The NBC show, which begins its 17th season on Monday, has been accused of putting entertainment before health with its focus on competitive weight loss
The Biggest Loser is back. After more than a 30% drop in ratings last season, some were questioning if the competitive weight loss reality show would be canceled completely. But after considerable delay, its 17th season will premiere on Monday on NBC. The question is, with so much criticism suggesting the show does more harm than good, whether it should return at all?
It was the biggest mistake of my life, Kai Hibbard, the winner of season three told the Guardian. As part of the application process Hibbard had to sign a non-disclosure agreement forbidding her from publicly speaking about the show without first getting approval from a public relations representative from NBC. But her experience has prompted her to be an outspoken critic regardless of a possible lawsuit, though she has received several cease and desist letters from the network.
In an interview with the Guardian, Hibbard described incessant fat shaming by trainers, ridiculous exercise regimens that were done solely for entertainment purposes, dehydration for weigh-ins, and manipulation by producers to pick winners and create villains.
In my season there was a woman named Heather who was made to look like a combative, lazy bitch, Hibbard said. But in actuality, she had a torn calf muscle and had developed bursitis in both knees. When she refused to run, they edited it to make her look lazy.
According to Hibbard, the shows producers try to lead viewers to believe contestants have lost weight faster than they have. Nobody on the show lost 20 pounds in a week, she said. Once, a week was actually three weeks because of the shooting schedule.
Hibbard also said contestants engaged in dehydration tactics prior to weigh-ins to make it appear as though they had lost more pounds. We would put on a ton of clothes, shut all the doors and windows and work out for two to three hours to sweat out as much weight as we could.
There is no good reason to pick up a piece of driftwood and sprint down the beach when you weigh 265 pounds, except that it looks good for the camera, Hibbard said. The contestants are pushed to do daily workouts that are approximately 10 times the amount that is recommended by the American College of Sports Medicine. The fact that vomit buckets are always nearby, and regularly used, is telling.
According to one former contestant, the extreme weight loss tactics used on the show lead to a high relapse rate. Suzanne Mendonca, from season two, explained to the New York Post last year that the reason why The Biggest Loser is reluctant to do a show reunion is because were all fat again.
Eric Ravussin, a professor of human physiology at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, published a study on The Biggest Loser in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism. His findings help explain why Biggest Loser contestants put back on the weight they lost so quickly.
Ravussin and his team compared 12 people from The Biggest Loser with 12 people who lost similar amounts of weight via gastric bypass surgery. Because of the formers extreme exercise regimens, the shows contestants lost less muscle and more fat than the surgery group, but their drop in resting metabolic rate was double that of the gastric bypass group.
In other words, despite all the exercise, the metabolisms of the biggest losers crashed hard much harder than those who lose weight at a gentler pace.
Its therefore not surprising to see contestants on the show regain the weight, especially when you consider the phenomenon called post-starvation hyperphagia, which, he explained, is scientist-speak for pigging out. A 1997 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed that after a period of starvation, a hormonal response causes people to overeat, often gaining more than what they lost in the first place.
And make no mistake; the contestants on the show are starving. By the end I was working out six to eight hours a day and eating a thousand calories a day or less, Hibbard said.
Harley Pasternak, a Los Angeles-based trainer and New York Times bestselling author, was hired as the first trainer on the show in 2004. In an interview with the Guardian, Pasternak said that during the shows development phase he formed reservations and pulled out before filming began for the 2004 series premiere in October. The more I learned about it, the less it seemed like it would be a good idea for me, he said.
Pasternak, who has a masters degree in exercise science, said the dramatization of the weight-loss process, with screaming and yelling and crying worried him. He also expressed concern over potential injuries due to over-exercising. Pasternak is not the only trainer to turn down a role on the show for ethical reasons.
These entertaining scenarios make for great television, said Pasternak, but its not for someone who is concerned with making people healthy.
For Pasternak, the final straw came when producers cast Los Angeles-based personal trainer Jillian Michaels alongside him. The last straw was when they cast an actress opposite me, he said of Michaels. Though Michaels does have some personal training certifications, Pasternak did not see her as a professional. I was going up against a TV trainer, not a real one.
Michaels went on to be the shows trainer for a dozen seasons in total, allowing her to build a multimillion-dollar fitness empire. She left The Biggest Loser in 2014 and this month will premiere her new reality show focused on her personal life called Just Jillian.
For 12 years, Jillian Michaelss tactics wreaked havoc on show contestants. To motivate her team she often hurled insults, and verbally threatened contestants as they attempted to meet their weight loss targets. Here is a selection of her quotes from previous seasons:
- I dont care if people die on this floor. You better die looking good. (Link)
- Im proud that I made him vomit. (Link)
- If you dont run I will pull Alex on the floor and I will break every bone in his body! (Link)
- I dont care if one of your legs fall off or if one of your lungs explode. (Link)
- The only way youre coming off this damn treadmill is if you die on it! (Link)
- Its fun watching other people suffer like that. (Link )
Fitness experts have repeatedly called Michaels practices on The Biggest Loser into question. An indoor cycling instructor took Michaels to task for removing the saddle on stationary bikes to motivate contestants. A Pilates instructor publicly called out Jillians behavior as unprofessional. In 2013, Michaels was chastised for giving her team members caffeine pills to help them drop more weight. The Guardian reached out to Michaels for comment, but she did not respond.
All this extreme exercise takes a toll. I bled through my shoes in the first three weeks, Hibbard said. Nearly every person on my season had injuries.
In 2009, contestant Tracey Yukich collapsed after being made to run a mile and had to be airlifted to hospital. It was sold as being heat exhaustion, but Hibbard said her sources reported Yukich suffered from rhabdomyolysis, a serious and potentially fatal condition that can be caused by overexertion.
When the show ended, Hibbard said, I was crazy sick. I ended up with thrush because my immune system crashed. Ryan Benson, who was the winner of the shows inaugural season, told the New York Times that to win he dehydrated himself so badly he urinated blood.
Contestants are absolutely at a greater risk of developing eating disorders as a result of being on the show, said Dr Ed Tyson, an eating disorder physician in Austin, Texas. Its a very high risk. Viewers of the show may recall the debacle with the winner in Season 15, Rachel Frederickson, who lost 60% of her body weight and was described by many as looking anorexic.
They are criticizing this woman for doing exactly what the show wanted her to do, Tyson said of Frederickson and the reactions of trainers during her final reveal. They criticized her for being obese then criticized her for losing too much weight. She felt shame both ways.
Tyson also spoke of a dangerous condition called refeeding syndrome, which is a potentially fatal shift in fluids and electrolytes when malnourished people start to eat again.
Its miraculous no one has died yet, Tyson said.
The climax of each episode of The Biggest Loser is the weigh-in, when the contestants are lined up to take turns stepping on a scale to see how much weight theyve lost. Whoever loses the least weight gets sent home.
[We] women werent allowed [to wear] a shirt until we lost enough weight to earn one, Hibbard said. You had to wear a sports bra. It was freezing at night when we did the weigh-ins and we asked for shirts and they gave us pasties instead to hide our nipples.
Photography was used to instill shame as well. There were blown-up photos of our arms and stomachs and thighs decorating our house to show how gross we were, Hibbard said. And the producers want them to be disgusted with themselves; they wanted Hibbard to cry for the camera when at the end of the season they stood her next to a life-size cutout of what she looked like on day one, and were livid when they didnt get their camera-friendly breakdown.
There are broader implications to this treatment. A 2012 study published in Obesity found that watching a single episode of The Biggest Loser generated significantly higher levels of dislike for people with obesity.
Shame does not encourage weight loss. In fact, it accomplishes the opposite. In a 2013 paper published in PLoS ONE, researchers from Florida State University asserted that not only does stigmatizing obesity lead to poorer mental health outcomes, but the authors stated: Rather than motivating individuals to lose weight, weight discrimination increases risk for obesity.
Despite the vast amounts of criticism from physicians, obesity researchers and professional trainers, there are still some who praise the show, and say its changed their lives. Even the first lady, Michelle Obama, has appeared on it twice.
There are former contestants who have kept the weight off, and are thankful to the show. One is Danny Cahill, who lost 239 pounds as the winner of the 2009 season, and has since become a motivational speaker about weight loss. Co-creator and executive producer of The Biggest Loser David Broome lashed out last year against critics, saying the show is focused on the health and wellbeing of contestants above all. The Guardian reached out to Broome for comment on The Biggest Losers criticisms, but he did not respond.
I think the show has maybe helped some people, Pasternak said. However, I think the show has done some real damage to the general public.
This is the most visible and influential show on weight loss ever, Dr Yoni Freedhoff, a physician specializing in obesity told the Guardian. Its more powerful than any public health message. It is more spectacular and seductive and it is the most god-awful dangerous thing to happen to weight management in history.
The Biggest Loser is technically entertainment. But that entertainment comes at a high social cost. Shaming contestants, encouraging dangerous exercise and regimens, promoting nearly impossible weight loss targets leads Dr Freedhoff to the conclusion that the Biggest Loser is everything thats wrong with weight loss in America .
Read more: www.theguardian.com