The theme for this season of The Biggest Loser is "Pay it Forward." The idea seems to be to expand the reach of the show. Only a few people can (or would want to) go on the show out of the many, many people who are seriously overweight.
To make this excruciatingly clear, the show traveled around the country for big casting events in major cities like Detroit, Los Angeles, and Boston. Three people from each region who had applied to be on the show were introduced to us and the crowd and publicly weighed in. The stories were heartbreaking, from mothers who had lost children to people who had grown up in abusive homes. It was clear that behind every seriously obese person, there was an equally serious problem that had made abusing food seem reasonable.
The three people then had to compete in some sort of challenge, and the top two got to go right to the Biggest Loser ranch. A few of the challenges were one-mile races, and the rest were step-up competitions. Usually it seemed that the person who had raced to get ahead at the beginning was the one eliminated. A couple of people pushed themselves so hard that they collapsed. Of course there were medics on the scene, and I am sure they were screened beforehand for major health problems. It was still pretty frightening to see a guy in his 20s collapse twice during the mile race. It was also sad because he obviously felt like The Biggest Loser was his only hope.
The show was both compelling and a little repetitive. I liked that we got each contestant's backstory. The long preview for next week's show suggests that the people who didn't make the first cut will have another chance.
Seriously, though, what are the options for a person who is 100+ pounds overweight?
Conventional weight-loss programs like Weight Watchers, though they have some 100-pound-plus success stories, don't really seem set up to handle people with the kind of tragic histories that TBL contestants have. They have some good behavioral tools to offer for regular situations, like this week's topic about asking for help. But someone in my meeting this week talked about needing to build self-esteem, and none of us seemed to have much to offer about how to do that.
Therapists could potentially help, but not all of them are informed or helpful. Some of them are pretty judgmental about people with weight problems. The first time I tried therapy at about 65 or 70 pounds overweight, the therapist sort of flippantly suggested that I should just eat less fruit because fruit has too much sugar. That was my first and last session with her. She didn't seem to look for a deeper issue besides eating too much.
There are twelve-step programs like Overeaters Anonymous. I don't know if there are any stats about how successful they are. From my time on the blogs, I get the impression that people in some of those meetings can be just as unhelpful as the general population.
There are weight loss surgeries with all the inherent risks. Some people do very well with them and some end up on The Biggest Loser even fatter than before. And we know that even people who have been on TBL can end up regaining all the weight.
There don't seem to be a lot of clear answers out there. Every method has its success stories and its epic failures. The X factor seems to be that spark that gets a person motivated enough to stick with whatever method they choose. I think it would be great to know more about that X factor.
One thing that seemed a little discouraging to me. There was a guy who weighed in at close to 500 pounds who quipped, "The next time you see me I will have a six pack." It just seemed to reinforce the idea that if you're not within a very narrow range of celebrity-like perfection, you're a failure. The first problem with this is that it's terribly unrealistic: Even the guys on the cover of Men's Health with a six-pack don't look like that on a regular day just walking around. Jillian Michael's Making the Cut made it pretty clear that there is a pre-shoot ritual of ultra-strict eating and low-level dehydration that makes muscles pop like that on one specific day of the already-superfit person's life. Plus, with most magazine photos, there is airbrushing on top of all of that. The second problem is that it ignores the difference that even a small change can make in someone's health. The show has documented this before: After the first week, before the contestants have lost much weight, their health risks have already gone way down from the change in their lifestyle and many people get to stop taking medications that they had been on for years. Just the changes in mobility after a few weeks on the show would be life-changing for TBL-sized people.
We don't all need to look like movie stars to have happy lives. I know it's probably too much to expect that fans of a television show would start to focus on health instead of appearance, but that doesn't keep me from wishing they would.