 24/7 to get to her new weight, while Abels client was taught to do sprints.

  7. Firebird

    The closest thing to a reality show that I watch is PBS’ “Finding Your Roots” where a geneologist takes three celebrities and traces the family tree on one side of the family.

    Two weeks ago, they found that Bill O’Reilly and Bill Maher are distant cousins via an Irish king in the 700s. They still won’t get together for family BBQ’s.

  8. Jim Fogarty

    The Biggest Loser abhorrent. They’ve made a game show out of people trying to treat an illness. I wonder what disease they will make a game show out of next, a Jeopardy style quiz show to win a kidney? How about Wheel of Chemo for cancer patients? Or maybe The Antidepressant is Right. We could get depressed people to try random pills till they find one that will cheer them up. None of those games would ever be acceptable. It is OK to torture fat people in the guise helping them, but really it’s entertainment. The reason they can get away with it is clear. Society still looks at obesity as a self-inflicted wound, as a choice, not an illness. If only the contestants would stick to a diet of fat-free, sugar-free, flavor free, starch-laden cardboard while running ultra marathons they would be winners and not fat losers, or so the thinking must go. This show needs to end.

    1. Bob Niland

      re: The Biggest Loser [is] abhorrent. They’ve made a game show out of people trying to treat an illness.

      Obesity is not an illness in the vast majority of cases. It’s just people who are victims of defective information. And the show reportedly takes steps to make sure that they (and the audience) don’t get, umm, enlightened.

      Those still pushing the defective information are very soon going to be seen as willfully negligent, if not frankly malicious. Even when the USDA gets around to implementing DGA’15, it’s still going to be MyPlateOfMetabolicSyndrome.

      1. Jim Fogarty

        Dear Bob, I don’t want to get into an argument but I’m not the one declaring obesity a disease. It was the American Medical Association. They declared it so in June of 2013 I think. I defer to their judgment on this point.

        Regardless, there are many ways bad nutritional advice can manifest: obesity, diabetes, vitamin deficiencies, etc. The contestants on the Biggest Loser are unhealthy and I think game show exploiting that is decidedly wrong. In a perfect world nutrition would be based on facts and evidence rather than politics, ideology and marketing.

        1. Tom Naughton Post author

          The AMA declared obesity a disease because in many states, that forces insurance companies to cover obesity treatments, which in turn means more people will go to doctors and pay them (through insurance) for treatment. As always, follow the money.

  9. Mike

    I hate it when reality shows try to boost ratings by creating drama, and making villains, or humiliating people.

    I caught a few episodes of the first season of The Worst Cooks in America. To get on the show, you had to demonstrate an inability to cook. Now assuming that all of the contestants didn’t just sandbag to get on the show, we are theoretically starting with a crop of bad cooks. So then what happens; they start eliminating the worst cooks of the each week for being bad at cooking. I might have enjoyed a show where everyone stays in the game and actually gets taught how to cook.

    There is a Canadian documentary, My Big Fat Diet. It was about a signficant fraction of a small town, mostly populated by native peoples, going on a LCHF. It was only one show, not a whole season, but it was how the town cooperated, and changed the menu at the potlatch, and how the owner of the one grocery store was not warned of the impending run on cauliflower, and how they had done at the end of the experiment. It left me encouraged, and left me wondering how they are doing now that the scientists and the documentary team of have left.

    1. Tom Naughton Post author

      “My Big Fat Diet” was driven largely by Dr. Jay Wortman. He’s a frequent speaker on the low-carb cruise. He told me some of the people featured in the film backslid on diet, going back to the junk food. But many kept with it and continued to improve their health.

      1. Mike

        I read the keto group on reddit, and there is always someone coming back after a backslide of months or years. A surprising number of people are treating it as a thing you do for a while and then go back to what were are doing before.

        I’m hoping I can get to a place where I have a potato every now and then, but there is no going back to what I ate before.

        1. Tom Naughton Post author

          I wouldn’t go back to my grain-based vegetarian diet either. But I’ve certainly reached the point where I can include squashes and tubers in my diet as long as I don’t go crazy on them.

          1. BobM

            I’ve also put some squashes and tubers on the menu, and even small amounts of (cooked then cooled) rice, to increase my “resistant starch” level. I think it’s been helping. I minimize these, though.

            I still have trigger foods. Wheat and of course sugar are bad. Had birthday cake this weekend, for instance. I was literally “starving” after eating the cake. I tried to eat the highest fat food I could, which helped, but even then I overate relative to normal.

            Tubers (such as potatoes) and squash don’t cause the same reaction for me. And I usually combine the tubers/squash with a lot of fat to slow the absorption of carbs.

            1. Tom Naughton Post author

              Same here. Tubers and squashes don’t trigger my appetite like refined carbs do.

      2. Galina L.

        Sure, some people find junk food highly desirable, and it is their business what to eat, no one has an obligation to live on a diet. However, the right information about a diet eliminates the situation when somebody desperately trys to get less fat and more healthy by torturing himself with hunger and unrealistic diet.

  10. Mark

    You need to catch up on the biggest loser Australia, 2014 season. It was team based, and one of the challenges allowed teams to pick food groups for consumption for the coming week. One team picked (heart healthy) whole grains and was lambasted by ‘The Commando’ (one of the trainers) for picking a food group that ‘farmers use to fatten cattle’. I ended up yelling at the tv: ‘No idiot, whole grain carbohydrates are healthy and the best method for weight loss. It’s all about calories in calories out. They only need to consume fewer calories than they expend to lose weight. The USDA recommend them’. I ended up giggling all the way through to the next ad break. (The team that got to eat fish all week lost the most weight).

    1. Tom Naughton Post author

      I guess that’s a positive development. Never seen the Aussie version. In fact, I didn’t know there was an Aussie version.

    2. Curtis

      Several times the contestants mentioned that eating red meat would make it harder to lose weight. They seemed to think the faster a food went through you, the better it was for losing weight. I wonder who taught them that! And a lot of the competitions were base on knowing calories, as if that was the most important diet factor. That’s right, those bad, bad foods high in fat and calories…avocado, steak, etc. I hate that shows like this continue to perpetuate out dated myths.

  11. Bob

    I don’t think any one forced the contestants to go on these shows, I’m not sure why they’re complaining unless they are really stupid. Reality TV, who would have guessed there would be so much drama.

    1. Tom Naughton Post author

      Of course they volunteered. My beef with The Biggest Loser is that it promotes starvation and physical torture as the keys to weight loss.

  12. Kate

    I watched a few episodes of the Biggest Loser more than 10 years ago, before I found out about LCHF and before I was coherently critical of dieting advice that was hurting me. I was struck by the fact that the show features grown men crying. OK, I’m English, and men sobbing over weight loss in front of a camera seems like a mortifying loss of face to me rather than frank, cathartic emotion. Even so, contestants were clearly communicating they were feeling bullied at the same time as saying they felt successful and strong.

    This creepy contradiction was my first inkling that no matter how overweight, unhealthy weight loss hurts you mentally; and sure enough, once I tried weight loss that was healthy for me, my mental state became lovely long before I lost any inches. Shouldn’t your mental state always be a litmus test for how well you are eating? Regardless of size? I don’t think Ms. Michaels was eating right.

    1. Tom Naughton Post author

      Excellent point. If you’re an emotional wreck while on a diet, it’s pretty clear you’re dragging the Elephant towards the fire, and it’s only a matter of time before he runs the other way.

      By contrast, people who go on LCHF often report feeling happier after they get off the blood-sugar rollercoaster.

  13. anonymous1996

    Have I just watched something very close to a snuff movie?
    That line of “they vomit because they have many toxins in their bodies” is very telling. She is a perfect psychopath. Had she been a bit more intelligent, she would have become a politician and made hundreds of millions. What exactly happened in her childhood? What a monstruous behavior.

    1. Tom Naughton Post author

      Yeah, that nonsense about vomiting because of toxins made me want to reach through the screen and smack some sense into her.

  14. T33CH

    Hey Tom,

    A little off-topic, but I found an article that made me think of your discussions with gym meat heads about how you can’t gain muscle while losing weight. There was a recent study that confirmed that you can develop muscle while losing fat.

    “Researchers at McMaster University have uncovered significant new evidence in the quest for the elusive goal of gaining muscle and losing fat, an oft-debated problem for those trying to manage their weight, control their calories and balance their protein consumption.

    Scientists have found that it is possible to achieve both, and quickly, but it isn’t easy.”

  15. Bob Niland

    re: Folks, trust me on this: if you ever lose 20 pounds in a week, get yourself in to see an oncologist as quickly as possible.

    Unless you’re expecting it. Here’s 21 pounds in 10 days:
    It’s not common, but also not alarming.

    And to circle around to the fictional TV weight loss show in question, the Wheat Belly 10 Day program specifically advises:
    “do not exercise” during the first 10 days:

    This result, the ease of getting it, and the attendant health benefits, show just how disconnected consensus diet dogma is, compared to dissident approaches with a more ancestral view (but also informed by modern science insofar as it can be de-confounded).

    Disclosure: I contribute on the WB blog.

  16. Bob Niland

    And this just in (tip of the hat to DietDoctor):
    Constrained Total Energy Expenditure and Metabolic Adaptation to Physical Activity in Adult Humans

    Adds another bullet to my list of why exercise is spectacularly inefficient for weight loss per se:
    • requires a discouraging level of effort per calorie
    • promotes appetite
    • replaces fat with muscle, and muscle is denser than fat
    • some exercises are dangerous to joints in the seriously overweight
    • recent science says that conventional wisdom about TEE is incorrect

    1. Tom Naughton Post author

      “Models of energy balance employed in public health [ 1–3 ] should be revised to better reflect the constrained nature of total energy expenditure and the complex effects of physical activity on metabolic physiology.”

      Yes, those models should be revised. But don’t count on it.


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