I 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.
Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.