How The Biggest Loser sets viewers up for failure

Dr. Jen Kerns

Dr. Jen Kerns

#BiggestLoser #weightloss #obesity #TRE

@kimymami @chefdombells @phinally.me

I had a new patient come to see me for the first time last week. She had class 2 obesity (her body mass index, or BMI, was between 35 and 39.9) and told me that she had been struggling with weight loss and needed my help. She said that she had been emphasizing whole foods and cut out processed carbohydrates, was doing time restricted eating (TRE) with an 8-hour calorie intake window each day (fasting for the remaining 16 hours), and trying to exercise more. “But,” she lamented, “I’m not losing any weight.” When I pulled up the graph of her body weights taken at our medical center over the last year, it turned about that she had actually lost almost 20 pounds in that time! When I showed her these very real and amazingly positive results, she expressed disappointment and brought up The Biggest Loser. Watching the show had informed her expectations about her own weight loss, and she felt that she was failing because she had “only” lost 20 pounds. She wanted to give up.

{sigh}

Watching episode #2 of the show this week, I found myself feeling more and more disenchanted. Not that I was exactly enchanted last week, but I am finding that the show is still really missing the mark when it comes to responsibly teaching the contestants — and viewers — about weight loss and weight maintenance. I find myself falling in love with and rooting for the contestants (how much do I delight in Kim Emami Davis??!) and angrily judging the show all at the same time. As the players stood up again and weighed themselves one by one, the soundtrack switched to mournful music when players lost “only” 5-7 pounds in one week. When Domenico lost 7 pounds (2.27%), he said that he was afraid he was going home and said, “you know, I’m not proud of that number.” When Kim lost 5 pounds (2.16%) she was visibly disappointed: “uh, not great.” Similar negative reaction with silence instead of celebratory music for the weight loss achieved by Phi (6 pounds, 1.71%), who at least – thank goodness – said that she was proud of those 6 pounds!

It is 100% understandable why the contestants react negatively to those (awesome) weight loss numbers… because they are competing to remain on the show the longest, to lose the most amount of weight in the shortest amount of time, and to win $100,000. I do not blame the contestants in the least. I blame the producers of the show for setting up a situate in which a person with obesity would express disappointment in a 5 pounds weight loss. Showing those negative reactions to 5 or 7 pounds (extreme amounts for a single week!) to viewers at home who struggle to lose 1 or 2 pounds in a week can be, in my humble opinion, harmful. It creates unrealistic expectations for weight loss, and makes it much more likely for regular people to be disappointed in their own weight losses and subsequently give up efforts at improving their own health. I can’t speak to how the current 2020 season of the show was filmed, but during my own tenure as a position on season four and five, I know for a fact that some “weeks“ were actually filmed over the course of up to 14 days but still referred to a a single week, and that contestantswould not only exercise for hours and hours and hours every day (or possible for regular working people who aren’t professionals athletes), but would also intentionally dehydrate themselves right before weigh-ins to boost their weight loss even more. There’s just no way that the average viewer can drop that much weight that quickly without extreme fasting and exercising.

I’ve said before that I have mixed feelings about the show. I think it’s wonderful that many people feel inspired by it, that it shows that people with obesity are not lazy and can exercise just as hard as anyone else, and the emotional hurt that many of us go through. I always, 100%, support each and every contestant and the effort they made or are making. I fear that the show does harm, though, in perpetuating the idea that a one-week weight loss of 5 pounds is anything short of excessive. Please, anyone out there who watches the show, and even those who don’t, know that a weight loss of a single pound (in someone who is trying to lose weight) is an achievement to be celebrated! After all, a weight loss of 100 pounds can be achieved by losing just ONE pound. A hundred times.

With love,
Jen

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