When The Biggest Loser premiered more than 15 years ago, I was immediately drawn in: it was a strategic reality TV competition wrapped in the idea of positive, healthy transformation. I could revel in the drama but also feel good about how the show was ultimately helping people lose weight and improve their lives.
Even after I stopped watching regularly, I continued to follow it, as it delivered moments like the wonderful season 13 mutiny (when contestants fought back against the producers and Bob Harper) and headlines such as those about Rachel Frederickson’s shocking reveal. On and off camera, there was drama, like trainer Jillian Michaels’ quitting the show three different times.
Yet even when I tired of its sensationalism and over-produced moments, I was still defending its “incredible” transformations and even called its contestants “obese and unhealthy.”
That’s embarrassing to read now because I’ve learned a lot about the show itself (one contestant said it gave her an eating disorder, for example), and about how health is absolutely not determined by someone’s physical appearance.
Also, weight loss isn’t just a matter of willpower—after all, as of being strong enough to skip “bad” food and spend hours in the gym. As the book Intuitive Eating explains, “the problem is not us; it’s that dieting, with its emphasis on rules and regulations, has stopped us from listening to our bodies.”
Significant scientific evidence came from The Biggest Loser’s own contestants, who were followed in an unprecedented six-year study, and helped demonstrate why weight loss is so challenging (basically, our bodies fight it).
When USA announced the show was returning last year, The Biggest Loser promised change. I’ve now watched the first three episodes, and it’s pretty clear to me that this is a wolf whose sheep costume is woefully inadequate.
The show has made some substantial changes: the temptation challenges are gone, and so is the strategic game. No one gets voted off, though there are weekly eliminations.
USA’s The Biggest Loser has emotional moments that I was swept into, with people talking about life experiences and stigma associated with their bodies.
Yet the show spends an extremely long time—almost a third of regular episodes—with contestants standing shirtless on a giant, fake scale. A majority of the rest of the time is spent in a gym full of logos for the show’s trademark brand integration. There’s less screaming, but there still is puking.
Yes, all that’s back, and so are the teams and the competition. Teams still win pounds in challenges to subtract from their total; the losing team still loses someone, though it’s based on the percentage of weight lost, not a vote.
There is practically no attention paid to eating or nutrition, besides occasional references to calories, the barest of minimus. The show has a nutritionist working with the contestants but completely skips that—even though “eating less is far more important than exercising more.” There’s also a one-mile race, which you may recall was a challenge that sent two people to the hospital in season 8.
Host Bob Harper gathers everyone for group therapy sessions, even though he is not an actual therapist, and seem mostly focused on giving Bob his own platform to prove how much he cares.
The Biggest Loser is offering aftercare to its eliminated contestants: a gym membership (product integration!), access to a nutritionist, and a local support group. That’s nice, but if the show really, actually cared about helping people—not just making a TV show—why not get rid of that? Why not keep everyone on the ranch and mark their progress with more than just pounds lost?
Why is so much of the focus on straining in the gym and standing on the scale? Why is that the message that the show continues to send?
If NBC’s version of The Biggest Loser was a big sheet cake, what the show is now is a sheet cake without the frosting on the outside. It’s change, yes, but it seems like the kind of change that’s as useful as eating at McDonald’s three times a day but swapping out Dr. Pepper for Diet Coke at one of those meals.
Most importantly, The Biggest Loser is giving most of its attention to what experts tell us does not help.
The Biggest Loser is focused on the wrong things
How can a show that helps people be bad? The real problem, I learned when interviewing experts for an L.A. Times story about the new Biggest Loser, is that the show retains its focus on losing pounds.
Sandra Aamodt, the author of Why Diets Make Us Fat (a book that’s subtitled “The Unintended Consequences of Our Obsession with Weight Loss”) told me that the show’s focus on the number of pounds lost makes it just another form of dieting.
“If they wanted to optimize for health, they could measure health: They could measure people’s cholesterol improvements, they could measure blood pressure improvements, they could measure glucose improvements. There are lots and lots and lots of very well-known, easy-to-measure indicators of health that are better predictors of people’s long term, good condition than weight,” Aamodt said. “So the fact that they’re choosing to measure weight and use that to identify winners tells me everything I need to know about what they’re really doing.”
The contestants’ vitals are being monitored, but those are never discussed. What’s shown and discussed endlessly is weight.
Dr. Michael Levine—who focuses on the prevention of body dissatisfaction and eating disorders, and who I also interviewed for the story—said he’d be interested in a version of The Biggest Loser where “winners were defined in terms of their physical and emotional well-being, and weight has nothing to do with it. Some people might lose weight, some people might not. I’d be tempted to watch something like that. But that’s never going to appeal, because it’s going to lack the intense life-or-death element.”
An executive who oversaw the show at Endemol and now works at NBCUniversal defended that practice by saying the contestants “enjoyed” it, which is strange to me because the contestants say, on camera, how frustrated they are with their trainer’s relentless reminders that they’ve lost a teammate and need to lose more pounds so they don’t lose more people.
Here’s what Bob Harper said, via this statement sent to me through a USA Network publicist (which is excerpted in my L.A. Times story):
“Everyone who goes back home after their time on ‘The Biggest Loser’ is a winner, because they leave with a new outlook on life and the tools and inspiration needed to continue their journey towards better health. They are equipped with a strong aftercare program and the love and support of The Biggest Loser family every step of the way. The weigh-in and competitive component of the show is a victorious moment for the contestants and viewers alike. It’s a tangible and visible expression of their hard work and success and all the contestants celebrate with each other. Motivation is key with any form of weight loss! People strive to get healthy for themselves, for their families, for their friends, for their futures—and this show—with an admittedly motivational and supportive competitive element—is just one of many ways to begin that first step towards a healthier life.”
“We fully realize this show is unique—not many people can take time off from real life to focus solely on themselves and their health—but to have them bravely out there as an example to others is inspirational to me personally.”
That sounds nice, but isn’t being inspired by the cast just the flip side of the fat-shaming coin? Both are about using other people’s bodies for our own entertainment.
By the way, research on the NBC version showed that The Biggest Loser increased people’s “dislike of overweight individuals”; it did not increase empathy.
That’s ultimately The Biggest Loser’s biggest problem. It’s caused damage to its contestants in the past, and its messages are also damaging to other people, perhaps including kids and teenagers who internalize messages about how to become thin (work out for hours!).
For those who are dealing with body image issues and have disordered eating, Levine said that media can “reinforce their values and their beliefs and their behaviors, and often tends to make things worse.”
Dr. Christy Greenleaf, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee who studies body image and weight-related stigma, told me that The Biggest Loser “reinforces a lot of beliefs we have about people and bodies we think of as fat, as being lazy having brought this on themselves, that they deserve the punishment.”
The new show spends a significant amount of time with the contestants in the gym, and Greenleaf said “it’s more dramatic to watch people in larger bodies struggle, and it reinforces a lot of dominant social stereotypes about people we consider fat.”
Bob Harper, The Biggest Loser’s new trainers, and a network executive defend the show
At the Television Critics Association’s winter press tour in Pasadena, Calif., several TV critics—including me—asked about the show’s past and its changes. Below are a few of the questions that three of us asked, and the answers we received.
Answering those questions on stage during the press conference were host Bob Harper; trainers Erica Lugo and Steve Cook; and USA and Syfy’s executive in charge of alternative programming, Heather Olander.
USA TODAY’s Kelly Lawler: You talked about that the show has been updated for 2020, but there has been a considerable amount of criticism of the show over the years, particularly in the health of the contestants afterwards, and how it has normalized fat shaming and the idea that anyone can go lose weight if they just try hard enough.
What is your responsibility to people who are not out there being able to exercise 20 hours a day? What responsibility do you have to people whose lives have been hurt by the show?
Bob Harper: “Well, for me, I know that I’ve worked with a lot of people in the past that the show has really helped and inspired. Weight loss is controversial any way that you look at it. And the one thing that I have learned being in this business for as long as I’ve been in is that the losing weight is the easiest part. It’s keeping it off, because you have to divorce yourself of everything that you ever did in your past that got you to that place.
And what is really exciting for me being a part of the show, this new reboot and new season, is that we’re trying to approach it from every level. We want to give them everything that they can use to succeed. We want you to succeed, because it’s very difficult.
As you’ve seen, like diets out there, no matter how you lose weight, it’s keeping it off that you’re going to have to struggle with for the rest of your life.”
Lawler: But not just the contestants. There are people in real life who have been affected by the perception that the show brings, that anyone can lose weight and that fat people are entertainment.
So why do you want to bring this show back in 2020 when we’re starting to make very small steps towards body positivity?
Heather Olander: “To that end, thinking about that when we were developing the show, we did want to make better connection or bigger connection between weight loss and health.
And for these contestants on the show, they primarily came to the show because they wanted to live a longer life. They unanimously talked about health issues that they are having because of the weight, and just beyond that — the message in the show is, yes, being thin and fitting into skinny jeans; if that’s what you want, fabulous. But that’s not the end all, be all. It’s not about getting thin at all costs. It’s about getting healthy and setting these contestants on a healthy lifestyle path.
Giving them information about nutrition that a lot of them didn’t have. They didn’t even know where to start, and talking about, also, the mental piece of that. What got them mentally and emotionally to the place that they are?
So we touched on the mental part of it, the food part of it, and the fitness part of it, all of the holistic approach to say to everyone, viewers and the contestants, it’s not about a short term diet get thin, because it’s not sustainable, and you’re right. That’s not the right message to send. It’s about getting healthy and whatever that means for you and whatever body type that is for you.”
NPR’s Eric Deggans: I wanted to piggyback on that because there have been critics who have also said that the actual process of the show isn’t healthy, including people who have been on the show, who said that the pressure to win a contest that involves a cash prize and that involves fame pushes them to do unhealthy things during the course of the contest—some things that may not even be shown on the show.
So when we hear that the show is coming back, the big concern I had as a critic is that we’re going to see more of this—that we’re going to see contestants pushed to do unhealthy things because they want to stay on the show, because the person who loses the least amount of weight is going to get ejected no matter what you sLay. So what have you done to deal with those criticisms?
Olander: “From the format standpoint, and we want to make sure they’re losing the weight but also they’re in the healthiest environment they can be, so though not shown on the series, behind the scenes we did have a nutritionist who provided individualized meal plans for each of the contestants. We had two doctors on set and a set of trainers that vetted the nutrition plans, but the trainers also vetted all of the challenges and the workouts that they did, and they were constantly monitored to make sure that all of their vitals were where they needed to be and they were losing weight at a healthy rate.”
Deggans: So someone decides to put on, like, a garbage bag or wear heavy sweatpants and work out for hours and hours and hours the day before weigh-in because they need to lose that weight, which we’ve heard some contestants have done, you’re not going to allow that?
Olander: “We didn’t see that. You guys should speak to it.”
Steve Cook: “Hydration was key. So everyone had to they were checked for hydration, and we were very big on this really being about self-love. And at the end of the day, if you don’t have that, you might lose weight on the show, but what’s going to happen when you go home when you haven’t dealt with those issues.
So it wasn’t about cheating the system, about staying there. They knew it’s a marathon. It’s not a sprint. And when we were training people, it was really hammering that home to them, like, Hey. This here, yes, there’s a prize money at the end, but the real victory is that lifelong being here for your kids in 20 plus years.”
Deggans: I don’t want to belabor this. But my question is, what did you specifically require of them to keep them from doing things that would endanger their health so they can lose weight to stay on the show?
Cook: “They all needed to hit a certain amount of calories, and then also, each week we all sat down [with] the dietician and the doctor. We went over blood work as well as each person’s specific diet for their week, their training protocol with the athletic training staff, so if there was ever somebody that was over-training, you know, had a strain in their quad, we had to come up with a different way to train them.
And I think you see it. This is the healthiest way to lose weight, the way we go about it with the doctors, with the dieticians. They are drinking lots of water, staying hydrated, and it shows in their blood work.”
reality blurred’s Andy Dehnart: “Bob, you were talking earlier about the struggle of keeping it off, and framing that as about willpower and people doing it. … But I’m wondering if you all—and especially Heather—were aware of the NIH study that was done with Biggest Loser contestants that followed them over six years and found that, basically, this kind of extreme weight loss doesn’t work because people’s bodies fight back against it, and it actually slows metabolism. So, essentially, this is not a successful plan, and yet here it is back on television again.”
Harper: “Well, I think that when it comes to weight loss in general, there is so many other studies out there too that will tell you the struggles of the body. After you have lost so much weight, your body wants to go back to how it’s been for a very long time, and that’s almost like swimming upstream for people. You’ve got to realize that you have got to like I said earlier, you have to change everything when you are trying to lose weight, because your body is trying to get you back there. And if you have yourself surrounded with like minded people, if you realize that this is something that you have to struggle with, manage, however you want to put it, for the rest of your life I mean, I think Erica can really speak to this because she is someone that has lost that much weight. She’s had to work with her body. You can speak to that.”
Erica Lugo: “Again, losing 160 pounds, people ask me that question all the time, what do I think about this and keeping it off. Honestly, it’s the tools that I learned throughout my weight loss journey that we are teaching on the show to keep it off long-term. It is a choice that you have to make day in and day out, and that is what we really hone in with these contestants is making sure that they have the tools and the knowledge and the resources to continually be able to keep it off.”
Harper: “I think what else is so great about it too is, like, all of these non-scale victories that you are going to experience when you watch the show because it’s not just about, like, I’ve got to lose weight. It’s about the people that are coming in that are just trying to manage their type 2 diabetes, lower their blood pressure, and you get to see that. Being in the fitness industry and the health industry for as long as I have, I get to see people that have gotten off so many medications as a result of them making these lifestyle changes.”
What’s striking to me about reading their answers is that it actually sounds like The Biggest Loser made some good behind-the-scenes choices. But basically none of that ends up on television, which means that we have to take their word for it.
And more importantly, why isn’t the TV show itself focusing or even mentioning these things (individualized nutrition and work-out plans, regular testing and discussions with doctors) especially if they’re so important? That remains a mystery to me, even after two weeks of reporting on it.