The Myth of the Biggest Loser

article by Sandra Trentino
July 07, 2019
Many of us just can’t help ourselves when it comes to reality TV. Whether it’s The Real Truth or Survivor that has you rushing home from work to catch the next episode, you get the feeling that you’re becoming friends with the people on the screen, fulfilling your desire for a meaningful connection.

When it comes to The Biggest Loser, however, viewers didn’t only want to get to know the contestants – they wanted to achieve the same results. The idea of being able to shed as much as 80kg in just seven days appeals to many of us who are battling to achieve our optimum weight, but, if you applied the tactics and techniques used on The Biggest Loser, you’ll probably lose, but it might be as much water as it is fat. You’d be just as liable to lose your hair, your positive attitude and your ability to lose weight as well.

As much as The Biggest Loser might inspire people to start exercising and dieting, the methods used on the show are more for entertainment than for health kicks. Over the years, contestants have opened up about their experiences on the show and the picture they’ve painted isn’t pretty.

4 Scary Truths about The Biggest Loser

#1 Starved of Success

While starving yourself will help you drop the pounds quickly, it’s neither a healthy nor sustainable way of losing weight. Although the amount of calories you should consume each day varies depending on your body weight, age and gender, the lowest recommended daily calorie intake is 1,200 calories per day for the average woman.

Bearing that in mind, when you were watching Kai Hibbard sweat her way to victory in the third season of The Biggest Loser, she was literally starving. Not only was Hibbard working out for six to eight hours a day, but she was also consuming less than 1,000 calories in any 24-hour period and even limited her water intake in an effort to beat her dieting rivals.

According to a Bowling Green State University professor of exercise science, Lynn Darby, safe weight loss target sit between one to two pounds a week. In comparison, some of the contestants on The Biggest Loser were dropping as much as 30 pounds in just seven days!

The problem with this type of dramatic weight loss is that a lot of what you lose is water and muscle and, as a result, your metabolism slows down, making it virtually impossible to maintain your new weight. Following a more steady weight-loss program, like that offered by Weight Watchers, will not only help you lose weight safely, it will also help you keep it off.

#2 Overworked and Underfed

After a lengthy selection process, the final contestants on The Biggest Loser head off to a training ranch where they’ll be competing for next few weeks. On arrival, they are given the medical once-over and then the training begins.

The first workout isn’t a gentle introduction to exercise like those recommended by Diet.com – it’s a grueling four-hour training session consisting of body-weight work, interval training, rowing, and kettlebells. Hibbard says she collapsed on her first day at the ranch while her feet were bleeding for the first three weeks.

In 2014, two contestants on Australia’s Biggest Loser collapsed during their first challenge. Forced to climb the 10,000 stairs that lead to the top of the Sydney Opera House, one 17-year-old contestant vomited during the challenge while another fainted.

When she arrived at the ranch, Hibbard carried a whopping 285 lbs on her 5-foot-6 frame. At this stage, experts say, she should have been doing low-impact exercises like walking and swimming, rather than interval training and rowing.

According to Hibbard, other contestants had it even harder, with one suffering from bursitis in both knees and a torn calf muscle, but still being made to compete. In 2009, another competitor collapsed after being forced to run a mile and had to be rushed to hospital. Although this was explained away as heat exhaustion, Hibbard believes it was a much more serious condition, known as rhabdomyolysis, which can be caused by long, strenuous work-outs that overexert the body.

A Texas-based physician who specializes in eating disorders, Dr. Ed Tyson, believes the show puts contestants at high risk of developing eating disorders and other health complications, saying “It’s miraculous no one has died yet”.

#3 Adding Insult to Injury

In addition to starvation rations and excessive exercise, The Biggest Loser contestants have to deal with constant harassment, humiliation, and cruelty at the hands of their so-called trainers. Jillian Michaels has come in for some serious criticism over her tough-love attitude to contestants and some of her other, supposedly motivational, techniques.

Clips from the reality TV show reveal Michaels stating that “these people” have to be pushed as they have no concept of their own strength. During one particularly punishing work-out, which resulted in a contestant vomiting, Michaels explained that this was due to him having a lot of toxins in his body and she was proud she’d made him vomit.

Scientists, however, indicate that vomiting as a result of overexertion is far from beneficial and usually occurs as a result of dehydration and heat exhaustion.

In addition to verbal abuse, Michaels has been accused of being unprofessional, recommending caffeine pills to her team to increase weight loss and taking away the seats of their exercise bikes to motivate them to work harder.

Although Michaels hasn’t responded to the criticism directly, she quit the show in 2014, saying she was “deeply concerned” and the “poor care of the contestants”.

#4 Off and On

One of the problems with rapid weight loss is that it tends to be unsustainable, with the weight piling back on again as quickly as it was dropped. According to a contestant from the show’s second season, Suzanne Mendonca, not only did she suffer from multiple stress fractures in her feet during the show, but contestants were also encouraged to take banned substances, such as ephedra extract, to promote weight loss.

The show’s producers have denied these allegations, saying “The safety and well-being of our contestants is, and always has been, paramount” and “We prohibit the use of any illegal substances”.

Nevertheless, Mendonca claims she went through some drastic measures to drop 90 pounds on the show, saying “I’d wrap myself in garbage bags to sweat. We’d use the sauna for six hours a day. We stopped eating and drinking and would work out for four hours a day”.

A study done by Dr. Kevin Hall, a reality TV enthusiast and expert on metabolism at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, revealed the show’s weight-loss tactics play havoc with the contestants’ metabolisms, making regaining the weight almost inevitable.

According to Dr. Hall’s findings, the overweight contestants had normal metabolisms at the beginning of the show, but, by the end, although thinner, their metabolisms had slowed considerably. Although this is normal at the end of a diet or weight-loss regime, what’s unusual about The Biggest Loser contestants is that their metabolisms didn’t recover.

A slower metabolism makes losing weight, or even maintaining optimal weight, extremely difficult as you have to either consume less or burn more calories than the average person. Danny Cahill won the eighth season of the show, losing an incredible 239 pounds in just seven months! Sadly, as a result of his sluggish metabolism, to maintain that weight, he would have to eat 800 calories a day less than a typical man of his size. Since the show’s finale in 2009,  Cahill has struggled to keep his weight down and is now a solid 295 pounds.

Cahill isn’t the only one and Mendonza says “NBC never does a reunion,” she says. “Why? Because we’re all fat again!”

The Biggest Bottom Line

The Biggest Loser feeds off of an overweight individual’s desperation to create a body image they feel comfortable with and that will give them a chance at a healthier, longer life. Rather than giving them the tools to achieve and maintain those goals, however, the show exposes them to unhealthy and even dangerous practices that are not consistent with sustainable weight loss.

Be a Winner, Not a Loser

At the end of the day, any weight loss regime that produces dramatic results in a short space of time is neither healthy nor maintainable. Weight Watchers recommend an approach that does away with extreme deprivation and crash diets, instead of creating achievable goals and focusing on a positive attitude to weight loss.

By encouraging dieters to lose one to two pounds a week and setting them daily calorie intake targets, Weight Watchers allows participants to take control over what they eat without forcing them to completely overhaul their approach to food.

Weight Loss and Maintenance

Although Jillian Michaels is still out there giving advice about nutrition, weight loss, and exercise, she still seems to be missing some vital statistics about weight loss. As we mentioned earlier, because your metabolism slows down after a diet, maintaining your new weight can be more difficult than losing it was. However, in her blog, Michaels states “many think maintenance is harder than losing… physiologically this simply isn’t the case”.

Looking at Michaels’ Ripped in 30 days meal plan, it couldn’t be more different to the Weight Watchers approach. While Weight Watchers allows you to eat anything you like, as long as you meet your daily points quota, Michaels recommends a strict (and somewhat tedious) menu of endless salads and chicken breasts. Of course, this might work for some, but most of us prefer a little more flexibility in our weight-loss program.

Digital Diets

Not all of us want to shell out a fortune for a gym membership and then spend hours sweating and grunting alongside a bunch of strangers, which why digital diets and flexible weekly workouts appeal to so many. Companies like Diet.com and The South Beach Diet offer a combination of recommended meal plans and exercises that you can do independently and either in the home or the local park.

Diet.com is a useful resource whether you’re trying to lose weight or simply adopt a healthier lifestyle. Providing effective tools for long-term lifestyle changes, Diet.com also provides an excellent support system to help clients’ on track.

Similarly, effective resources are available through The South Beach Diet which, while considerably more restrictive than Weight Watchers, can be extremely effective. The South Beach Diet concentrates on removing cravings for candy and other sweet foods while maintaining healthy levels of blood sugar. Subsequently, foods that you may rely on, like bread, fruit, and rice, are banned!

Once you get to the second phase of The South Beach Diet, you can gradually reintroduce some of those carbs and then, on reaching the final phase, you’ll be encouraged to focus more on long-term healthy eating choices that will help you maintain your optimal weight.

The South Beach Diet doesn’t leave you floundering on your own, however, and has a range of constructive tools and support mechanisms to help keep you motivated and committed.

Conclusion

The Biggest Loser may not have done much for its contestants but it is a useful lesson for all of us that are making New Year’s resolutions about losing weight or adopting a healthier way of life. Even if you’re desperate to lose weight before Valentine’s Day, be realistic about your goals – losing weight too fast can make it nearly impossible to maintain your optimum and, the chances are, the quicker you shed it, the faster it piles back on.

Similarly, if you have decided to start exercising after months of inertia, don’t push yourself too hard at the beginning. Those of us who are carrying more weight than we should are more prone to injury, simply because our bodies are putting more pressure on our skeletons than they should be. Low-impact exercise helps you get your body moving without forcing it into overexertion. Swimming is ideal as the water will shoulder some of that excess weight, leaving you free to move.

A slow, steady approach to weight loss is not only healthier, but it’s also more sustainable, so don’t think about being The Biggest Loser, rather focus on what you have to gain and take one step at a time.