Monday, October 10, 2011

Why I don't Like The Biggest Loser

So this post I'll actually talk about a media other than magazines.  It seems more pertinent to today; magazines just aren't quite as popular as they used to be.

I'll preface this by saying I have a guilty pleasure for before and after shows - especially ones about weight loss.  (Though it's also the reason I know the channel number for HGTV)  A&E's "Heavy," obesity documentaries, hell, even MTV's "I Used to be Fat" I flock to and watch with the utmost attention. So it would seem that I'd love watching The Biggest Loser, right?  No.  I hate it.  I can't watch more than 5 to 10 minute bits of it.  Mostly it's because that's as long as the show can go without this happening:

Now I get it, being overweight can take a toll on emotions, and sometimes being overweight is the symptom of a larger, emotional problem.  So it's not like I expect that part of weight loss to be totally neglected.  Crying on shows like these is expected.  But on the Biggest Loser, it happens entirely too often.  The focus of the show should be on the diet and exercise - not on the crying.  But I guess crying and touching moments gets ratings.

Other reasons I cannot support the show:

1) Creation of Unrealistic Expectations

The show centers around the big "weigh ins;" this is where the competition arises, where the show gets its name, where all the hard exercise and dieting culminates on a giant scale for all of America to see.  What are the results we often are presented with?  Over 10 pounds lost, usually.  Sometimes even into the 20's!  What an accomplishment!  Yes, indeed it is, but then maybe someone only loses 5 pounds that week.  They feel ashamed, they feel as though they did something wrong and they let their team and the trainers down.  More than likely someone is crying.  There's a chance they're going to get kicked off of the show for not doing well enough.

It took 10 minutes and a commercial break for these numbers to finally pop up.

Think about this for a minute.  These contestants are receiving feelings of shame and guilt for losing weight.  Not only losing weight, but losing more weight than is even recommended by most fitness professionals: 1-2 pounds a week, maybe 3 for the obese.  They face punishment for not losing enough.  What kind of message does that send?  What if as a viewer you go a week without losing any weight, or God forbid, you actually gain a pound?  Any chances of thinking "well there are a lot of factors that go into weight loss and the numbers don't always mean anything significant or meaningful' decreases by virtue of the now-instilled unrealistic expectations.

And there are a lot of factors that go into what the number on the scale reads.  The most applicable one to The Biggest Loser is water.

What contestants on the show go through before a weigh in is akin to what a wrestler, fighter, or anyone who needs to make a weight class will go through before weigh-ins.  The most prevalent method for losing weight quickly is fluid manipulation.  This will mean dehydration, frequent trips to the sauna and working out in heavy clothing for maximal sweat production.  Cutting out all of the carbohydrates and solids a few days before helps as well: carbohydrates cause your body to retain water and solids can take time to go through your entire digestive track.

(For more details on weight-cutting methods, see

Here are some quotes from former contestants themselves on how they prepared for weigh-ins:

Ryan Benson:

“I wanted to win so bad that the last ten days before the final weigh-in I didn’t eat one piece of solid food! If you’ve heard of “The Master Cleanse” that’s what I did. Its basically drinking lemonade made with water, lemon juice, maple syrup, and cayenne pepper. The rules of the show said we couldn’t use any weight-loss drugs, well I didn’t take any drugs, I just starved myself! Twenty-four hours before the final weigh-in I stopped putting ANYTHING in my body, liquid or solid, then I started using some old high school wrestling tricks. I wore a rubber suit while jogging on the treadmill, and then spent a lot of time in the steam room. In the final 24 hours I probably dropped 10-13 lbs in just pure water weight. By the time of the final weigh-in I was peeing blood.
Was this healthy? Heck no! My wife wanted to kill me if I didn’t do it to myself first. But I was in a different place, I knew winning the show could put us in a better place financially and I was willing to do some crazy stuff. All this torture I put myself through has had no lasting effects on me (that I know of) and at the time it was sort of a fun adventure for me – but I am sure it reeked havoc on my system.
In the five days after the show was over I gained about 32 lbs. Not from eating, just from getting my system back to normal (mostly re-hydrating myself). So in five days I was back up to 240 – crazy!”

Kai Hibbard:

"I dehydrated off 19 pounds in the last two weeks before the BIG weigh in. I stopped eating solid food after eating only protein and asparagus (a diuretic) then I had two colonics and spent the night before the weigh in and out of a sauna. there really was no “diet” the day of the weigh in, we weigh in as dehydrated as possible on empty stomachs after 2 hour workouts in the morning."
So if most of this weight loss is actually water, how much is really fat loss?  Which brings me to my next point:
2) Emphasis on weight loss, not fat loss.
For a lot of people, weight loss and fat loss are synonymous.  In reality, however, this is far from the truth.  When we talk about 'body composition,' fat is only one factor; bone density and muscle must also be considered.  
Let's say you've lost 5 pounds, according to your scale.  Excellent, right?  Your goal weight is 130lbs and you're that much closer!  But what if you got that way by being sedentary and losing 5 pounds of muscle?  Is this still a positive step towards your goal weight?
What if you gained a pound one week?  Most people who are dieting and exercising in an effort to lose weight would see this as a big blow to their confidence.  It may even make you consider giving up.  But what if you got that way by exercising regularly and gained 3 pounds of muscle?  Is this still a negative roadblock on your way to 130lbs?
This is a reason why I don't recommend meticulously weighing yourself.  Maybe once a month would be appropriate for making sure you're making a general trend downward. but since there are more factors that go into the scale number than just your body fat, it can be confusing and downright discouraging to weigh yourself more often.  Most people don't want to weigh a certain number just to be able to say they weigh that number.  Most want to weigh whatever their goal weight is because there's an image in their head of how they'll look at that number.  In that case, I feel it is more appropriate to track progress with circumference measurements, accurate body composition tests, checking if your clothes fit better, or the tried and true method of looking at yourself in the mirror and liking what you see.
She probably knows how much she weighs, but does it really matter?

So, a contestant on the Biggest Loser would be encouraged to not gain any muscle - in fact they would be encouraged to lose it!  How is that encouraging a healthy lifestyle?
3) Unrealistic Methods
This is a point that gets touched on over and over by people who critique the show.  Contestants are held on a ranch where their only job is to lose weight, free from distractions of everyday life.  All the tools needed to accomplish this are at their disposal: knowledgeable trainers, nutritionists, therapists, supportive teammates, and a $250,000 prize for the winner if the rest of that wasn't motivating enough.
We're not learning about real-life tools for how to lose weight - we're learning how exercising 4-6 hours a day and eating food prepared for you that is approved by nutritionists with no chance of getting outside junk food will make you lose weight.  
It is certainly arguable that the show isn't supposed to be educational, however, so I'll just leave this point as a personal peeve of mine.
4) Overtraining
I want you to get up out of your seat right now and put on a 300-lb weight vest.  Got it?  Okay good.  Now I want you to go run a mile.  Oh and it's mid-day, sunny, and hot.  Oh and it helps if you've been sedentary for most of your life.
That sounds like fun right?  Well it is something that contestants are told to do their first day.  I wouldn't be making someone so massively overweight and previously sedentary go for a brisk walk, let alone a mile-long jog.  Forcing someone under those conditions to do that isn't 'pushing' them to work hard, it's just plain dangerous.  
And that's not an isolated incident.  A sign of a good workout isn't one where you throw up, especially if you're new to the exercise game.  It's not hard or skillful to make someone throw up; it is however to make them have a difficult workout where they are pushed to their limits safely.  
And regardless of if you have nothing better to do with your day, working out for 4-6 hours everyday is going to lead to overtraining.  Overtraining leads to depression, lack of motivation, and stress fractures among other things.  It's a good way to get more people crying, though!
5) Jillian Michaels 
Sometimes I like Jillian Michaels.  Sometimes the things she says are, while tough, true and what people need to hear.  However, other times what she says is just cruel and abusive:

Trainers know that sometimes you have to yell at people to motivate them, and to push them to places that they never thought they could get to.  However, this does not work with everyone and trainers also know that you have to adapt your methods for certain people.  Some people are going to shut down completely if you yell at them like Michaels does in this video.  If a contestant quit because of how they were treated and couldn't take it, it's certainly their loss, but as a trainer, have you done your job if your client walks away?
As well, I don't like when people use their fame to sell useless products.  See: Jillian Michaels weight loss pills. (Use to jumpstart any sensible diet and exercise program, then attribute your success to my product!)
Selling out: The Pill

6) The Overall Process and Message

It seems wrong that someone gets kicked off just because one week they happened not to lose as much weight as another person.  Weight lost in a given week doesn't necessarily say anything about how hard someone worked - which is really the good ol' American mantra isn't it?

How I would change the show:

The Biggest Loser has the potential to be a huge positive force in the fitness industry, instead of the generally negative one it is now.

There are certainly good aspects of the show.  I am very much in favor of how it promotes working out and dieting as the way to lose weight rather than product placement of pills / supplements / weight loss surgery.  If the show inspires just one person to make positive changes in their life, well I certainly can't complain there.  But there is opportunity for it to do so much more.

1) Instead of focusing on weight loss, focus on fat loss.  Bring in some really accurate body composition analyzers, such as a DEXA machine or hydrostatic weighing.  They can certainly afford it and contestants won't have to resort to unhealthy weight-cutting techniques.  At the very least, explain why someone may lose a lot of weight one week and then not near as much the next despite the same amount of effort.

2) In spirit of the entire purpose of the show, keep the competition in place.  However instead of kicking someone out give the option of staying on the ranch for the rest of the duration of the show.  

3) Teach methods that contestants and viewers can bring into their real, daily lives.  How to eat healthy on a budget, how to fit in exercise around work, how to lose weight without the help of a squad of professionals and infinite free time, etc.

4) More emphasis on nutrition.  As it's near impossible to out-exercise a bad diet, nutrition really needs more time in the spotlight.

5) More specifics on the workouts.  Give viewers an idea of what contestants are doing, show proper form for a couple of exercises an episode.  Give an idea of what someone can do to exercise efficiently when they don't have 4-6 hours to exercise.  Of course, points 3, 4 and 5 take time to explain.  Which brings me to point 6:

6) Less crying.  Please.  Seriously if you took that out you'd probably have at least 10 minutes more time on your show.  Weigh-ins don't need to be as dramatic as the Cuban Missile Crisis, and don't have to take nearly as long.

But I guess that's television.  Crying and drama get higher ratings than real information.

A good summary of all these points plus more can be found in this clip, for Inspired: The Movie.  It's short and pretty enlightening!