Friday, December 19, 2008

The story that's not a story: Biggest Loser regains

Weetabix reported on weight regains among former contestants on "The Biggest Loser." She notes that Ryan from Season 1 has gained most of his weight back, and many other contestants have put on 30 or 40 pounds from their finale weights. To her, this suggests that the show hasn't helped the contestants:

does it speak to the fact that perhaps a crash diet and exercising for six hours a day to drop weight at alarming rates just might not be a good idea for your metabolism?
I see it differently. I looked at the slide show for myself and I think that at least among the people featured, the results were probably similar, or maybe even better, than your average successful dieter two years after goal. One person had gained almost all of it back, a few had regained significant amounts, and most had regained 20-30 pounds. A few had stayed pretty close to their finale weights. I was going to comment on the site and then I realized I had too much to say for just a comment.

"The Biggest Loser" is a television show, and dramatic results are the name of the game. Of course those kinds of results are unrealistic for people to maintain in their real lives, especially if they worked their way down to a really low number in the hopes of winning the big prize at the finale. If you read Jillian Michaels's book Making the Cut, you will see a lot of tricks for shredding out the last bit of water weight for a special event or big photo shoot. Jillian herself has said on her podcast that between seasons, she likes to relax a little, eat some chocolate, gain a few pounds, and then get shredded again for the show. To me, it's actually comforting to think that even Jillian doesn't always look like Jillian.

Besides that fact that the dramatic results are good TV, there is also an interesting theory behind them that I think deserves some thought:

Although most obesity doctors recommend losing weight slowly with moderate calorie reduction and moderate exercise, the physician and wildly telegenic trainers involved with the show are going about it differently. They think that their extreme, exercise-based diet plan may prove superior to slow-but-steady garden-variety diets at keeping weight off.

"Most of these people had never been told that they could go out and get aggressive with exercise," says the show's physician, Dr. Robert Huizenga, who works as an internist and sports physician in Beverly Hills, Calif. . . The goal is to get them close to a normal weight in a short period of time, while preserving as much muscle as possible. Because muscle burns more calories than fat, Huizenga thinks the contestants will burn more calories at their new goal weight than they would have following a traditional diet - and thus be better positioned to keep the weight off.

There is also the advantage that contestants get a chance to see how much different their lives can really be from what they have accepted for themselves. Many contestants are able to go off prescription medications for high blood pressure, prediabetes, and other serious health issues after just a week or two on the ranch. Some find they love physical challenges and go home to do marathons, triathlons, and cross-country bike rides. Sure, they don't keep off every pound that they lost in the hopes of winning thousands of dollars, but most have a dramatically different life after the show than they did before it. If the contestants lost the widely-accepted 1-2 pounds a week, and went home 25 pounds thinner, so from 355 to 330, would that really make a big difference in their lives? Enough to keep them motivated continue with exercise and healthy eating?

I don't think they have to get to look like fitness models to have a better quality of life than they did at 300+ pounds. I think Weetabix is right when she says, "without excessive fitness regimes and severely restricted caloric intakes, some people are just going to be heavier than others," I just don't agree, like she seems to, that it's better not to try to lose weight at all if you aren't going to keep every single pound of it off.

I speak from personal experience here. I've gained back about 20 pounds of the 60+ I lost. These aren't in the same league as "The Biggest Loser" contestants, but still, I definitely feel better now, at a fit but overweight 38, than I did at 25 when I was at my highest weight and very sedentary. I know I felt even better 20 pounds lighter, and having been there once at least lets me know it's possible. I think that it would have been easy to tell myself I would never succeed and not even start. I'm really glad I was willing to try to fail instead.


  1. It seems to me that in the case of some of the contestants they got almost "scary skinny" in order to try to win (I am looking at you Germanankos twins). Any gains they have had since the show actually make them look better. I looked at the pictures. Other than Ryan from season 1 it seems like everyone is still within a fairly healthy range and look good.

  2. I lost 130 lbs on weight watchers and have kept it off for a little over a year. Slow and steady is most successful I would say. I even heard Bob say it on the show once.

    I love the show though.

    My before and after weight loss pics can be seen at

  3. I agree that it's nice to see where one may end up. I've been up to 215, then got to 150, (size 6), then back to 195 before I stopped myself. Now I"m at 174, and I know where my realistic end goal will be. I'm not super skinny at that weight, just under the BMI line between normal/overweight.

  4. No, I wouldn't say that I think it's better not to try to lose weight at all (in fact, that's pretty much the opposite of my personal mantra: if you're feeling lousy, fix it). However, I feel that the show is suggesting that A) the only measure of success is the difference on the scale between this week and last week and B) now that they've lost all of that weight, they are inherently healthier than they were before and that the show "fixed" them somehow. My concern is that by paying more attention to the number on the scale rather than measurable health qualifiers (heart rate, strength gained, hell, even BMI), it's setting an unrealistic or unhealthy paradigm for the contestants when they are off camera. And more importantly, I am whole-heartedly suggesting that it's probably not good for your metabolism to drop 110 pounds in three months.


"Count your calories, work out when you can, and try to be good to yourself. All the rest is bulls**t." -- Jillian Michaels at BlogHer '07