Let me start by sharing that I was in contention to be one of The Biggest Loser’s first season’s personal trainers. That’s right, I went through several levels of interviews, and did not make the final cut. I was lucky in a sense, because I daresay I would have quit if I had made it into the trainer stable. I don’t do shows that risk the health of patrticipants, and have turned down other similar projects.
It was obvious to me after watching the first season, that despite the occasional on-air presence of a physician, the show was dabbling in dangerous diet and fitness protocols. And though very low-calorie diets have a role in morbid obesity, reversing it’s effects do not go hand-in-hand with endless hours of daily training. Also quite clear is that most entertainment health shows are not out to save people - they are out to garner viewers, get huge ratings, and offer major financial payoffs for networks and advertisers. Any serious health show that I’m aware of, like one recently hosted by Sanjay Gupta, typically get cancelled because viewers find real health news boring.
We all want to see a good show. Especially when the stakes are radical body makeovers in relatively short periods of time, with a big fat dollar prize at the end. Weight loss that literally transforms the person, tears and torture, serves a big payoff that can make a difference in a person’s quality of life that all makes for great TV.
So I have to believe that a recent Biggest Loser’s confession that was covered in the New York Post, Secrets Behind the Biggest Loser, Sunday edition (Jan. 18), is really no surprise and offers no secrets. Just how do you think people lose 17 pounds in a week? How do you think they lose 100 pounds in just months? It’s not by exercising an hour a day most days of the week and eating a well-balanced 1500 calorie diet Though a lot more agony may be kept behind the scenes, people still tune in to watch the torture others are going through. Maybe you identify with the back stories, especially sad stories. Maybe you have even had their same excuses, and frankly, dreamt that this could be you someday.
Some facts to consider:
- Fat-shaming happens in the real world and it is probably a big weight-loss motivator behind the scenes on The Biggest Loser.
- The fitness regimens that start on day one on the show may indeed pose huge health risks for the contestants. Some health experts just juxtapose that danger to the choice of remaining morbidly obese and the dangers that persistent excess weight poses.
- Very low-calorie diets have been used for years as part of the treatment plan for morbidly obese patients. The key is that the patients are monitored closely, supported by a team of health practitioners, and yes, the rate of weight re-gain is quite high.
- Contestants knowingly sign disclaimers. These have been around a long time in the world of entertainment, and play a big role in shows that offer risks, especially health and bodily harm risks.
- The show would not have sustained itself if viewers were not transfixed with the model of the show - contestants losing large amounts of weight quickly. The onyl way to reduce harm to contestants is to stop watching.
- Many obese individuals want a fast way to lose weight, they want it on someone else’s dime, and so they’re willing to ignore sensibilities and sign non-disclosure because they are truly desperate. Nearly 200,000 people apply to audition every season.
Kai Hibbard, who was the Biggest Loser participant interviewed by the New York Post reporter, describes brutal workouts, contestants who became dangerously ill, and unrelenting seclusion to keep show secrets intact. Diets were often filled with processed low calorie “crap,” with a calorie count oftentimes under 1000 calories/day. She also describes fat-shaming, harassment, bullying and brutal comments meant to keep participants in line, residual injuries after months of extreme workouts, and severe emotional fatigue and pain.
I’m not surprised, I’m not shocked, and news flash - that’s what makes it such a compelling show! The worst part is that I think most of the contestants immediately gain back some weight because they simply can’t sustain the irrational weight goal that is set. Many of them even gain back all the weight and more. Only a few contestants "get the money," and even they don’t keep the weight off. Yes, most of them do learn some valuable fitness and nutrition lessons that they might otherwise have not learned. But the failure to sustain the weight loss is due to the same daunting reasons most of us can’t sustain our weight loss:
- We get cocky and believe we are cured.
- We believe exercise will counterbalance over-eating.
- We develop an "all or nothing" attitude and abandon the exercise and/or the diet because it is too extreme.
- We don’t do the emotional work necessary to help limit emotional and stress eating.
- We decide we don’t have the time, money or energy to maintain the lifestyle change long-term.
- We don’t believe that obesity will kill us, so we allow all the other important tasks to get in the way of a commitment to our health. We make excuses.
You have to decide to turn off fantasy TV and seek a personal solution if you are obese or overweight. Most of the viable solutions are not sexy, exciting, or quick. Make a New Year’s resolution to take charge of your health and to lose weight by meeting with a health professional and creating a long term plan. But do it right this time. Or, you can keep watching The Biggest Loser and dreaming.
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Known as The HealthGal, expert contributor Amy Hendel is a popular medical and lifestyle reporter, nutrition and fitness expert, columnist, and brand ambassador, as well as a health coach. Trained as a physician assistant, she maintains a health coach private practice in New York and Los Angeles. Author of The Four Habits of Healthy Families, you can find her on Twitter @HealthGal1103 and on Facebook at TheHealthGal. Her personal mantra is “Fix it first with food, fitness, and lifestyle.”