Warning: The Biggest Loser

By Kate Horney

We’re all familiar with the reality TV show, the Biggest Loser, right?  It’s all the rage right now as audiences across the country tune in (from their couch, ironically) to see who can lose weight the fastest…

The Biggest Loser debuted in 2005 and has become a controversial topic in the health & fitness industry.  Most viewers seem to fall into one of two camps: loyal fans and or loathing critics.

While I personally don’t find much inspiration from watching militant trainers yell and criticize overweight individuals (I prefer a more empathetic approach with my clients) there are some die-hard followers who rave about the show’s inspiration or motivation. At the same time, most fitness professionals, trainers and coaches dislike the show due to its poor training design and extreme and even dangerous overtraining of participants.

Is there a balance? Are we willing to sacrifice safety and long term health for short lived inspiration?

I respect the accountability and the drive of emotion the show seeks to employ, but as a trainer and coach it’s my opinion that the cons significantly outweigh the pros of the show The Biggest Loser.

Here are 10 of my Biggest Loser warnings …

1-    The Biggest Loser is not applicable to real life.  Achieving health and fitness as part of total life balance is one of the biggest keys to sustainable body change, yet the show is completely void of all real life components. The producers of The Biggest Loser have created the perfect environment for extreme weight loss success. From personal trainers, cooks and nutritionists to group support, and a national audience cheering them on, contestants at the “Ranch” have a team that most real people simply do not have. Their only job is to lose weight.  No families or kids, no work, no social obligations.  The contestants don’t even have to worry about doing their own dishes. This artificial environment with its sole focus on dieting and working out is simply not applicable to real life.  As a trainer and coach, I believe that you should be taught fitness in a way that will work with a normal person’s life.

2-    The Biggest Loser focuses on weight loss, not fat loss.  Weight loss and fat loss are not the same thing.  Yes, many contestants are losing enormous amounts of weight- but how much of that weight is truly fat loss?  While the average person looking to improve their body composition can reasonably expect to lose 1-2 lbs per week, it is not uncommon for contestants on the show to weigh in with a 10 or even 15lb weight loss/week!  With excessive caloric restriction and extreme overtraining, is the weight loss surprising? No.  Is it safe? Or is it doing anything to positively impact their metabolism or body composition for the long term?  Most likely, no.  In fact, because the show is judged on weight loss rather than fat loss, contestants are actually penalized for gaining muscle and essentially rewarded for losing muscle!

3-    The Biggest Loser forgets about water.  While we’re on the subject of 10-15lb weekly weight losses, let’s look at what the scale isn’t telling us.  In addition to losing precious muscle (increased muscle = increased metabolic potential), much of the weight loss on The Biggest Loser is water.  In fact, many contestants will even go so far as to dehydrate themselves before the final weight in, using saunas, natural diuretics (the use of drugs are prohibited) and limiting water intake as much as possible.

4-    The Biggest Loser promotes dangerous overtraining.  Each week show contestants are faced the a workout “challenge.” With races and prizes for winners, many contestants are seen collapsing  just short of the finish lines  dehydrated, fatigued, and some even suffering stress fractures. Extremely unconditioned individuals are forced to attempt advanced-level workouts.  That’s dangerous. As a coach who values exercise efficiency as well as proper form, it pains me to see beginners suffer through 4-6 hours of training per day, performing sloppy, inefficient movements at best.

5-    The Biggest Loser trainers are militant and borderline abusive.  I understand that it makes for good TV, and maybe this style of coaching does in fact work for some people. But for the majority of client’s that I’ve coached, shouting profanities in their face would do little to keep them motivated.   I believe in speaking the truth in love and have seen time and time again that people come much closer to their goals when they have someone who believes that they can achieve success cheering them on. Disrespectful, rude, humiliating or unprofessional speech has no place in a training environment, even if it does get better ratings.

6-    The Biggest Loser promotes metabolic disaster.  The fat loss lifestyle builds muscle and actually increases the rate at which your body burns fat. The Biggest Loser, with its focus on weight loss, does the opposite.  While contestants celebrate large changes on the scale, what they fail to realize is low calorie diets and hours of aerobic exercise are disastrous to their metabolism. This is setting them up for some serious damage long term. When it comes to sustainable body change, The Biggest Loser make things worse, not better for most- if not all- of the contestants on the show.

7-    The Biggest Loser works harder instead of working smarter.  Plain and simple- Muscle is key to your metabolic potential.  By following the “move more, eat less” weight loss approach that The Biggest Loser trainers adhere to, contestants may be burning calories, and may even be losing extreme amounts of weight, but a lot of that weight is from muscle rather than fat.  Muscle burns 2-10 times more calories at rest than fat and other tissue, so loss of muscle mass (through weight loss) means a decrease in metabolic potential.  On the other hand, for every pound of muscle you gain, you will burn up to 30 more calories per day, even while at rest. Why not work smarter instead of just working harder?

8-    The Biggest Loser doesn’t change contestants’ shape.  In addition to increasing your metabolic potential and helping your body burn calories- even while you REST- muscle changes the shape of your body.  By focusing solely on weight loss, contestants are very unlikely to build any lean muscle.  If you don’t build new muscle, you can’t transform your body (aka give yourself a new shape).  The weight loss contestants experience may shrink their size for the show, but fat loss is the only way they will ever truly improve their shape.  Like a melting ice cube, you can watch contestants smaller from week to week, but look closely… their overall body shape rarely changes!  And what’s worse, when the cameras stop rolling, after their weight loss is said and done- many contestants report being still being cube shape- now just sitting in a melted puddle of water (hello lose and saggy skin).  If you want body change, muscle is the key. A person losing weight becomes smaller.  But a person losing fat becomes smaller AND changes shape.

9-    The Biggest Loser isn’t sustainable.   Ultimately the Biggest Loser simply not sustainable.  Even if the show’s dangerous over training and excessive caloric restriction didn’t decrease contestant’s metabolisms (and leave them as a saggy, only slightly smaller version of their previous selves) it would still not be a program I’d promote. It’s just not something you can maintain for any extended period of time.  The Biggest Loser style of training isn’t a lifestyle. You might lose weight and keep it off for a few weeks- maybe even a month, or possibly a year, but the key component that every major fad diet or weight loss program like The Biggest Loser ignores is that no program will work if you can’t stick with it.  You can’t stick to exercising 4-6 hours per day.  And you can’t stick to a crazy diet forever.

10- The Biggest Loser relies on willpower alone.  At some point, contestants will be tired of being tired, hungry, and craving every food they “can’t” have, and eventually, they’ll stop. They’ll run out of willpower, and they’ll stop because the “eat less, move more” weight loss approach is incomplete.  The missing piece of the sustainable body change puzzle is the hormonal changes required for sustained body change.  When metabolic hormones are right, your hunger, energy and cravings are balanced and you don’t have to rely on willpower.  As we all know, willpower will eventually fade. But fat loss doesn’t have to.

Agree?  Disagree?  What are your thoughts on The Biggest Loser show?  Please leave a comment as you post below!