The Biggest Loser Has A Bigger Problem Than You Think

19 Mar

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Obesity is a huge problem in America.

Last month we took a look at how less housework in the 21st century may be leading to an increase in obesity amongst women (as it stands now, 70% of men and 56% of women are labeled as either obese or overweight).

So what have we, as Americans, done to combat this rather ‘large’ problem?

Well, of course, being Americans we came up with a reality television show that centers on (very) overweight contestants attempting to lose the most weight to ultimately take home a (rather large) cash prize.

This show, which debuted in 2004 is called – as everyone probably knows by now – The Biggest Loser. In fact, the show became so popular that 26 other countries adopted their own version of the show.

On the surface it seems great.

Overweight and/or obese people get a chance to lose weight for free with one lucky contestant winning hundreds of thousands of dollars. Moreover, those watching at home can see these inspiring stories and apply them to their own lives relative to their fitness goals.

It’s a win-win situation for everyone, right?

Wrong.

While The Biggest Loser has done a good job of promoting the positive side – i.e weight loss – of their show, they have also conveniently left out a lot of necessary (and quite scary) details.

With the show averaging 7 million viewers per week and raking in nearly $100 million in revenue, those who have an interest in the health field have administered a number of peer-reviewed medical studies that look at its impact on both the participants and the viewers.

As Yoni Freedhoff writes in his article, When Science Met The Biggest Loser“Their results are anything but pretty.”

To further expound upon Mr. Freedhoff’s point: 

According to a paper published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, the researchers, including the show’s own Robert Huizenga, looked at the metabolisms of participants following the completion of their first seven months with The Biggest Loser.

As expected, due to weight loss and an effect broadly referred to as “metabolic adaptation,” the participants’ burned fewer calories at rest following their massive weight losses.

What wasn’t expected was the the magnitude of that decrease.

Researchers found that participants metabolisms slowed by an average of 504 more calories than would have been expected simply as a consequence of losing weight. In other words, participants’ metabolisms slowed down to a much greater degree than was predicted. In turn, this suggests that the show’s approach to weight loss may have risks unto itself.

Furthermore, LiveScience reported in 2010 that two contestants from Season 8 were hospitalized after collapsing during a foot race. Another contestant from Season 9 was treated for exhaustion after trying to ride 26 miles on a stationary bike. The risk in all three cases was heightened because the contestants had been severely obese and inactive for many years, according to experts quoted in the LiveScience piece. 

“They’re taking people who have been inactive and are not in good shape and boom, automatically subjecting them to this stress,” Carol Wolin-Riklin, the bariatric nutrition coordinator for the University of Texas Medical School at Houston, told LiveScience. “Things are going to happen.”

And it doesn’t stop there. 

Numerous studies about the show’s viewership have been administered over the years with the results being anything but positive.

In one study, viewers expressed increased disdain for overweight people, even after watching just one episode. In a second study found that viewers were less inclined to exercise because of how it’s portrayed on the show.

Moreover, this study published in the journal Obesity, showed that watching even a single episode of The Biggest Loser led viewers to dramatically increase their own hateful and negative biases towards those with obesity.

Ultimately, as Mr. Freedhoff points out:

(These studies) suggest that the show may be detrimental to both viewers and participants in that its combination of derision, personal blame, and extremes of exercise and dieting fuel societal weight bias while simultaneously discouraging people from exercising. Meanwhile, for participants, it seems to disproportionately slow down their metabolisms to the point where they’re burning a full meal fewer calories than would be expected by their losses.

With Season 14 coming to an end tonight, let’s hope these issues come to an end as well.

Because, as Ace Ventura so eloquently puts it, not all of us should fall under the loser category.

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2 Responses to “The Biggest Loser Has A Bigger Problem Than You Think”

  1. Cheryl April 3, 2013 at 11:45 pm #

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  2. Katherin April 4, 2013 at 11:18 pm #

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