The Biggest Loser - A Critique

The Biggest Loser is a show that most people have watched and come to form strong views and opinions about.  Some people are fans and find the show “motivating”, “encouraging”, “successful” whilst others say that it is “unrealistic”, “unsafe”, “outrageous”.

For those who haven’t watched it – The Biggest Loser is a competition to see who can lose the most weight in a set time frame. The weight loss is calculated as a percentage weight loss based on the contestants’ starting weight.

As a dietitian at The Melbourne Sports Medicine Centre, I'm asked – “how does someone lose so much weight in a week?”, “Is it safe to lose so much weight so quickly?”, “they don’t show a lot of their diet – what does it consist of, do you know?”, “they seem to be exercising a LOT – is that good for them?”

Since I had only seen snippets of the show, I couldn’t really give a satisfactory answer. So, I decided to sit and watch an entire episode – which turned into two episodes, and the finale as well.

Here are some of the Pros I found from the show:

 A strong circle of support

A good and sturdy support network is important when making lifestyle changes of any calibre. On The Biggest Loser, each contestant had their trainers, team mates and fellow contestants to lean on when the going got tough. With the constant encouragement and push (and not-so-occasional kick up the backside), each contestant was well supported through their journey to lose weight.

Accountability

With weight loss, having someone to be accountable to is extremely important – sometimes it requires weigh-ins (which is what the contestants do, weekly) and measurements, sometimes it requires writing down everything you eat and drink, and sometimes it requires meeting up with your trainer or dietitian on a regular basis to stay accountable to your goals.

Race to the finish line - $$$

People to varying degrees are competitive by nature. So, setting the show up as a competition, with such a large, carrot dangled in front of the contestants, made the pain of the whip so worthwhile! Of course, we cannot all be rewarded with tens of thousands of dollars in prize money for losing weight, but a reward based system definitely gives great incentive for us to do something that is difficult and mundane.

However, there were also plenty of downfalls with The Biggest Loser:

Unrealistic expectations making the reality show not a reality at all

The sheer amount of weight contestants were losing was impressive, but alarming at the same time (especially when we are forever stressing to clients that a safe and realistic rate of weight loss is between 0.5 to 1kg a week).

The focus was on absolute weight loss and lost sight of more important things like – a balance between diet, exercise and REST, quality of life, “weight” loss versus “fat” loss and so much more. Needless to say, we don’t all have the luxury of being whipped into shape by a personal trainer all day every day, not needing to work, cook or do any housework. When taken out of the context of The Biggest Loser, the “lifestyle” that it portrays is simply not one that 99.9% of the population can mirror – yet, it is what a lot of their viewers would take as a grand example of “successful” weight loss.

Exercise, more exercise what about the food?

Of course, the dietitian in me is protesting that there was not a big focus on nutrition.  

I have never been one to attribute successful long term weight loss to diet only, but The Biggest Loser made it seem like as long as you trained REALLY hard (to the point where most contestants were over trained and risking injury), you would be able to lose the weight and keep the weight off. Whilst I am sure they had their diets taken care of, it would have been nice to see a bit more focus go into the importance of healthy eating and what it entails when it comes to weight loss, fuel for training, recovery and maintaining good energy levels throughout the day. 

Finally the finale - but then what?

So the final weigh ins came and went – the winner was announced and everyone was happy. But then what? Now that they return home to their lives, day jobs, kids and chores, with no more Michelle Bridges in their ear, or food prepared for them in the correct quantities to suit their adapted “new” life outside The Biggest Loser – what happens then?

One of the biggest issues I found was that throughout the show, contestants were not taught real-life strategies to cope with the barriers that can pop up day-to-day, such as: emotional barriers (stress, for example), mechanical barriers (work, appointments, taking the kids to swimming) and knowledge barriers (not knowing the nutritional value of foods in order to make informed choices with meals and snacks). This means that, chances are when the contestants return to the real world, they will likely revert back to their old habits and their old weight. 

Feng Yuan Liu, Accredited Practising Dietitan is available for consultation each Wednesday at The Melbourne Sports Medicine Centre.  For appointments please phone 9650 9372 or book online.