Weight Loss with Biggest Loser: The Truth Behind the Hype

In many ways, The Biggest Loser feels like stories of success and inspiration. Viewers watch as contestants drop considerable amounts of weight, ending up thinner and, presumably, healthier and happier. You just have to look at the official before and after images to see that.

Before and after

But, what goes on behind the scenes and what happens once people go home?

Well, that’s where the controversy starts.

After all, like any reality TV show, The Biggest Loser only shows part of the process. At the same time, the show tries to make the weight loss seem as good as possible.

And yes, the contestants do lose weight and at face value, the weight loss looks amazing. However, The Biggest Loser has been dogged by complaints and controversy for quite some time.

Many of those issues highlight that fact that the outcomes of the show aren’t nearly as good as the cameras imply. Additionally, the rapid weight loss and brutal techniques may have long-term negative effects on the health of participants.

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Underlying Issues with The Biggest Loser

Participants in The Biggest Loser sign non-disclosure agreements, which makes it hard to know what goes on behind the scenes. But, recently, past participants have started to talk about their experiences and what really goes into the weight loss.

According to past participant Kai Hibbard, one common practice on the show was extreme fat shaming. You can see a lot of this if you actually watch the show but most viewers aren’t aware of the long-term negative effects that it can have on participants.

For example, this is an excerpt from an article at the New York Post where former participants were interviewed (all excerpts are from that same article):

Training and punishment

In any form, fat shaming makes people feel like they are worthless. It can make it seem like they only have value if they aren’t fat. Now, being significantly overweight is certainly bad for your health but it doesn’t make anybody valueless. Giving people low self-esteem like that certainly isn’t going to help them in the long-term.

But, that’s only one of the issues.

Another is the brutal nature of the workouts and the toll they take on the body, as this excerpt shows:

5-8 hour workouts

There is no way that working out like that is healthy. Sure, it gets you to drop the weight, but at what cost?

Contestants certainly do lose weight but that’s not really a surprise. In addition to the intensive workouts, they are also severely calorie restricted. In particular, participants were given less than 1,000 calories a day in food and most of that food wasn’t very healthy (1). 

Approved food

​It is likely that the specific food and approaches vary somewhat from one season to the next. Nevertheless, it is clear that the key emphasis is on weight loss, regardless of the cost.

At the end of the day, the amount of pressure put on contestants and their bodies is extreme. In some cases, that pressure has even led to contestants being hospitalized or has resulted in serious damage to their bodies.

Serious health issues
Knee injury

It’s hard to imagine how those impacts can possibly be good. Yet, the show has continued to be popular, partly because many people don’t know what goes on behind the scenes.

These issues highlight the fact that the weight loss approach places the body at considerable risk. For example, the experience could contribute to issues with the heart, especially as participants frequently do not have nutritionally balanced diets (2).

Essentially, participants end up choosing weight loss over their health.

That’s a horrible decision.

Sure, losing weight can help to improve your health, especially if you were significantly overweight to start off with. But, realistically, there are many ways to lose weight that don’t involve putting your health at risk.

Long-Term Outcomes

The brutal nature of The Biggest Loser certainly seems extreme but some people might still feel that it is worth it. After all, contestants do manage to lose weight that they might not have been able to lose on their own.

So, is it worth it?

The show certainly seems to think so:

Transformations

But, that statement assumes that weight loss is the ultimate outcome. Realistically, there are other things to consider too.

If all of the practices of the show resulted in long-term weight loss and former participants were healthy, then for some people, the torture might just be worth it. Realistically, going through something like The Biggest Loser might be worth it if doing so effectively saved your life.

But, the patterns of former participants suggest that isn’t the case.

Many times, participants end up regaining some of all of the weight they lost and they may start regaining weight soon after the show is over. That isn’t really a surprise because they don’t seem to be taught all that much about how to actually keep the weight off.

At the same time, researchers are suggesting that there may be a biological mechanism behind contestants regaining weight.

A study published last year (Forthergill et al., 2016) looked at metabolic outcomes from 14 participants from The Biggest Loser shows. In those participants, the average weight loss after the competition was 58.3 kg (around 129 lbs). However, after 6 years, an average of 41.0 kg (around 90 lbs) was regained.

A particularly significant outcome of the study was that participants experienced a significant decrease in their basal metabolic rate (BMR).

This means that, on average, the former participants in The Biggest Loser burned fewer calories for their body weight than the norm for their weight. Because this pattern was present at least 6 years after the competition, it is an indication that the change in metabolism is a long-term one.

Overweight versus skinny woman

That outcome helps to explain why so many contestants end up regaining some (or all) of the weight that they lost.

In effect, the outcome suggests that the body is fighting back against the weight loss.

Now, this pattern does happen to some degree when people lose weight.

However, normally the BMR will adjust to a person’s new weight. Additionally, the observed changes in BMR do not tend to be this extreme for such an extended period of time.

For example, one participant burns an average of 800 calories fewer, per day, for a person his size. For another participant, her body burns around 438 calories fewer.

That means if those people wanted to keep their weight off, they would have to eat 800 and 438 calories less, respectively, than people their weight. That’s pretty hard to do and shouldn’t be necessary.

At the same time, people also experience hormone fluctuations with weight loss, which can make them crave food and often leads to an increase in appetite. These issues just make the process of weight loss all that much more difficult (3).

This strongly suggests that the extreme approach to weight loss in The Biggest Loser actually makes it more difficult for people to keep weight off in the long-term.

Health Issues

It’s also worth noting that the approaches used in The Biggest Loser do contribute to other health issues. For example, many participants have ended up with joint damage following their time at The Biggest Loser. With the intensity of the workouts and their length, that issue does make a lot of sense.

In some cases, health issues could even make it more difficult for a person to keep weight off. For example, joint pain could make exercising a considerable struggle for former participants.

For example, the health problems below were experienced by former participant Kai Hibbard:

Hair falling out

There are many healthy ways to lose weight out there, so why would you want to do something that could cause permanent damage to your body?

Participants in The Biggest Loser frequently regain weight and suffer from health problems. They also experience a significantly decreased metabolism, making it extremely difficult to avoid regaining weight

The Reality of Successful Weight Loss

I’ve always been annoyed by The Biggest Loser.

We already live in a society that judges people for being overweight – and thinks that they could lose that weight with a little bit of willpower. The Biggest Loser reinforces that idea. After all, if the contestants can lose that much weight so quickly, why can’t other people?

But, as I’ve illustrated, the outcomes of The Biggest Loser aren’t nearly as good as they first seem.

That pattern really does make sense.

For the most part, weight loss itself isn’t actually the issue that people face. In most cases, the challenge is keeping that weight off. This is why so many people end up losing weight and then putting it back on.

That pattern is also why people often turn to fad diets (like the 3 Day Military Diet or the Clean 9 Diet) because they’re convinced that the diet is what they need to lose weight.

Weight loss concept

In some ways, diets like this do work. Certainly, they result in weight loss – although this is often for a similar reason that The Biggest Loser contributes to weight loss. I mean, if you’re eating hardly anything, you’re going to lose weight. But, that doesn’t mean doing so is a good idea.

As the case with The Biggest Loser shows, extreme approaches for losing weight don’t last in the long-term, not for most people. The majority of us would find it far too easy to revert back to old habits, which contributes to regaining the weight.

This is a key reason why many diets have low success rates.

Realistically, it seems that people are more likely to regain weight following a harsh diet or drastic lifestyle change. After all, that type of approach simply isn’t sustainable for most people.

A common perspective among experts is that successful weight loss simply isn’t about making a radical change. Instead, it’s about making small changes in the long-term (4).

Realistically, this means that the solution isn’t to go on a diet. Instead, the idea is to create a lifestyle that is healthy and is something that you can consistently follow. When people do this, they are able to lose weight and actually keep it off.

However, the approach still isn’t as common as it should be. Instead, people often turn to diets instead because a healthy lifestyle feels like they are losing weight too slowly.

Nevertheless, losing weight slowly isn’t actually a bad thing. Doing so does put less strain on the body and helps to make sure the changes you make actually stick.

Finally, there is one other thing to consider with successful weight loss.

This is the idea of finding an approach that works for you.

There are a lot of different effective long-term strategies out there, like the paleo diet, nutritional ketosis, low carb diet and intermittent fasting, as well as autophagy diets in general. All of these diets work as a long-term approach but individuals might find that one works better than another, for them.

For example, I’ve seen many people who love paleo and swear by it, while I have a friend who has lost around 44 lbs through intermittent fasting and is still going strong.

This shouldn’t be a surprise.

We are all different than one another both physically and mentally, so it makes sense that the same type of diet isn’t going to work for everyone. The trick is to find something that works for you, rather than trying to brute force something that doesn’t.

For example, Precision Nutrition talks about how the best diet may be related to your body type. Likewise, sites like Day Two have been focusing on the idea of personalized nutrition.

As the outcomes from The Biggest Loser show, extreme weight loss simply isn’t an answer. Instead, you need to be looking for your own way to sustainably lose weight, and keep it off.

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