Throwback Thursday: The Bad Math of the Biggest Loser (Synopsis)

“Our external environment no longer seems to have any firm boundaries, any limits, or any positive cues about when to stop consuming anything. I mean, there is a reason that people get fat — it’s easy and cheap to get high-calorie, tasty food.” -Bob Harper

There are plenty of good things we can all do to get healthier, and then there are plenty of things we should never do to our bodies. Yet somehow, there's a show I know is doing it all the wrong way, and yet I can't look away.

Image credit: © NBC Universal / Trae Patton, Biggest Loser season 14 episode 11. Image credit: © NBC Universal / Trae Patton, Biggest Loser season 14 episode 11.

Yes, folks, I'm a fan of The Biggest Loser, a reality weight-loss-competition show. And even though I watch every episode that airs, there's a huge flaw in the way the show does its math that sends me into a fist-shaking frenzy every once in a while, including in last week's episode.

Image credit: The Biggest Loser, Season 16, Episode 6, via Image credit: The Biggest Loser, Season 16, Episode 6, via

What do they get wrong? Come and find out on The Bad Math of the Biggest Loser!


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I think it is not the accuracy of the scale that is the limiting factor here, but rather the not-insignificant fluctuations in a person's weight throughout the day. Drinking one 8oz glass of water (which isn't really big) constitutes a "weight gain" of half a pound! Between additions and subtractions throughout the day, it's not hard to justify weight swings of 2 or maybe even 3 pounds.

So my guess is that the show has decided to round to the nearest pound just to avoid contestants intentionally dehydrating themselves before the weigh-in, or something. Not that good health is the top priority anyway, though...

So let me get this straight. Ethan is upset because a company running a show to HUMILIATE PEOPLE WHO ARE OVERWEIGHT might be giving a ridiculously large amount of money to the wrong person?

First world problems...

By Ross Presser (not verified) on 23 Oct 2014 #permalink

Considering this article is about precision, you really ought to be more careful about your grammar, Ethan. You usually write very well and with excellent grammar. This time you wrote, "At the end of the season, the show’s “Biggest Loser” wins a huge sum of money, the title of the Biggest Loser and the chance to have a bunch of confetti rain down on them." (Them is plural, referring to a singular subject). Later you wrote, "...sometimes it’s simply the individual whose lost the lowest...." That should be "who's" not whose.

By Russ Atkinson (not verified) on 23 Oct 2014 #permalink

I agree with Indiana. The problem with more precise wight measurement is not only problem with buying better scales, the main problem is in finding a way, how the precise weight to define and a protocol, how the precise weight to measure. In one TV series of a "crazy science" type they demonstrated, that a man can loose about four pounds in one hour just by using sauna and toilet.

I watched it for two seasons. Reality shows in general have a very limited life span for me. The thing that bothered me most was that IMO the process discourages weight loss once you know or think you are "safe" for the week. Say I've lost 2 pounds so far this week and I think I'm safe. Why should I try and lose another pound, which will just make it harder for me to be safe next week? So the way they measure seems to give a perverse incentive to lose the least you need to lose in order to stay on the show for the next week.

My proposed solution: use a 2-week or 3-week running average. So if you go gangbusters and lose 10 pounds in a week, it doesn't "punish" you in later weeks but rather rewards you.

I think it is not the accuracy of the scale that is the limiting factor here, but rather the not-insignificant fluctuations in a person’s weight throughout the day.


Apart from the early weeks, any reaonable diet, even combined with a lot of exercise, you're losing maybe (and only maybe) half a stone a month.

Each day you likely vary about 2lb, or 1 week's loss for random and ineffectual reasons.

So a week later you can, concievably, see a 2lb gain in weight EVEN THOUGH YOU LOST AVERAGE WEIGHT.

Varitions over the day are easily 2lb, maybe more.

Worse, if you're having to lose more than a stone is that you're not going to be able to socialise with your friends anywhere near as much (can't have more than one beer, or that's a week's diet and exercise undone, sharing a pizza with four and a soda is just as calorific), so you're more alone and a sugar/food high will pick you up...


People who believe they cannot lose weight are ones who see the week or fortnight where they've dieted and exercised lots and STILL LOST NOTHING. And then given up, because that exercise/diet "did nothing".

If you're wanting to lose 6st, that's a FULL YEAR of little social life, watching the calories, exercising for 5-10 hours a week. And some weeks will seem to be going backwards.

And so "it must be glandular".

No, it's a hard slog and depressing for a bloody long time.

Actually if you are taking about precision loss, its worse than to think. There are two rounding operations going on, before and after weight are both rounded. Either could be off by .5pounds just from digitization noise (rounding) alone, so the max error in the difference is actually 1.0 pounds, not .5 pounds. Not insignificant compared to the magnitude of the loss.

Of course all the comments above about short term fluctuations due to changes in the bodys watermass also apply. Did the contestant drink a glass of water before the weighin? Did she go pee? Or sweat?

But then reality TV is just wrong in so many ways, arbitrariness is just one of its defects.

By Omega Centauri (not verified) on 24 Oct 2014 #permalink

A friend of mine works on the show and I just asked him about this. His reply... "We do, in fact, use an incredibly accurate scale. And we take raw figures into account. It's just simplified for TV."

The winner on 1/29/2015 was even closer! 50.88% vs 50.89! that's less than 1oz difference! The audience could not see the final result due to the confetti, but Toma reportedly won by 1 pound...really? If I was Sonya, I'd want an audit! There's $250,000 on the line! Let's at least bring the weight to a tenth of a pound and then round the percentage to one decimal! If it's a tie, so be it!!

Although many people enjoy this tipes of shows I do not like it personally because I feel personal matters like peoples weight and the amount the lose is should not be shared with the public

By Jean-Pierre St… (not verified) on 19 Apr 2015 #permalink

I just wonder how many of the ompetitors keep the weight off afterwards and what that could do yo their selfesteem.

By Emmerentia (not verified) on 19 Apr 2015 #permalink

I Agree these kind of show can get very personal.