Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
29 Sep

The Biggest Loser… Is the Audience

The Biggest Loser HoaxI watched The Biggest Loser last week – as well as the prior week’s opener, thanks to TiVo. I know what you’re thinking, but, hey, it’s my job and it has to be done. Truth is, I figure it’s about time someone shook America by the lapels and exposed the myths and fallacies in this show, which has become one of the most popular on TV. With all the glowing coverage, the average viewer is starting to think The Biggest Loser somehow represents the indomitability of the human spirit and the triumph of modern bariatric medicine. Actually, nothing could be further from the truth. It’s a made-for-TV spectacle that has morphed into a cruel hoax perpetrated on the typical overweight person in America who is desperately looking for the weight-loss secret. It shows precisely how NOT to lose weight. Talk about two steps forward and three steps back. A few years ago, I suggested in this post that there were a few things right with the show (I still took them to task for their sponsor choices) but I’ve changed my mind. If this season’s opener, in which two morbidly obese, untrained contestants nearly died trying to race a mile in the heat, is any indication, nothing will do more to prolong the current obesity epidemic than a fixation on the Biggest Loser and its yelling, screaming, puking, crying, collapsing, extreme dieting, six-hour workout mentality. Hell, if I were an obese person watching all this, I’d be thinking, “dude, if this is what it takes to lose the weight, pass me another Twinkie and let’s see what’s on VH1.”

For those few of you unfamiliar with the show, every season NBC gathers 16 or so exceptionally obese people on a remote ranch in Malibu (just up the road from me) and then follows them on a 12-week odyssey of rapid, substantial weight loss as they are coached by two celebrity fitness trainers. Men usually start at 300-400 pounds and women at 200-300, but recently some have shown up weighing in at over 450. During the process, which is actually a competition for a $250,000 first prize, the ones that lose the least amount of weight each week are subject to being voted off campus by the rest. As the season unravels, remarkable bodyweight changes do take place and it’s not unusual for the top finalists to lose over 100 pounds during their stay at the ranch. But as we will soon see, the costs can be significant. After each season is over, we don’t hear of the ones that gain much or most of the weight back (and many do). We don’t hear about the viewers who adopt the Biggest Loser strategy only to virtually guarantee failure once again. We don’t hear about the eating disorders that surely emanate from the guilt and shame from failure at all levels.

The first thing I noticed about this season is that the trainers come off looking more like sadistic prison guards or whacked-out drill sergeants than the caring, loving guides I’d seen on previous seasons. I think I’d like Jillian and Bob if I met them on the street, and in their hearts they probably mean well, but this is reality TV and these guys use every means possible to hammer their poor contestants into whimpering puddles of blood, sweat and tears at every opportunity. Their charges are obese people who have historically had a hard time getting up from the couch, yet are now being berated into multi-hour workouts where F-bombs and other epithets are hurled at every missed step and each pause for breath.  “Don’t feel like a four-hour workout today? Loser! Pussy! You should be ashamed of yourself!” I assure you those words will be ringing in their ears long after the contestants have left the ranch, haunting them with guilt every time they sneak a pad of butter onto their steamed broccoli or opt for a 15-minute walk outside instead of an hour on the treadmill.

The assumptions that go into this formulaic weight loss program – and, hence, the lessons that are supposedly being taught to the tens of millions of viewers are, of course, based on faulty Conventional Wisdom. Count calories, watch the fat intake, and exercise as hard as you can for as long as you can, and eventually the theoretical math should work out to lost tonnage. And since virtually everyone on the show loses a significant amount of weight in the twelve weeks, the viewer probably thinks something must be working, right? Wrong. If you are a regular MDA reader, you know by now that losing 5-20 pounds a week of stored body fat week-in and week-out (without losing any muscle) is virtually impossible. Reprogramming genes that have been carb-dependent and insulin insensitive for decades so that they can rebuild efficient, reliable fat-burning systems can’t be done in a few days, nor without sending the proper signals. Stress hormones rise, diuretic hormones kick in, testosterone drops, inflammation increases and all manner of metabolic havoc is loosed. Ah, but it looks great for 12 weeks of compelling television.

If you do the real math and account for hormonal responses and the gene acclimation process, you understand that one to two (maybe three) pounds a week of burned body fat is a safe, effective and bullet-proof way to drop the pounds with some predictability and regularity over the weeks and months until you reach a comfortable, healthy body composition. Instead, in pulling out all the stops for quick results and TV ratings on the Biggest Loser, the producers have chosen the most dangerous methods with the highest long-term failure rates. Just about every workout on TBL looks like someone’s going to have a heart attack or a stroke. And every meal looks like an anemic Jenny Craig leftover.

Here are a few added observations on what’s wrong with TBL:

Water weight is always the first to go. The extreme (and generally very impressive) first week weight-loss numbers are coming from a few short-term adaptations that largely have to do with water weight. Water is lost directly through urine and sweat as many contestants reportedly drink copious amounts of water (eight pounds per gallon) prior to the initial weigh-in simply to pad the “starting” or “before” numbers. Furthermore, a week of intense exercise will deplete glycogen stores, and for every gram of glycogen, four grams of water is also lost. That’s a 5-for-1 deal in short term loss, but eventually the body wants to replenish that glycogen (which is why a week or two later contestants hit a temporary weight-loss plateau). Diuretic hormones start to kick in as a result of the increases exercise stress, and water is excreted from spaces between the cells and even from the bloodstream. All of these have little or nothing to do with healthy weight loss, but a 400-pound man can “easily” lose two or three gallons (25 pounds) in a week this way.

Too much emphasis on counting calories. The show obsesses over calories – especially the tired “calories in, calories out” mantra. Weighing every portion, counting every morsel, cutting fat wherever they can, they drill the math into the participants. “Burn 5000 calories a day doing our grueling workouts and account for the 2,000 per day calorie deficit from eating less and you’ll lose two pounds a day every day.”  I have heard reports that some weeks the contestants are limited to just 800 calories per day.  (Thank God for the low-cal gum sponsors or they’d be chewing their arms off!) That could theoretically be marginally safe (the 800 calories  – not the chewing your arm) if the diet were, say, zero carbs and amount of exercise they were doing were very limited. But in light of the fact that contestants are expected to burn thousands of calories each day, the simple math ceases to work for them. It becomes a multi-variate, non-linear algorithm.

Too much credit given to portion control. The show also obsesses on the “three meals and two snacks” concept, in a doomed attempt to ensure that contestants will never really go hungry. (Ziplock bags is their portion-control sponsor, as are some of the “100-calorie snack” purveyors). Unfortunately, those tiny low-fat meals not only don’t stave off hunger, they tend to promote insulin resistance. The only saving grace there is the fact that contestants are exercising so much, their muscles suck up every gram of carbohydrate.

Too dependent on exercising off the calories. Five, six hours a day in this case. Calories in calories out again…but what they don’t realize is that for a previously carb-dependant person to start exercising that hard and that much, especially on a low fat, low cal diet, is that a significant amount of lean mass will be allocated to fuel. You’ll actually burn precious muscle to keep stoking the carb-fueled exercise fire. Some weeks, after drastically reducing caloric intake and accumulating 15,000 or more total calories on the treadmill LCD, contestants still GAIN weight. How’s that for math? That’s because the body doesn’t know what it needs to do to achieve homeostasis, so it hoards fat, retains water and tears down muscle. We know from the PB that 80% of body composition is determined by diet, if you allow enough time (and the correct diet!). Exercise is a good thing, but too much can get in the way of successful long term weight loss. Notably, this season sees the return of Daniel, a very likable kid who started last season at 454 pounds and lost 142 (down to 312) between the start of the show and the season finale a few months later. Sadly, in the first episode this season, he weighed in at the same 312 despite his admission that he had been working out four hours a day in the months prior to the new season. Four hours of exercise a day got him NOWHERE. It’s all about the diet, folks. And NOT the diet espoused on The Biggest Loser.

Bottom line, if you like soap operas, train wrecks or movies about gladiators, TBL can be mildly entertaining. If you are looking for information on how to effectively lose weight, there’s probably better stuff on VH1.

So how about you? Weigh in today with your thoughts and let me know what you think about The Biggest Loser.

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. I actually know Daniel and he really is a wonderful person. I know this wasn’t the healthiest way to lose weight, and he still works out like a beast, but I have to say that for him it was a wonderful experience. The process may have sucked, but he is incredibly healthy compared to where he was and he found a wonderful loving girl in his second attempt.
    I really wish he would try PB now to eliminate the last of the flab and to give him a more relaxing lifestyle, but he’s definitely a disciple of the Biggest Loser fitness and eating. Maybe someday.

    Brandon Foss wrote on September 27th, 2011
  2. well first of all, thank you very much for your time used in this post and even more thanks for your content, actually I really like, I begin to follow your blog more. regards

    vestidos wrote on September 29th, 2011
  3. I have never watched this show, but my guess is that they are feeding the contestants junk. If they were feeding them good healthy raw vegetables instead of sugar, additives, processed foods, white flour, etc., they would be getting healthier. They also would benefit from fresh raw (green) juices. The goal should be HEALTH not losing weight.

    Jenn wrote on October 2nd, 2011
  4. Somebody had to say it (yay) – Thanks Mark!

    Cynthia wrote on October 2nd, 2011
  5. Everything you say is absolutely correct. However, I think the contestants are largely at fault for the effect that the show has on the masses. If the contestants didn’t spend the whole season pretending that walking 3 miles and not eating cupcakes is an amazing feat of human fortitude, then the masses would see the show for what it is: a competition.

    vic305 wrote on October 13th, 2011
  6. The biggest loser show is a big health hazard to any person at any size. It is not normal for any person to exercise four or more hours a day and eat so little and not the proper diets for each indivaul person for each person is different with what he or she can eat. Some people can not eat certailn foods for the food makes them sick or they take certain meds. Fat yes it is bad to have to much however male or female we all need some and women more than men. People are different shapes and sizes still and always will be. To really be fair and true let’s have a show that has all real skinny people on it that is trying to build their bodies up so they can be more strong. Plus my baked cabbage is just as healthy as yours. What is the first thing that your enemy is going to do to you or should do to you is to make you more weak than he or she is.

    Helen W. wrote on May 8th, 2012
  7. What is the first thing that your enemy is going to do to you? Make you and your body weak to fat weak or to skinny weak. The Biggest Loser is a show that is totaly stupid and dangerous for people of any size for every person’s diet is a little different because of alergies, meds ect. Plus people come in diferent shapes and sizes and always will. Most people lose to much weight when they get sick oh I could go on and on. I will add this real fact that is that women are to have more fat on their bodies than men.

    Helen W. wrote on May 8th, 2012
  8. Good article, definitely nice to see someone calling the Biggest Loser on its BS. However, I thought the characterization of an obese person as someone who eats twinkies (implying laziness and a lack of healthy eating habits) to be stereotypical. Most obese people aren’t like that. Most people who read this won’t believe me, but it’s true.

    M. Klein wrote on June 26th, 2012
  9. why does everyone assume that everyone falls for everything?

    sorry, no one needed to be pulled by nothing.. no one needed a slapping.

    most of the real world has some common sense left in them… honey.

    biggest loser? come on already it’s a show. diets are a scam and it’s called eating right.

    nothing more. stop making a mountain out of a molehill so to speak.

    no one is enlightening anybody. it’s already understood that things such as this are bunk and for entertainment purposes only.

    scamispropaganda wrote on June 5th, 2013

Leave a Reply

If you'd like to add an avatar to all of your comments click here!

© 2016 Mark's Daily Apple

Subscribe to the Newsletter and Get a Free Copy
of Mark Sisson's Fitness eBook and more!