- A new show features ‘Biggest Loser’ winners who regained weight — and reveals a deeper truth about weight loss
- From 300 to 175 to 325
- Heart hunger
- Safe, sustainable weight loss
- Building new habits
- A former ‘Biggest Loser’ contestant became an obesity doctor. She says TV can never fully capture the process of losing weight.
- Kerns published a controversial study on former contestants of The Biggest Loser that found their metabolisms slowed
- The series helped to show that obesity doesn’t equal laziness — but it also made skinny the goal
- The format of the Biggest Loser is a problem, Kerns says
- Bob Harper, the new host of the show, says the reboot will be more empathetic. Kerns isn’t sure that’s possible on TV. Tyler Golden/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Weight gain is the result of a deeply ingrained habit loop
- Meet 6 ‘Biggest Loser’ contestants who gained the weight back
- Forget the pounds. ‘The Biggest Loser’ tries to shed critics of its weight-loss plan
- ‘The Biggest Loser’
- Counting calories is a ridiculous way to try and lose weight
- From Biggest Loser to Weight Loss Winner
- Biggest Loser Love
A new show features ‘Biggest Loser’ winners who regained weight — and reveals a deeper truth about weight loss
The truth hit Ryan Benson when he couldn’t fit into a seat on his son’s favorite roller coaster: He’d regained the weight he’d fought so hard to lose as a contestant on “The Biggest Loser.”
In 2005, Benson was crowned the first winner of the popular TV show, which ran for 12 years and has since ballooned into a multi-million-dollar franchise. Benson lost 122 pounds and won $250,000, but he’s since returned to his pre-show weight.
That problem wasn’t unique to Benson — a 2016 study from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) followed more than a dozen former “Biggest Losers” and found that of the 14 people studied, 13 regained a significant portion of the weight they lost on the show. Four were heavier in 2016 than they were before they set foot on the set.
Experts have various takes on why this happened, blaming everything from inevitable biological factors to the show’s shaming approach to weight loss. But the show’s producer, JD Roth, argues that anyone can push themselves to slim down by breaking what he calls “bad behaviors.”
To that end, Roth has produced a new show called “The Big Fat Truth,” which is set to premiere June 11. The program seeks to highlight “bad” behaviors and mentalities that it suggests are responsible for participants’ weight gain. In one episode, six former “Biggest Losers” — including Benson— return and try to lose some of the weight they’ve regained.
“They all say the same thing,” Roth says of the contestants. “They say ‘I went back to my old behavior and made bad decisions.’”
But nutritionists and dietitians counter that Roth’s new show is another version of what they see as a dangerous approach to weight loss that favors quick results over science. As with many things in the world of health and nutrition, the truth falls somewhere in between.
From 300 to 175 to 325
After spending five grueling months exercising and dieting as a “Biggest Loser” contestant, the first thing Benson did to celebrate his accomplishment was order a burger and fries.
“In my mind I just thought I’ve been training so hard I want to eat something I craved for a few months — a burger, fries, some ribs,” Benson tells Business Insider. “That was one of the things that propelled me to the finish line. I thought, when I’m done I’m going to get this. It was a reward.”
Within weeks of returning home, the clothes Benson had worn during the show’s season finale seemed to shrink. He caught himself stopping by his favorite fast-food chain more and more on the way home from work to appease his appetite for the foods he missed.
“It was real easy to slip back into old habits,” he says. “The cameras aren’t on 24/7 so no one’s going to see you pick up four donuts on the way to work.”
The Big Fat Truth / Z Living
The NIH study of “Biggest Losers” — along with a New York Times feature story on the research — suggested that slimming down for good is virtually a biological impossibility for people who have been significantly overweight. Despite forcing their bodies to shed pounds in an intense 3-month boot camp, most of the show’s participants seemed to succumb to powerful hormonal and metabolic forces that were out of their control.
“The key point is that you can be on TV, you can lose enormous amounts of weight, you can go on for six years, but you can’t get away from a basic biological reality,” Michael Schwartz, an obesity and diabetes researcher at the University of Washington, told the Times last year. “As long as you are below your initial weight, your body is going to try to get you back.”
Studies suggest that people who’ve lost significant amounts of weight produce fewer of the hormones that make human bodies feel full and more of the hormones that make us feel hungry. There’s evidence that the metabolism also slows down, perhaps because strict dieting convinces the body that it is starving, leading it to run as efficiently as it can and burn the fewest calories possible.
Roth has spent the past 15 years working on reality TV shows about weight loss, but rejects this idea.
“I just don’t believe that that’s true,” he says of the Times’ suggestion that it might be biologically impossible for some people to keep weight off. “It’s different behavioral things. A lot of times emotional reasons are why you gain the weight back. There are so many factors that go with it.”
Roth blames Benson’s weight gain on the fact that he fell prey to old habits.
“People start to get comfortable, sort of like how you might get a job you’ve really been working hard towards, and then after you get it you say to yourself, ‘Oh I knew I’d get that job.’ And they start accepting over and over again.”
A scene from the 2015 season of “The Biggest Loser.” Trae Patton/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images The new show is in part a response to criticisms from some registered dietitians and nutritionists, who suggested the restrictive regimen imposed by “The Biggest Loser” failed to address what may be potential emotional and psychological issues connected to weight gain.
“If someone is using food as escapism or as comfort from emotional trauma, you have to deal with that,” says Andy Bellatti, a registered dietitian and the cofounder of Dietitians for Professional Integrity. “That takes time and that takes a very qualified professional to help you get to the bottom of that. That has nothing to do with weight loss tips or Bob Harper telling you to run an extra mile.”
Nichola Whitehead, a nutritionist and registered dietitian with a private practice in the United Kingdom, calls emotional eating “heart hunger.”
“Food won’t satisfy heart hunger in the long-term,” she says. “It can’t solve the underlying problem.”
Whitehead advises her clients to take a closer look at when and why they eat certain foods to see if certain feelings drive specific eating behaviors.
“So being aware of what you’re craving — are you craving chocolate because you’ve just seen it?” Whitehead says. “Do you just need to relocate or move the chocolate inside a cupboard? Are you feeling emotional? Is something else going on? Is it a good time to call a friend to talk or maybe take a walk?”
Safe, sustainable weight loss
When Roth got involved with “The Biggest Loser,” he says he assumed he could get contestants to lose about 100 pounds over the 5-month window of the show. When he talked to doctors, however, they told him that participants should only be losing one to two pounds per week. That figure, which exercise physiologists and registered dietitians agree is a good ballpark number for safe, sustainable weight loss, would mean that contestants could only lose about 30 pounds by the show’s end.
Roth says the network told him that number simply wouldn’t work for TV. So season after season, the show’s contestants lost one to two pounds per day — essentially seven times what doctors had said was healthy.
Experts say such rapid weight loss doesn’t give people enough time to create new healthy eating and exercise patterns.
“You’ve got to give yourself two, three, four years of consistent behavioral changes. That is hard work. You’re building new habits. And that takes time,” Bellatti says.
Roth’s new show seems to accept this logic — to some degree. In one scene, he visits Benson at home and sends him out to pick up a fast food dinner in the time Roth says it’ll take to prepare a vegan meal. When Benson returns with a bag of fried chicken sandwiches for his family, Roth has a fresh pasta and vegetable dish ready for them to eat.
Roth believes that showing Benson how easy it is to cook a healthy meal will spur him to change his behavior.
“I’m not a doctor or an exercise physiologist, but that said I have more experience in this area than most people have,” Roth says. “I live it.”
This one-off example may be enough to prompt some people to change their behavior. But for many of those who struggle with weight, long-term behavioral changes are grueling. Results don’t come quickly, and many people simply give up.
“I’ve seen it a lot with people I work with,” says Bellatti. “I’d say nine times out of 10 the people who change slowly and do manageable goals are the people who three years out still have success. I know many people who’ve gone on some kind of crash diet for a week and lose a bunch of weight and a few months later they’re back to square one.”
Building new habits
A scene from the 2015 season of “The Biggest Loser.” NBC A recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association illustrates just how hard sticking to a diet can be. For the study, 160 adults spent two years on one of four popular diets. For the first two months, they had to adhere to the diet fairly strictly; for the rest of the time, they were told they could be as strict or lenient as they wanted.
At the end, everyone who’d kept up with the eating plans had lost some weight and seen moderate improvements in their heart health. But a lot of people didn’t make it to the end — in one group, more than half of the participants dropped out.
“A variety of popular diets can reduce weight and several cardiac risk factors under realistic clinical conditions, but only for the minority of individuals who can sustain a high dietary adherence level,” the study authors write. “No single diet produced satisfactory adherence rates.”
In other words, as registered dietitian nutritionist Kara Lydon likes to say, “Diets don’t work.”
It’s a finding that squares with what many dietitians recommend — that the best eating plan is simply the one you can stick with.
“If you don’t take the time to help somebody set up realistic, sustainable behaviors that they can keep up over time, gaining weight and going back into old habits is inevitable,” says Bellatti.
For many people, losing weight means committing to a different lifestyle — one that in large part is not supported by the dietary options made available to us.
“We live in a society where making healthy choices and being at a healthy weight, it’s not defaulted toward that,” says Bellatti. “Unhealthy foods are cheaper and they’re everywhere; if you go to any store, you can buy a candy bar at the checkout but not a piece of fruit.”
Nevertheless, he maintains that losing weight and keeping it off is possible.
“It can be very challenging, and you need to stay on top of a lot of things, but I know a good number of people who’ve lost a significant amount of weight over a long time.”
Ryan Benson says his experience on Roth’s new show did encourage him to make changes to his diet and lifestyle. But he’s also made use of several tools outside of the show’s guidelines, such as learning how to prepare healthy food and becoming involved in the healthy food scene in his Los Angeles neighborhood.
“I think set me on the right path,” says Benson, though he adds, “it’s a lifetime struggle.”
A former ‘Biggest Loser’ contestant became an obesity doctor. She says TV can never fully capture the process of losing weight.
By The Biggest Loser’s standards, Dr. Jennifer Kerns was an unusual contestant. She was a doctor who, in 2006, appeared on the show’s third season, alongside the other 49 contestants. Then she came back, appearing in the next two seasons as a medical consultant. Her presence served as proof that the show worked: if she lost the weight, so could her successors.
Kerns’ backstory was perfect fodder for the show. She was morbidly obese as a child, and 300 pounds in college. She tried to lose weight many times, trying everything from “fat camp” to Weight Watchers, but she’d always gain it back.
Something changed for Kerns when she started her medical degree at the University of California, San Diego.
She and her classmates watched porn featuring of all kinds of people, from same-sex couples to disabled couples, in an effort to get more comfortable seeing different kinds of potential future patients (a not-uncommon practice in medical schools). But while watching porn of an obese couple having sex, Kerns saw a classmate in front of her scoff.
Worried that patients wouldn’t take her seriously as an obese doctor, she applied for The Biggest Loser, and became a success story.
Kerns published a controversial study on former contestants of The Biggest Loser that found their metabolisms slowed
In 2016 she co-wrote a controversial study, funded by the National Institute of Health, studying 14 former contestants on The Biggest Loser, 13 of whom had regained some or most of the weight.
The study showed that in the years since the show, contestants’ metabolisms slowed until they had to eat far less than a typical person of their size and height, just to maintain their current weight.
When the study came out, many saw it as a death knell for the show, which went off the air later that year.
Jennifer Kerns as a contestant on The Biggest Loser Season 3 NBC/Getty But Kerns maintains the timing was a coincidence, and insists that the study was not a “take down” of the show.
While there was a “definite slowing of metabolic rate,” Kerns told Insider, “it wasn’t unique to The Biggest Loser.” Having to work twice as hard to keep the weight off is a dilemma anyone struggling to lose enormous amounts of weight will face.
In fact, Biggest Loser contestants did better than the subjects of the gold standard of clinical weight loss trials, the Look AHEAD trial, losing on average 12% of their body weight.
There’s another study Kerns pointed to, which used people from the National Weight Control Registry, a database of people who lost weight in far slower, and far less dramatic ways than the Biggest Loser contestants. Both studies seem to support what Kerns’ study showed: that losing weight might be twice as hard as it would be for a thin person, but it isn’t high-risk.
The series helped to show that obesity doesn’t equal laziness — but it also made skinny the goal
The Biggest Loser format is simple. Take a bunch of contestants, put them on a secluded ranch for four months, removing them from the trials and tribulations of the outside world, and encourage rapid weight loss through endless workouts, highly restrictive eating, and televised weigh-ins.
The new season looks like it will follow this format, with some adjustments. The focus will be more holistic, with individualized meal plans for each contestant, doctors on set to monitor workouts, with less of an emphasis on weight loss and more of an emphasis on overall health. Nonetheless, Kerns has her doubts the show has really changed.
“They’re in this secluded bubble from the rest of the world and there isn’t a lot of teaching on how to break habit cycles,” she said.
The season 3 finale of The Biggest Loser, which Dr. Jennifer Kerns competed on. NBC/Getty Season 2 contestants Jen Watts told the New York Post that when she left the show, “I thought, ‘I can’t work eight hours a day because I have to train eight hours a day.'”
Kerns, who hasn’t been asked to consult on the revamped version, has “really mixed feelings” on it. For obese people who’ve given up on health, she says the show can provide a dose of hope.
“I think it at least showed other people who are struggling with obesity that all is not lost, that they can successfully lose weight even if they have 150 pounds to lose,” Kerns told Insider. “It showed people with obesity are not lazy and that they can work very hard.”
But that portrayal could also be harmful. As long as an obese person was working on losing weight, they were worthy of appreciation. No other accomplishment seemed to matter as much as the number on the scale.
The format of the Biggest Loser is a problem, Kerns says
But Kerns’ main problem with the show has to do with the structure of reality television itself. “To make a good TV show, they’re going to want to show rapid change,” said Kerns.
Making contestants run a race with doughnuts they weren’t allowed to eat in their mouths (one of the challenges in the show) makes for good, if degrading, television, says Kerns. Showing slow, steady, sustainable weight loss isn’t good television.
Bob Harper, the new host of the show, says the reboot will be more empathetic. Kerns isn’t sure that’s possible on TV. Tyler Golden/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Weight gain is the result of a deeply ingrained habit loop
Kerns began the show at 270 pounds and ended at 162. For her, food was a coping mechanism. Feeling bad meant wanting to eat food that triggered dopamine in her brain, which would then make her feel better. That would condition her mind to know that eating food led to feeling better. It is that conditioning teaches people to eat food like sugar when they feel bad.
There are many biological reasons why people become obese, a topic, Kerns says, that is not explored in the show.
“We have brain mechanisms from thousands and thousands of years of evolution that want us to eat caloric food,” said Kerns. “And some of us learned that those brain mechanisms that used to keep us alive are now hijacking how we feel and using food to make us feel better when we’re upset.” And these habits are very, very hard to change. That’s why even people who have weight loss surgery might end up regaining the weight.
There is no easy solution, contrary to what The Biggest Loser says. “We have to address the neuroscience and what’s triggering us to overeat and I don’t think any TV show could really do it justice,” says Kerns.
Kerns’ hope for the new season is that they won’t just teach the contestants to white-knuckle their way through weight loss. “I hope it’s not a very food focused effort where it’s ‘eat this, don’t eat that.’ My hope would be that the new version of the show would be heavier on mindfulness and psychology. But I somehow don’t think they’re going to be able to get into it in the way that I would hope.”
‘The Biggest Loser’ is coming back. Here’s what you need to know about the controversial weight-loss show.
Auditioning for the ‘Biggest Loser’ sounds even more grueling than being on the show
A new show features ‘Biggest Loser’ winners who regained weight — and reveals a deeper truth about weight loss
When you’re trying to lose weight there are two words that can motivate just about anyone: goal weight. But what happens next, after you reach that coveted number? For most “Biggest Loser” contestants, what happens is that they gain the weight back — but not all of them.
A new study of “Biggest Loser” contestants uncovers one reason why some contestants succeed at weight-loss maintenance, when others don’t. People who live an extremely active daily lifestyle — including at least 80 minutes of moderate activity or 35 minutes of vigorous activity — maintain their weight loss.
“The messaging is you can keep the weight off, but you have to find a way to incorporate a lot of exercise into everyday life,” said Kevin Hall, an author of the paper in the journal Obesity, and chief of the Integrative Physiology Section at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases in Bethesda, Maryland.
Ali Vincent was the first female to win on the “Biggest Loser” with an 112-pound weight loss. She managed to maintain the weight after the show.NBC
To understand why some maintained their weight loss and others re-gained, Hall and his colleagues looked at 14 former “Biggest Loser” contestants.
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The researchers took measurements six weeks after the contestants were selected for the show, then 30 weeks later, and then six years later.
While many studies rely on self-reported data that can be unreliable, Hall used methods that calculated calorie intake and expenditure to more objectively provide a reliable picture.
The researchers looked at participants that fell into two groups. Seven participants who regained, on average, 5 pounds more than their starting weight and seven who maintained an average loss of 81 pounds.
Those who maintained their loss included more exercise in their daily lives, even years after the contest ended.
“The study is confirmatory that physical activity is really the key to long-term weight-loss maintenance. Even six years after, even people who have lost 25 percent of their weight, can maintain,” said Dr. Sangeeta Kashyap, an endocrinologist at Cleveland Clinic, who was not involved in the study.
While the study looks at a small, unique population, it reinforces what weight-loss experts believe works best for maintaining a healthy weight after losing.
Meet 6 ‘Biggest Loser’ contestants who gained the weight back
May 12, 201700:48
“We really try to make this clear up front that weight loss isn’t a temporary thing. It is a lifestyle change,” said Tom Hritz, clinical nutrition director at Magee-Womens Hospital of University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, who wasn’t involved in the study.
“When you are looking to lose weight, you really want to focus on diet and once you have reached that goal and you want to maintain then you really need to incorporate exercise,” Hritz explained.
While the study finds that people who maintained their loss were active more than what is recommended, not everyone was a “gym rat,” Hall said. The 80 minutes a day might include walking to work, for example. The study did not look at what types of exercise people did.
The Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC) recommends that adults ages 18 to 64 participate each week in 150 minutes of moderate activity, something like brisk walking, slow bike riding, dancing or gardening. Or, people can weekly do 75 minutes of vigorous activity, such as running or swimming. The CDC also urges two days of strengthening activities.
One reason why people struggled to maintain weight loss is that “Biggest Loser” contestants have a slowed metabolism and burn 500 fewer calories than they should. The researchers remain unsure why, but Hall said the study provides hope.
“We are actually showing that it is possible for people to maintain weight loss but they have to do it with substantial physical activity,” he said.
We’ve known for decades that profound, sudden weight loss can throw the brakes on metabolism.
For a comparison stunt, one need only look at the Minnesota Starvation Study, which was conducted by the scientist Ancel Keys in the mid-1940s. Toward the end of World War II, millions across Europe and Asia had either starved or were at risk of starvation. Keys sought to understand the mechanisms of famine so that relief groups would know how best to help the hungry. Over the course of six months, he starved his 36 normal-weight subjects until they lost a quarter of their body weights. Their metabolic rates slowed just like those of the Biggest Loser contestants did. But in the Minnesota case, metabolism bounced back during the “refeeding” period. They all ended up at their pre-experiment weights—which, again, were healthy.
Lara Dugas, an epidemiologist who studies energy metabolism at Loyola University in Chicago, thinks the differences between the Minnesota Starvation study participants and the Biggest Loser contestants could be important. First, the Minnesotans were all of normal weight to start, compared to the Biggest Loser contestants, who are all morbidly obese. Second, the Minnesota study participants lost less of their body weights—25 percent compared to 40 percent with the Biggest Losers.
It all underscores how obesity has more to do with complex environmental and biological factors than a simple lack of willpower. But findings like these don’t necessarily mean it’s hopeless to try to lose weight. The key might be in how you do it.
Dugas thinks one element might be how quickly a person loses weight. The Biggest Loser contestants melted the fat away quickly in order to satisfy TV ratings, but most weight-loss programs recommend that people lose about one to two pounds per week.
As is usually the case with weight-loss research, the evidence here is conflicting: Some studies show that the rate of weight loss doesn’t matter, and others suggest rapid weight loss might even work best. But some papers do show that people who lose weight at their own pace, rather than through a very low-calorie diet, have more long-term success.
“The speed at which they lose weight may be a factor,” Dugas told me. “The key may be that when you have a dramatic physiological insult, such as a very low calorie diet coupled with extreme physical activity training, the resting metabolic rate might not return to normal.”
Finally, the method of weight loss might matter. Another study compared a group of gastric-bypass patients to Biggest Loser contestants and found that the bypass patients also saw their metabolisms slow. But surprisingly, their metabolic rates bounced back after a year, even though those subjects also lost weight. Other studies have similarly found no negative effects on metabolism after gastric bypass. That means until scientists find the elusive “reset” button for body weights, gastric bypass might be a better bet for obese people than reality-show-esque stunts.
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Forget the pounds. ‘The Biggest Loser’ tries to shed critics of its weight-loss plan
In early 2016, after 12 years and 17 seasons on NBC, the weight-loss reality show “The Biggest Loser” quietly aired its final episode.
The competition had long faced criticism over subjects including its structure and methodology, the risks of extreme weight loss and the lengths to which contestants would go to slim down to win the $250,000 prize. But a flurry of negative headlines that spring appeared to put the brakes on the franchise altogether.
A six-year National Institutes of Health study found that former contestants struggled to keep off the pounds after the competition ended. Allegations of contestant doping in the New York Post, vehemently denied by producers, led to a Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department inquiry and a defamation suit filed by the series’ doctor, Robert Huizenga — which itself turned up evidence of a long-running NBC investigation into the series. “The Biggest Loser” didn’t return for its 18th season.
“The Biggest Loser” reemerges Tuesday night, on NBCUniversal’s USA Network, rebranded as a show where contestants are “competing not only to lose weight but also improve their overall well-being.” Its contestants no longer vote each other out, nor are they exposed to temptation challenges, where they were once offered junk food in exchange for advantages or rewards. Original trainer Bob Harper is now the show’s host and leads group discussions instead of screaming at them in the gym.
At the Television Critics Assn. press tour in Pasadena earlier this month, Heather Olander, USA’s senior vice president of alternative series development and production, highlighted the aftercare contestants now receive, including a gym membership, connection to a local support group and continued access to a nutritionist.
“We did want to make a better connection or bigger connection between weight loss and health,” she said. “It’s about getting healthy and setting these contestants on a healthy lifestyle path.”
Asked if any formal evaluation of the complaints and criticisms levied against the original was undertaken before the decision to move forward with the revival, a spokesperson for Endemol Shine North America, which produces the series in association with Universal Television Alternative Studio, provided a statement to the L.A. Times: “‘The Biggest Loser’ has transformed the lives of hundreds of contestants and helped millions more at home get on a path to living healthier lifestyles,” it read. “And we are excited to bring this special series back now with our partners at USA Network, introducing it to a new generation of viewers. Together with the team at USA Network, we have added a number of new elements this season, but our goal remains the same — to provide our contestants with the tools, knowledge and confidence to enjoy long-term success.”
Advertisement “The Biggest Loser” returns to TV on Tuesday after a four-year hiatus. (USA Network)
But “The Biggest Loser” is still a competition focused on how fast contestants can lose the most weight. Participants spend about one-third of each episode in front of a giant, made-for-TV scale (“official final weights determined off camera,” a disclaimer reveals) to see the pounds they’ve lost, and are sent home if they’ve lost the lowest percentage of their original weight. The last person standing wins $100,000.
“Trying to help these individuals get healthier is an admirable goal, and who doesn’t want to see people better off?” said Dr. Michael Levine, a retired Kenyon College professor who’s an expert in the prevention of body dissatisfaction and eating disorders. “At the same time, the approach to it is primitive at best and really denies the fact that pounds off — as measured by a scale — isn’t the end-all, be-all of health.”
Dr. Sandra Aamodt, a neuroscientist and author of “Why Diets Make Us Fat,” agreed. “’The Biggest Loser’ basically glamorizes dieting, which I consider to be quite dangerous. And rebranding weight loss as wellness is a big trend,” she said. “If the success measure is pounds lost, that’s dieting, no matter how clever your branding department is.”
“The Biggest Loser” producers defended the show’s focus. “Having lost weight on the scale was something that was positive, and the contestants enjoyed that element of the show,” said executive producer Georgie Hurford-Jones, who oversaw the series at Endemol Shine North America before moving to Universal Television Alternative Studio in December.
In a statement to The Times, Harper said, “The weigh-in and competitive component of the show is a victorious moment for the contestants and viewers alike. It’s a tangible and visible expression of their hard work and success, and all the contestants celebrate with each other.”
Dr. Christy Greenleaf, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in the kinesiology program who focuses on body image and weight-related stigma, said, “Any contest around weight loss doesn’t do anything to actually help people,” and even the appearance of weight loss can be misleading. When “we can see a change in someone’s body, we think it’s an indicator of health or health status, so the pursuit of that is worth any of the costs that may come along with ,” she said.
In a 2015 study of 66 episodes of the original series, published in the Journal of Health Communication, Greenleaf and colleagues found that the overwhelming focus of its “weight-management content” was physical activity, as opposed to “diet and eating behavior” — an imbalance that would make it difficult to achieve significant weight loss outside of a reality TV setting.
The revival of “The Biggest Loser” does not resolve the disparity: Each episode features a physical challenge, in which teams earn an advantage for their weigh-in, and two separate workouts in the gym. Trainers still yell at contestants to work harder, contestants still throw up, and trainers and contestants alike lament their failure to lose more pounds to save their teammates from elimination.
The show reinforces methods that “really aren’t that effective,” according to Greenleaf. “Weight loss is really complicated: Our bodies fight against it, our built environment fights against it, and so there’s just as much health benefit to simply moving your body more and eating foods that are better fuel for your body as there is in actual changes in your weight.”
“The Biggest Loser” trainer Steve Cook, center, talks with participants. (USA Network)
”Certainly, health is not equated to weight when you actually look at objective data,” she said. “There are people in bodies we would call fat that are metabolically healthy, and there are people in bodies we would call thin that have metabolic disease.” Research published in Fat Studies by Greenleaf and her colleagues highlighted “The Biggest Loser’s” “ubiquitous beliefs that a person’s physique is controllable and malleable via willpower and work ethic” and noted that, in the original series, “Pervasive weight-related stigma is celebrated and commodified.”
Despite the stated interest in holistic “well-being,” contestants on USA’s version still lament the size and shape of their bodies. One discusses being rejected for a job because of her size and says she wants to lose weight so that won’t happen again. The focus on “willpower and work ethic” also remains, starting with the title sequence, which emphasizes personal agency: “Lose the fear.“ “Lose the excuses.” “Lose the weight.” The conversation turns on burning calories, losing pounds, increasing effort. “You didn’t do your best,” trainer Erica Lugo tells a contestant in the third episode, while a contestant named Kim says, “I’m just hoping my body responds to all of the work I’ve put in this week.”
As the longitudinal NIH study of “The Biggest Loser” contestants showed, the science is more complicated.
“Focusing on losing pounds as the correct outcome measure becomes very frustrating for people when they feel like they’re doing all the right things and it’s not working,” Aamodt said. “But the impression that it’s not working comes from the ways that the body fights against weight loss — you may absolutely be improving your health, improving your fitness, improving everything about your lifestyle, and not lose weight. And what tends to happen is people give up on these changes that actually were helping them and go for some quick fix, akin to ‘The Biggest Loser’ competition, because they’ve been told that the only thing that counts is if they lose weight.”
Hurford-Jones and others associated with “The Biggest Loser” emphasized the time Harper — who is not a licensed therapist — spends in discussions with the group, which Hurford-Jones called “focusing more on talking through and getting to the root of the problem, how they got to where they are.” In Episode 3, Harper talks to contestants about the importance of support systems but fails to note that producers cut off contestants’ access to their family and friends during filming, isolation that’s standard practice on a reality show.
According to trainer Steve Cook, there are doctors on staff behind the scenes to monitor contestants, and urinalysis testing is conducted to ensure contestants are properly hydrated before weigh-ins. But none of that is mentioned in the three episodes made available to press, nor are contestants’ individualized medical consultations with doctors and a nutritionist. (“We focus on our on-screen talent,” Hurford-Jones explained.)
“The Biggest Loser,” Levine said, is “a classic American form of entertainment, because it makes all an issue of freedom and individual control and individual goodness. And that’s very appealing to a lot of viewers.” But it can also be damaging: “For people who already body-image issues and weight and shape concerns, and disordered eating, exposure to mass and social media tends to reinforce their values and their beliefs and their behaviors, and often tends to make things worse.”
‘The Biggest Loser’
When: 9 p.m. Tuesday
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)
The Biggest Loser is a transformative show if there ever was one. All of the sweating and squatting means big changes at the scale – but this show is about so much more than weight loss. Biggest Loser legend Bob Harper is back as host and you’ll still find him being a positive force in and out of the gym. Joining him are two new trainers, Steve Cook and Erica Lugo, who are going to take 12 new contestants through the most incredible weight-loss journey ever. (By the way, there will be a mud race this season.)
Things get real
There is no turning back after the contestants drive into the Biggest Loser ranch, and they wouldn’t have it any other way. Everyone is wide-eyed and anxious as they pull into the place where dreams happen. “It’s beautiful and scary all at the same time,” said whiskey distillery tour guide and breast cancer survivor Kim Davis, whose son is her motivation to lose weight and live longer. Echoing that were some of the other contestants, including youth football coach Jim DiBattista, who only had to look once to say “It just got so real — so real so quick.”
The 12 contestants meet Bob Harper, who is basically the unicorn of personal trainers. You can’t think of Biggest Loser without thinking of Bob. He gives them the rundown of what they will be facing. School counselor Phixavier “Phi” Holmes tells him to just make her sexy again (seriously, how can you not be Team Phi after that?). Bob takes the contestants to the state-of-the-art gym fueled by Planet Fitness and introduces them to their trainers. Erica Lugo, a weight-loss success story herself, will get the Red Team in shape while former bodybuilder Steve Cook will power up the Blue Team.
Before they call it a night, everyone has to face the scale. The scale. Seeing their starting weights proves to be scary.
The burn begins
Just in case you didn’t stare in awe the first time you saw the neon lights and shiny machines in the gym, you get more unreal views before the contestants nervously meet their trainers for their very first workout. Erica wants to start them on the treadmill and then level up to hub interval training. Phi reveals her biggest fear is pushing her heart rate to the brink, and suffers an emotional breakdown when she thinks of how the tragic death of her father pushed her into overeating.
Doubt and exhaustion soon take over. Some just don’t believe in themselves yet. Even former college football player Robert Richardson III, who was once scouted for the NFL, almost uses his knee injury as an out. Megan Hoffman, an operations director, admits she’s never been pushed this hard in her entire life.
Challenge: race you
Whether the contestants loved or loathed the mile run, they learn that running is cardio — and cardio promotes heart health. Most can barely remember the last time they ran a mile, and Phi can’t even fathom it because she never has. The thing is that winning this challenge comes with a 6-pound advantage. No matter how daunting this might seem, a prize like that can save your entire team from the threat of elimination. Whoever is on the losing team and has the lowest percentage of weight loss will be going home.
For Phi, it’s a physical and mental fight. She’s not just up against the course but her personal trauma. Jim huffs and puffs up the hill while repeating the names of his three sons over and over to motivate himself. Katarina Bouton, a nurse who doesn’t want to be what she calls “the fat nurse” anymore, slows down but picks herself back up. Former high school athlete Micah Collum plows his way through the whole thing and snags the win.
Talk it out
Losing weight isn’t just a physical challenge. Bob sits down with the contestants and encourages them to take on what could be the most difficult challenge of them all, delving into the reasons that they turned to emotional eating to begin with. That can be scarier than weigh-ins. Because Bob knows the importance of overcoming these invisible drawbacks, he shares his own story about suffering a heart attack out of nowhere in 2017. It scarred him to the point that just the thought of raising his heart rate through exercise gave him panic attacks.
What frightened the contestants more were the test results from their physicals before the show, which showed everything from dangerously high body fat and cholesterol to type 2 diabetes. Told you Bob wasn’t going to be stepping back.
You can almost feel the pressure of the last chance workout, especially with the Red Team struggling to make up those 6 pounds they could have had on their side if they hadn’t lost the mile. Not that the Blue Team has it easy. The strain is raw and real, whether it gets sweated or screamed out.
The Blue Team is automatically in the lead at the weigh-in. That still doesn’t mean that the Red Team can’t sneak up from behind, because upsets have happened. Will that advantage be enough to carry them?
There was a time in the mid-2000s when I was a huge fan of “The Biggest Loser” (no pun intended), a weight loss competition show that aired on NBC for 17 seasons from 2004 to 2016. I wasn’t alone: Throughout its run, the show, which featured teams competing to lose the largest percentage of their original weight under the guidance of a seemingly sadistic personal trainer, brought in 5 million to 10 million viewers an episode.
When I was watching the show, I was unsurprisingly as consumed with losing weight as the contestants were: I did everything you saw on the show, from keeping a meticulous food and exercise journal to counting Weight Watchers points to obsessively weighing myself throughout the day. I also hid diet pills in my sock drawer, I went on “cleanses,” and I misused laxatives to prevent myself from absorbing calories properly. Some days, I wouldn’t eat at all — eventually collapsing into bed lightheaded and deeply proud of myself.
And the whole time, I’d be watching “The Biggest Loser” for the sweet validation that everything I was doing to my body — much of which was dangerous — was for my own good. I, like so many others, believed that my weight “problem” was about my weakness, my lack of self-control, my failure.
I eventually let go of my obsession with becoming thin, and NBC seemingly let go of “The Biggest Loser” when it faded out without ceremony after its final season in February 2016. But now NBCUniversal (the parent company of NBC News) has revived the show on the USA Network this month as “a new holistic, 360-degree look at wellness.”
Perhaps NBCUniversal executives hope that we’ve all forgotten that the show’s “weight loss program” doesn’t work in the long term: The majority of contestants gain the weight back and ruin their metabolisms. Or maybe the executives who approved its return to our airwaves think we don’t care about the litany of former contestants’ testimonies detailing the verbal abuse, eating disorders, mental illness and drug abuse that they experience on or after the show.
Ryan C. Benson, the show’s first winner, warned about the dangerous fasting and dehydration he experienced while on the show, “to the point that he was urinating blood.” Season Two’s Lezlye Mendonca reported that contestants would use “amphetamines, water pills, diuretics, and throw up in the bathroom.” Former trainer Jillian Michaels — who most recently made headlines for concern-trolling Lizzo — admitted that she gave her team caffeine pills to give them “more energy” to exercise. (Michaels, who was among the worst offenders among the trainers, seemingly took particular joy in berating the contestants, saying things like “it’s fun watching other people suffer like that” — a quote NBC thought was so great that it put it in that season’s promo.)
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Joelle Gwynn from the 2008 “Couples” season reported that the show’s doctor gave her “yellow and black pills” — which, according to the New York Post, she later found out were most likely ephedra, a weight loss supplement banned by the Food and Drug Administration in 2004 after it killed over 150 people — to help her lose weight (he denied it) and that trainer Bob Harper (the host of the USA Network reboot) encouraged contestants to consume fewer calories than the doctors deemed safe and that he even supported vomiting.
Counting calories is a ridiculous way to try and lose weight
April 26, 201802:41
One of the most outspoken former contestants has been Kai Hibbard, the second-place winner on the third season, in 2006. A year after her season ended, she would become one of the show’s biggest critics, eventually calling her participation “the biggest mistake of my life.”
I spoke with Hibbard, who is now a social worker and activist and the author of “Losing It: A Fictional Reimagining of My Time on Weight Loss Reality TV.” She said, “I had hoped with all the studies, all the other contestants who have spoken out — I thought it was enough to kill” the show.
“When I joined the show, I was like most other people: I was spoon-fed this myth my entire life that being thin meant you were healthier,” Hibbard added. “Then I went through the whole process of the show and discovered the techniques they gave me to be thinner. I realized how sick, how physically ill they made me. That connection between thin and healthy was broken for me.”
Hibbard said people still feel entitled to comment about her body, particularly because she’s remained straight size because of a battle with lupus. “When people praise me for my body now, it’s a reminder of how much size is not related to health, because right now I’m the sickest I’ve ever been,” she said.
Dr. Lindo Bacon, author of “Health at Every Size: The Surprising Truth About Your Weight,” told me: “The misinformation that the show gives about dieting is abhorrent. We know these tactics aren’t successful to lose weight that will be maintained in the long term. All it is doing is helping people feel bad.”
Unlike dieting, the negativity the show encourages about fat people does work. A 2012 study found that watching just one episode of “The Biggest Loser” exacerbated people’s dislike of fat people and heightened viewers’ belief that weight is controllable. Another study in 2013 also found that watching the show reinforced beliefs that weight gain is entirely in one’s individual control — thus the idea that fat people are to blame for not taking personal responsibility for their health.
“It’s a myth that we have any data to support losing weight is going to be helpful,” Bacon said.
Another 2013 study reviewed the literature on how dieting affects health indicators like cholesterol, blood pressure and blood glucose levels — pretty much every area of concern that trolls purport to be so worried about when criticizing fat people. It showed that across all studies, virtually nothing improved with weight loss. The authors were unequivocal: “Weight, as we reviewed here, turns out to be an inadequate proxy for health outcomes.”
While there’s no proof that losing weight does anything for a fat person’s health, we have plenty of evidence that anti-fat bias and weight discrimination — compounded by shows like “The Biggest Loser” — contribute to fat people being paid less, facing a higher risk for suicide and depression and receiving terrible medical care.
If people like former trainer Jillian Michaels really care so much about fat people’s health and well-being, perhaps they should start by attacking anti-fat bias, rather than attacking fat people.
As a fat person, you’re bombarded with messages that you are something to be fixed, rather than someone to be loved and accepted. “These outside messages are telling you that you would be treated better if you changed yourself,” Bacon said. “No matter how much we hear this, the problem is not you. It’s our culture.”
In the new trailer, a contestant says: “I’m hoping to gain confidence. I’m hoping to gain self-love.” Those words broke my heart, because I know exactly how he feels. Diet culture and shows like “The Biggest Loser” thrive on the lie that fat people are unhappy, unhealthy and unmotivated; there is no space in “The Biggest Loser” for a happy fat person. But we don’t have to live like that.
Despite everything she’s been through, Hibbard is optimistic. “When I went on the show, I wanted to change myself to fit into a society that told me I was wrong. At this point in my life, I want to change society,” she said.
I’m hopeful, too, because now, for every executive who greenlights a show like ” The Biggest Loser,” there are people like Hibbard, Bacon and me insisting that fat people are worth more than just a number on a scale.
From Biggest Loser to Weight Loss Winner
Francelina Morillo-a former contestant on The Biggest Loser-weighed 350 pounds when she graduated college. She remembers looking in the mirror then. “I was in shock. I couldn’t believe how much I had let myself go,” says Morillo. Sick and tired of being ‘sick and tired,’ she decided to change her life that day. “I decided I was no longer going to let myself be a victim of circumstance and watch my life pass me by. So just like that, I never looked back. It’s been about four years since that day.” (Check out more of The Most Inspiring Weight Loss Success Stories of 2014.) These are the strategies that got her where she is.
Focus on Non-Scale Victories
Morillo has forgotten about the numbers on the scale. Her journey has been powered by “little non-scale victories, like making better choices at restaurants and social events.” Morillo doesn’t have an answer when people ask her about her goal weight. “I can tell you that the actual number on the scale means so little to me now. I tell people, ‘I just want to be a badass!’ I want to run faster, for longer, lift heavier, and I simply want to do all those things that I could not do before because of my weight. I have a new lease on life and I intend on using it!”
Morillo approaches social situations much differently now. “In the past, I would eat just to please those around me. Even if I wasn’t hungry, I’d eat because I didn’t want to make the host feel bad. Now, I have so much control. I’ve gained the courage to finally say ‘no.'”
When she’s going out with friends, Morillo makes sure she can find something on the menu that fits into her new lifestyle-or she speaks up. “My health is a priority now and I am not afraid to tell that to others. I honestly feel I am empowered constantly by the choices I make and I don’t see myself changing that anytime soon,” says Morillo.
Share Your Story
As a contestant on The Biggest Loser, social media played a big part in Morillo’s weight loss journey since the beginning (or middle, as she lost 100 pounds on her own before arriving at the ranch). “I think what has happened to me is a perfect example of the positive impact social media can have. I have so many amazing followers who have kept me going through my entire journey,” says Morillo.
After losing about 155 pounds, Morillo was left with excess skin, and when it was time to have it removed, she turned to her social networks. “I fundraised for my excess skin removal surgery and a lot of the donations were made by perfect strangers. This surgery has changed my life. I couldn’t be more grateful. I encourage people to start an Instagram because you will definitely find a community of people working towards a common goal: self love!” (Great weight-loss tip! Check out more 22 Ways to Stay Motivated to Lose Weight.)
Morillo’s current go-to workouts include running and Crossfit. She completed her first half-marathon in 2013 and has been obsessed ever since. And when she’s not pushing herself to reach a finish line, she’s training to lift heavier and picking up new tips at Crossfit. “The group of people changed my life. They were like family to me and taught me so much about nutrition. I initially went there for a good workout and found so much more. Going out of your comfort zone is so important. You end up learning so much more than you expected.”
Feed Your Sweet Tooth in a New Way
“Food is fuel and in this present time I feel like we have forgotten that,” says Morillo. She still craves sweets, but she satisfies the craving with different foods. “Quest Bars have been life-changing. A perfect way to ‘cheat clean.'” Morillo values the products and the company’s social mission as well: “They are constantly sharing people’s stories and motivating people to change their lives and to look at food differently.” (Here are 9 tricks to Fight Food Cravings without Going Crazy.)
To read more about Francelina Morillo’s amazing weight-loss journey, and find out how her life has changed, pick up the Jan/Feb issue of Shape, on newsstands now.
- By Shape Editors
Biggest Loser Love
What’s more inspiring than losing a total of 259 pounds in front of the world? Falling in love along the way.
That’s what happened to Damien Gurganious and Nicole Brewer of New York. The engaged couple applied for Season 7 of the NBC weight-loss reality show The Biggest Loser after Damien proposed.
They had met at their local YMCA in Brooklyn, New York in 2006, both just beginning their weight-loss journey on their own. “We both showed up for a senior water aerobics class one day and everyone else was much older than us,” says Damien. “So we started talking.”
Having a common weight problem—and the motivation to fix it—they became fast friends… and soon after, much more. It didn’t take long for them to fall in love and start planning their future together. But their weight was a constant struggle, even with the support of each other, and Nicole was determined to avoid wearing a plus-size wedding gown.
But that wasn’t the only reason she wanted to sign up for the show. After her mom, who suffered from diabetes and heart disease, suddenly passed away, Nicole knew she needed to change her habits. “My mom’s health was a big motivating factor,” she says. “Having Damien by my side through that loss was important,” she says. “I knew he’d be there during the next challenge—losing the weight for good.”
A short time later, after a little prodding on her part, the couple was standing in line in Rockefeller Plaza to audition for The Biggest Loser with 500 others hoping to be picked. Luckily, the producers liked them and at their heaviest—Damien, 381 pounds and Nicole, 269 pounds—they set off to change their lives while millions watched, hoping to inspire others to make a change too.
“The show wasn’t just about weight loss for us. It was a learning process about our relationship too,” says Nicole. “We learned a lot about how to support each other… how to be there and how to give each other space.”
Although they were voted off the show early on, it gave them the tools and information they needed to continue their journey at home. After all, they had a wedding coming up and they wanted to be the healthiest they could be—especially knowing they would start a family in the near future.
“Being in love is a spiritual thing for us,” says Damien. “You want to be with this person for the rest of your life.” A long, healthy life surrounded by family, friends and faith—faith that helped them through the toughest of times and will guide them in the future.
Nicole and Damien got married in New York in late August 2009. Other Season 7 favorites like Siona and Filipe Fa, Carla Triplett and Jerry and Estella Hayes helped them celebrate.