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

biggest hoax 320x240I 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. Rick, good point. But it is NOT just about calories. Insulin levels are a major part of the story, but receptor sites are the other major component. Without receptor sites, insulin has little or no effect on a cell. The distribution of fat cells throughout the body and the number of receptor sites that control access will dictate where and how fat will deposit itself when insulin is elevated. Genes play a major role here. Women have a greater genetic propensity to distribute fat (IE more fat cells) on hips, buttocks, thighs. etc; men tend to accumulate more on their stomachs first. If it were only about insulin levels and not the distribution of fat cells and receptor sites, we’d add fat uniformly throughout(like, on our fingers, feet, faces and knees!). In some populations (like Taubes’ pictures), these genetic predispositions are grossly exaggerated, so a systemic increase in insulin (or, alternatively, an increase in insulin sensitivity, which equals more receptor sites) would predispose one to accumulate fat where the fat cells are waiting and none where there are few or no fat cells (or fewer receptor sites) – despite insulin being uniformly distributed throughout the blood.

    Mark Sisson wrote on October 14th, 2009
  2. I think what Taubes fails to understand is that fat from food is converted to body fat as easily as sugar and even in the absence of insulin.

    Basically whatever extra intake of calories force the body to up regulate its fat storing mechanism.

    Grok neeeded to store extra fat for when food was scarce and since carbohydrates were scarce it means that his body had to store fat as well.
    When food was abundant Grok would gain weight (the simple caloric excess triggering fat storage) and when food was scarce he would lose weight by consuming the extra body fat.

    There are tribes that follow this cycle: they get fat before winter and start spring all thin and lean.

    After all if you don’t consume an excess of calories and your body needs to draw upon its fuel within, it doesn’t matter whether extra insulin turns sugar into body fat since that fat will be burned by the body if the calories from the diet are not enough.

    Niklas wrote on October 14th, 2009
  3. @Rick,

    Yes, McDonald does not have the full picture. But please, read Taubes’ book before you decide. He addresses the very arguments that you bring up. I think you will be very surprised at the thoroughness of his research.

    Ailu wrote on October 14th, 2009
  4. Rick, you do owe it to yourself to read Taubes. Meanwhile, Lyle doesn’t agree with the idea of a metabolic advantage, yet it has been shown to be very real. Clearly, if you want to lose fat, you need to have a net negative calorie intake whereby the deficit is made up from your own stored fat. But this doesn’t necessarily apply to maintainance or even to gaining weight if the macronutrient mix is right. In fact, studies have shown that a very low carb, high fat diet with 1,000 extra calories per day (over average BMR) will not necessarily result in weight gain, since insulin is instrumental in the storage of excess nutrients. The body will increase thermogensis and mitochondrial proton leak to dissipate the extra calories. Meanwhile, the same excess 1000 calories on a high carb diet will cause weight gain. As I say often, calories do have context.

    Mark Sisson wrote on October 14th, 2009
  5. Even the writers who think there’s a metabolic advantage claim it is at most 150 calories. It’s impossible for 1000 extra calories to be dissipated as heat and no study proves such a thing is possible.

    And it doesn’t make any sense from an evolutionary perspective. Since carbohydrates were scarce and we needed to store nutrients when food itself was scarce, to waste 1000 calories as heat when the body could just store them (and the body can easily store fat without insulin through Acylation Stimulating Protein) would have declared our premature extinction.

    Niklas wrote on October 14th, 2009
  6. By exactly what mechanism would the body draw upon its fat stores in the presence of excess insulin?

    As far as I can tell, when the mechanisms to effectively utilize fat are not in place, the body is more likely to consume muscle tissue in order to maintain glucose levels.

    Fat tissue can be stored without insulin present, sure, but that doesn’t really explain how people can eat many more calories a day than they are “supposed” to and still not gain significant fat mass as long as their carb intake is very low. I recall that Taubes does cite an overfeeding study where this very thing is demonstrated. If necessary I can go hunt the reference down.

    Of course there has to be some sort of calorie deficit in order to convince the body to draw upon its fat stores. It’s just that they’re much, much harder to get at when there’s too much insulin in the way, and more difficult (but possible) to add on to in insulin’s absence.

    …And I’ve gathered you’ve never experienced the post-prandial “OMG I THINK IMMA GONNA DIE OF HEATSTROKE WTFIMABBQ” effect on very-low carb primal. It’s the very reason I don’t like to take my carbs too low, even though weight comes off stupidly fast that way. My best friend doesn’t like to sit anywhere near me when I’m eating right, because I turn into a fleshy space heater. Going out into sub-freezing temperatures shoeless, wearing only shorts and a tank top? BRING IT ON MOTHERCLUCKER

    Ginger wrote on December 23rd, 2009

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