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The Biggest Loser is coming back—but should it?

NBC’s The Biggest Loser will return to television next year, moving to USA Network, one of NBC Universal’s cable channels. The weight-loss competition aired its last season on NBC three years ago.

While it generated massive ratings and money during its time on NBC—profiting off of its own products and brand, never mind product placement—evidence mounted that The Biggest Loser was actively damaging its contestants, and not just from the extreme weight loss.

In 2009, after The New York Times reported that “health can take a back seat,” a producer threatened former contestants and warned them not to talk. But even trainer Jillian Michaels admitted that people “can get too thin. That is the worst part of the show. It’s just part of the nature of reality TV.”

In that story, a runner-up said the show gave her an eating disorder, and seven years later, in a series of 2016 reports, The New York Post quoted contestants who said the show’s doctor and trainer told them to lie about how much they were eating; rigged the weight-ins; and even gave them illegal drugs.

Trainer Bob Harper denied the claims; the show’s doctor, Dr. Robert Huizenga, sued the New York Post and a contestant for libel, though a judge recently dismissed the suit against the contestant, saying Huizenga “has not averred any facts regarding his conversations or interactions with Gwynn, or even about the existence or nature of the allegedly illicit pills.”

The show is changing to focus on “wellness,” but that doesn’t change the evidence now shows that extreme diets and exercise don’t work.

USA is insisting the show has changed, calling it a “reboot” and describing it this way:

“The Biggest Loser will feature a dynamic new team of experts determined to dramatically improve America’s lifespans and waistlines. The revamped version of the iconic NBC hit competition series will feature men and women competing not only to lose weight, but also improve their overall wellbeing. Each episode will feature a team of experts including a trainer, chef and life coach, who will help guide the contestants as they embark on the biggest transformations of their lives.” 

But a press release quote from USA and Syfy president Chris McCumber makes any hint of change seem mostly like surface-level changes, because it’s still going to be a competition and the network is promising “jaw-dropping moments,” which means delivering big weight loss and transformations. McCumber said:

“We’re re-imagining The Biggest Loser for today’s audiences, providing a new holistic, 360-degree look at wellness, while retaining the franchise’s competition format and legendary jaw-dropping moments.”  

This is the exact same shift that Weight Watchers made last fall, shifting its language from being about “weight loss” to “wellness,” but that doesn’t change the fact that diets are often successful in the short term but fail in the long term.

There’s even a book about it: Why Diets Make Us Fat. Its neuroscientist author, Dr. Sandra Aamodt, told Marketwatch:

“The diet industry has been struggling with the high long-term failure rate of weight loss for many years now. As early as 1993, the Federal Trade Commission charged that five weight-loss programs, including Weight Watchers, made false and unsubstantiated claims about the effectiveness of their products. Many approaches work in the short term, with dieters reaching their lowest weight at about six months after starting a diet, but by five years later, the overwhelming majority of people have returned to their previous weight or gained weight.”

How The Biggest Loser proved willpower isn’t to blame

Diet companies would like us to think that our personal failures are to blame, but research on The Biggest Loser contestants has actually proven otherwise, showing that our bodies fight back against weight loss.

A 2016 study published in the journal Obesity followed contestants on season eight for six years after the show ended, and found that “participants regained a substantial amount of their lost weight in the 6 years since the competition but overall were quite successful at long‐term weight loss compared with other lifestyle interventions.”

They gained back their weight because their metabolisms slowed during their initial weight loss, and kept slowing, making it much easier to gain weight.

As contestant Rudy Pauls told the New York Times in its report about the research, “‘The Biggest Loser’ did change my life, but not in a way that most would think. It opened my eyes to the fact that obesity is not simply a food addiction. It is a disability of a malfunctioning metabolic system.”

An earlier NIH study said that the insane exercise and diet regiments the contestants on The Biggest Loser went through were unnecessary. It concluded:

“the participants could sustain their weight loss and avoid weight regain by adopting more moderate lifestyle changes—like 20 minutes of daily vigorous exercise and a 20 percent calorie restriction—than those demonstrated on the television program.”

Can USA turn non-extreme weight loss into a compelling TV show? Should it even try? Should weight loss be a freakin’ competition?

The show spent 12 years and 17 seasons teaching viewers that the way to lose weight is to not eat anything and run on a treadmill until you puke while the person who’s supposed to be helping you screams at you, until taking a break to hawk a product.

Considering all the evidence that dieting is not the solution, and all the damage that The Biggest Loser already did to its contestants, it’s already lived up to its name, and doesn’t need to return in any form.

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About the author

  • Andy Dehnart is the creator of reality blurred and a writer and teacher who obsessively and critically covers reality TV and unscripted entertainment, focusing on how it’s made and what it means. Learn more about Andy.

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