NBC's 'Biggest Loser' Contestants: Caricatures, Not Role Models


NBC's "Biggest Loser" has become a phenomenon, with over 10 million regular viewers. There is no doubt that this show delivers dramatic entertainment. Sagas about victory of the human spirit, against all odds, are timeless. With the final four contestants being featured next week, I would like you to consider the message that this show coveys.

Public embarrassment defines much of today's entertainment - consider the sharp wit of "The Office". The German term, Schadenfreude, expresses it well - deriving pleasure from the misfortunes of others. On the "The Biggest Loser", each contestant exposes their vulnerable underbellies for the dramatic weigh in, and often reveals emotional fragility as they are pushed to their physical limits.

Early on, I regarded this show as an effective method to promote public awareness of health and nutrition - guest chefs often teach contestants about how to prepare healthy, low fat meals - but now I worry. Contestants on this show do not represent the very real and alarming obesity and type 2 diabetes epidemic sweeping our nation and beyond. Instead, they are caricatures.

CBS News reported (Jan. 7 broadcast) that some 190 million Americans are obese or overweight, and that childhood obesity has tripled over the last 30 years. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports back this up: "In 2008, only one state (Colorado) in the US had a prevalence of obesity less than 20%. New Jersey had an obesity rate of 23%. Thirty-two states reported obesity rates of at least 25%; six of these states (Alabama, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, and West Virginia) had a prevalence of obesity equal to or greater than 30%."

America's appetite for "reality TV", it seems, has become so voracious that TV producers set up increasingly unrealistic situations to garner the widest audience. After all, most viewers' lives would not make a compelling TV show.

My concern is that such shows not only establish unrealistic expectations but could promote unhealthy, potentially risky, behaviors from viewers attempting to emulate these spectacular results (see Chart at link below). In the article, "Is "The Biggest Loser" Really a Big Winner or Just a Big Loser?" Dr. James Hill of the University of Colorado at Denver states that such entertainment is "...trivializing the complex genetic and environmental influences on our behavior and weight."

On average, the contestants lost some 40% of their body weight over 3 months. One contestant, Danny, lost 56% of his body weight, from 430 to 191 lbs! How did they do it? By following a low calorie diet, combined with 4-6 hours of physical training per day. Yes, 4-6 hours per day. As pointed out by fitness expert Tom Venuto (Burn The Fat Inner Circle), contests are judged by weight loss, not body composition - this can lead to risky behavior. For example, some contestants "stopped eating food" for days at a time before weigh ins to achieve maximum weight loss.

Of course, these contestants have an extensive support network: round the clock access to top-notch medical care, full-time nutritionists, full-time trainers, and strong family and community support, not to mention that they are being filmed for millions of viewers. In contrast, the average American seeking weight loss has no cheerleaders, no "Cadillac" medical support (if any), no nutritionist, no trainer, and could have unrealistic expectations if a "Biggest Loser" contestant is a role model for them. Using the contestants as a "benchmark" could also easily discourage the average person wanting to lose weight.

Enjoy such shows, but if better health is your goal, consider these simple guidelines:

Attainable and sensible goals:

Achieving and maintaining a healthy body weight necessitate small changes that include gradual modification of lifestyle [less and less visits to fast-food chains and more and more consumption of high nutrient dense foods such as fruits and vegetables] and behavioral changes which should be supervised by a physician and/or a registered dietitian. You can locate a registered dietitian in your community using the American Dietetic Association website. A common myth is that healthy foods are more expensive than fast-foods; put aside the money you would spend at the local fast-food restaurant, and use it for fresh produce. Try some of those recipes used by the chefs featured on "The Biggest Loser".

A safe rate for weight loss is 1/2 - 2 pound /week or 10% body weight over six months. Realistic and long-term weight loss is possible when high calorie, high fat, food intake is reduced and physical activity is gradually increased. Focus your goal on achieving a more healthy body composition - less fat, more muscle - not necessarily losing weight. Aggressive approaches to weight loss are unlikely to be successful over the long run.

See chart comparing contestant weight loss of "Biggest Loser" contestants:
Blue - before; Red - after.

Thumbnail image for Biggest Loser Mini (2).jpg

Average for these 15 contestants:
Before: 344 lbs, After: 206 lbs, or a loss of 40% body weight.

Data from: http://realitytv.about.com/b/2009/12/09/biggest-loser-before-and-after-…

This article was co-authored by Dr. Shahla Wunderlich, RD, a professor of nutrition and food science at Montclair State University.

A version of this article was originally published on NJ Voices.

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Agreed about the total unrealistic environment and expectations that the show establishes. Yet, there is an undeniable established fact, that regardless of the genetic and environmental contributions, eating correctly and working your butt off are the best solution to obesity. Some may do it in 5-6 months, others may take several years.

No pill, medication, diets, etc, can achieve the same kinds of results (not just weight loss, but total health improvements over life span) that exercise and good eating habits can.

By Gerardo Camilo (not verified) on 01 Dec 2010 #permalink

A lowest common denominator factor magnet.

Thank you for your comment. Clinical studies of various treatments for type 2 diabetes have been published comparing standard medications with diet and exercise. More often than not, diet and exercise show better health outcomes, without side effects such as weight gain often seen with diabetic medications.

This article touched on everything I've thought about regarding this show. As someone who struggles with weight loss daily, there is no room to have anything even remotely close to the situation these "contestants" are put in. It says it promotes health and healthy weight loss, but each person is looked at as a "reality show character" and a "contestant". I don't have numerous hours daily to devote to exercise, nor do I - or anyone I know, for that matter - have the means to round the clock medical care and training support. Granted, there are cases where amazing things have happened because of this show - i.e. the father & son duo that completely changed their lives and another family member and opened their own gym - but these people are still contestants, who's main goal is to win the prize at the end. Being healthy and in shape fall second to the money.

By Sara Aquilino (not verified) on 13 Dec 2010 #permalink

The core problem with the Biggest Loser is the show is above all beholden to its sponsors, so any advice that follows is perverted by that first loyalty. Their nutrition advice tends to involve eating out at chain restaurants or learning how to make low calorie desserts. One common thread I have noticed among the obese, aside from a chronic avoidance of exercise, tends to be a lack of skill or will to cook. Anyone, on the show or off, foolish enough to adopt the methods and philosophy of the Biggest Loser will find themselves doing the work of the corporate sociopaths who owe their loyalty to their shareholders. Buyer beware.

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