High Risk for Big Losers

One of the many reality shows to hit the airwaves since the turn of the century, The Biggest Loser debuted in the fall of 2004 and began its 9th season last week.  Contestants, chosen for their size and girth, become roommates on an isolated ranch. They are put on extremely low calorie diets. Work-outs with personal trainers last five to six hours each day. The competition is between teams and the grand prize is awarded to the contestant who loses the most weight. Although health and quality of life are touted as the goal, weight loss is the sole criteria for remaining on the show and winning the quarter-million dollar prize.

The amount of weight loss is staggering. Over the course of 21 weeks, leading contestants lose over 100 pounds each. Erik, self-described as the “biggest winner of all the biggest losers,” lost 214 pounds, more weight loss than any other contestant. At last report Erik had gained back 184 pounds. His experience is far from unique. Most people in clinical weight loss programs regain weight after completing treatment. The vast majority of participants in programs promoting lifestyle modifications (diet, exercise, and behavior therapy) regain 30 to 35 % of their lost weight within the year after treatment and will have regained all of the weight, often more than what was lost, within 5 years. Sustained weight loss is particularly difficult for individuals who lose 20 percent or more of their body weight.

Weight is not the only thing people lose. Endeavors resulting in major reduction in body weight cause losses of money, time, self-esteem and health. Rapid weight loss increases the risk of gallstones, cardiac arrhithmias, electrolyte abnormalities, osteoporosis, depression, anxiety, sexual apathy and many physical signs of nutritional deficiency. Weight regain adversely affects blood pressure, serum lipid levels and general quality of life. Biggest Loser season one winner, Ryan, who within 3 years had regained 90 of the 122 pounds lost during the 2004 season, is quoted: “Unfortunately, keeping the weight off has been tough for me…the biggest way  [the show] changed my life is I feel guilty for gaining the weight back.”

Health implications aside, perhaps the worst aspect of The Biggest Loser is the shame brought upon the contestants for their body size. Voice-overs of contestants speak of self-hatred; trainers push competitors in grueling workouts; and teammates bully each other under the guise of motivating them to lose more weight.

Body hatred creates fear and anxiety–not the best weight management strategy. “When you’re down on yourself and your body, you’re much more likely to act destructively,” said Linda Bacon, professor at City College of San Francisco and nutrition researcher at University of California, Davis. “If you exercise as punishment for weighing too much, how can you learn to enjoy being active? If you eat salads only as a way to change the body you hate, how will you enjoy the wonderful tastes of fresh vegetables?”

People who accept their bodies take better care of them. You make better choices about what to eat, how often to exercise, when to schedule preventative medical tests–a whole host of self-care that starts with self-love.


2 comments so far

  1. Felicia on

    ‘Biggest Loser’ has big health problems
    new article from Feb 22, 2010

    • Peggy Crum on

      Thanks for the update, Felicia. I had not seen this article. It points out the immediate risk of rapid weight loss and overexercise. There certainly are long term risks, too, most related to weight cycling.

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