No One Wins on 'The Biggest Loser'

Reality show sends an unhealthy message

By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, LD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Expert Column

I was really hoping that the take-home message from NBC's new reality program, The Biggest Loser, would be some valuable lessons about weight control. I should have known better when I realized no registered dietitian was involved in the program.

After watching the show, I was outraged and disappointed that network executives and advertisers would endorse such exploitation of overweight people. The show is not about healthy weight loss. It is a dramatized and often humiliating portrayal, with the castoff mentality of reality television.

The Setup

On the show, a dozen desperate overweight men and women begin a personal weight loss journey in hopes of winning $250,000 -- a sum that pales in comparison to the million-dollar rewards on other reality shows. Two teams, red and blue, live together in Malibu and compete to lose the most weight each week.

The red team is coached by a drill sergeant-type fitness trainer and follows a high-protein, high-fiber, low-carbohydrate, controlled-portion diet. The blue team's strategy is to eat small, frequent meals with fewer calories, more volume, and low carbohydrates. Guidance for the blue team is provided by a kinder, gentler fitness trainer.

If your team is not the biggest loser in a given week, you must cast off a member who is not losing his or her share of pounds.

Emotional Drama

Starvation, deprivation, and being pushed to physical extremes are, apparently, the kind of human drama we like to watch. Fitness trainers drive contestants to the point of tears and emotional outbursts. Of course, the cameras are there to capture the bickering, the pressure, and the breakdowns of the hungry and physically exhausted contestants.

As if the drama of unrealistically rapid weight loss is not enough, the contestants are asked to put on bathing suits and expose more flesh than they want the world to see. The 12 team members line up and have their weights displayed in giant numbers at the beginning of the week, then again at week's end. Now, I am a strong proponent of weekly weigh-ins and accountability, but I recommend doing it in private and tracking your own personal journey to success.

To make the situation even more unrealistic, glass-front refrigerators filled with "forbidden foods" are an ever-present temptation to the dieters. In addition, there are plates of tempting foods at every meal. I would describe these tactics as cruel and unusual punishment. And they do little to teach the contestants about healthy weight loss.

The Right Way to Lose Weight

Healthy competition is a great way to add motivation to your weight loss efforts. But the kind of competition depicted on this program is counterproductive.

The Biggest Loser competition might indeed result in big losses, but it defies all the professional wisdom about safe and effective weight loss. That's because the contestants are not addressing lifestyle behaviors and eating habits that they need to change permanently, not just during a nine-week race.

This approach is similar to a fad diet, and we all know about them: You can lose weight on just about any diet, but when it's over you gain the weight right back -- unless you've changed your behaviors.

Besides, when you lose more than the recommended 1-2 pounds per week, much of it is water, not fat. The experiences of the "successful losers" tracked in the National Weight Control Registry have taught us that slow, gradual loss is the most successful route to long-term weight control.

Healthy Eating Plans

The blue team is following an "eat more" diet. Its members record everything in a journal (a good thing!), monitor their portions, and follow a high-protein, low-carb plan. Complex carbohydrates of any kind -- including healthy whole-grain carbs -- were not listed anywhere on this team's sample meal plan. The only carbs came from fruits and vegetables and did not meet the recommended five or more servings daily. In my opinion, there is too much protein and not enough complex carbohydrate or fruits and veggies for this to be a healthful, sustainable plan.

According to NBC's web site, the red team follows a diet composed of 30% carbohydrates, 37% protein, and 33% fat, with a daily calorie range of 1,100-1,500. "Eat less" is what the red team calls its diet, and not only is it too low in calories to fuel the grueling workouts, it does not meet scientific guidelines for healthy diets. (The National Academy of Sciences recommends that meal plans be 45%-65% carbs, 20%-35% protein, and 10%-35% fat.)

It gets worse. This team is not allowed to enjoy healthy fruit choices such as mangos, bananas, melons, or juice. Questionable advice suggests they take a supplement called "chitosan" (whatever that is), and drink 100 ounces of water daily, which is more than you need.

In my opinion, viewers should not try to follow either the red or the blue diet. Anyone tempted to try these restrictive plans should definitely check with their doctor first. Weight Loss Clinic members, be assured that your eating plans are in line with professional guidelines and would stand up to medical evaluation.

The Value of Support

The WebMD Weight Loss Clinic program works because we advocate a lifestyle that includes plenty of nutritious foods to keep hunger at bay, daily physical activity, and support. Most any member of the WLC will tell you that one of the best features of our program is the support from fellow members, moderators, and professionals.

Encouragement is a crucial aspect of weight loss success, and I don't think the tough-as-nails approach to The Biggest Loser contestants qualifies as positive reinforcement. We need our friends and family to rally around us when the going gets tough. That is what helps keep you going, not berating and scornful comments.

Forbidden Foods Create Desire

Can you imagine how hard it would be if you had a glass-front refrigerator stocked with your favorite decadent foods staring at you 24/7? The temptations displayed in the refrigerators and at mealtimes are certainly not the right way to help the contestants overcome overeating. I wish they would stock those refrigerators with delicious fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat dairy -- foods that satisfy hunger while meeting nutritional needs.

Studies have shown that when you deny people certain foods, they tend to crave them. At the WLC, we let you have your favorite foods (albeit in limited quantities) because we know you can sustain an eating plan that includes food you enjoy. The best strategy is to stock your kitchen with nutritious foods and to limit your exposure to foods likely to trigger overeating.

Boot Camp

Four hours a day is the exercise schedule for some of The Biggest Loser contestants. Realistically, most of us struggle to meet the guidelines of one hour per day! It's hardly likely that contestants will keep up with this punishing regimen after they leave the show.

The best plan is to find activities that you enjoy and to gradually work up to an hour per day. Small changes, like taking the stairs and parking your car farther away from your destination, contribute to your daily physical activity. Strength training a few times a week is also important, to keep muscles strong and metabolism high.

To find time for your workouts, I suggest turning off that television! The Biggest Loser is simply perpetuating many of our society's unrealistic views about weight loss. Eating healthy and losing weight is not a contest, but a journey that should last a lifetime.

Published Oct. 27, 2004.


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