The Problem with The Biggest Loser

Before and after of the latest winner of the Biggest Loser.

The internet (and my local Y.M.C.A. for that matter) are abuzz about the latest The Biggest Loser finale. The show bestows $250,000 on the person who loses the highest percentage of their starting body weight. This year’s winner wasn’t the guy who lost 222 lbs. (!).  No, the winner outdid that incredible feat by going from 260 down to 105 (in 5 months). Twitter blew up with cries of #anorexia and #scaryskinny. Of course, 5 months earlier those same twitterers would have been hurling other #insults.

I usually throw the show on while I wash dishes and clean my kitchen at night for the same reasons as anyone else – I can half pay attention and still know what’s going on and I’m a sucker for a good transformation.

Before last night, I didn’t know much about Rachel (the winner) other than she was a type-A competitive type. She was always intent on winning the physical challenges and usually did. The finale was on late, so I was in bed relaxing catching up on emails with the show on in the background. I looked up for her big reveal and gasped. The problems with The Biggest Loser that always gnawed at me suddenly became crystal clear.

It wasn’t Rachel’s new-found tininess or the number on the scale alone that worried me – those just corroborated what I saw in her eyes. I am not a doctor, a psychologist or anyone in any kind of position to bestow a diagnosis on her, but something doesn’t feel right about her situation. The internet is virtually yelling at her for “going too far.” But she just did what she was told to do – lose as much weight as you possibly can in 5 months. Heck, she did it better than anyone before her! And that is the problem with this show.

[pullquote]The thing that the audience loves about The Biggest Loser is the transformations. The transformations from fat to fit, from sedentary to athletic, from hopeless to hopeful. Those transformations are great. But the show doesn’t reward the fittest, the most athletic or the biggest transformation in outlook on life – the show rewards numbers on a scale. [/pullquote]

An environment that encourages working out 2-5 hours while eating a scant 1,000-1,200 calories per day all while imploring contestants to lose as much weight as humanly possible in a week (double digit weight loss in one week is not uncommon on the show) and bestows a huge cash prize on the person who does all these things the best is begging to give someone anorexia, bulimia or an exercise addiction (or all three). One former contestant has come out and said the show gave her anorexia and bulimia – in fact, encouraged it. She said the show insisted contestants forgo electrolyte replacement drinks because they caused water retention. We could read that another way: dehydration is great for weight loss!

The thing that the audience (guilty) loves about The Biggest Loser is the transformations. The transformations from fat to fit, from sedentary to athletic, from hopeless to hopeful. Those transformations are great. But the show doesn’t reward the fittest, the most athletic or the biggest transformation in outlook on life – the show rewards numbers on a scale. These numbers are the problem with this show. These numbers do not correspond with the metrics that signify health, happiness or enthusiasm for life. You know who looked like she embodied all these metrics? That body builder lady that lost 27% of her body weight. She was still well over 200 lbs. but she looked happy, fit and like she was having the time of her life. Was she a winner in the eyes of the show? No. She was one of the worst performers on the scale.

And as we competitive runners know all too well, focusing on a number can lead to fixation and fixation can lead to disordered behavior. When we runners get overly obsessed on mileage and pace targets we often end up overtrained. Have you or someone you know ever obsessed about getting in mileage or certain workouts to the detriment of her performance, overall health or sanity? I know I have and a lot of runners I know have. If Rachel developed an eating or exercise disorder because of her experience on the show, it’s easy to see how. I can’t help but wonder if that would happen to me if I was in that environment with those kinds of incentives and directives.

The Biggest Loser: Pinoy Edition (season 1)
Perhaps the winner really is a big loser.  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I realize it’s trite, but the problem with The Biggest Loser is the focus on an arbitrary number as a proxy for what we all really want – health and happiness. When a contestant focuses on that number to the expense of that health and happiness in an obvious way (it’s definitely already happened less obviously) then the show is doomed, because the secret is out. The show is not about health and happiness, it’s about incredible ratings-bait numbers on a scale. It’s about getting viewers to think they too can lose tons of weight if they workout with those trainers on their t.v. sets or eat the (usually crappy) diet food pitched on the show.

For Rachel, who surely is a talented athlete as demonstrated by her athletic dominance on the show, I was hoping she’d discover an athletic passion and devote herself to excellence in that arena. Focusing on kicking ass in multisport, swimming, running or some other sport would surely lead to the fitness Biggest Loser contestants (and presumably much of the show’s audience) aspires to. When our focus is performance, we tend to fuel our body with healthier food and moderate our exercise to avoid injury and overtraining. When optimal performance is the goal, relative optimal body composition tends to follow. If Rachel, instead, focused solely on the number on the scale then she at best missed that mark and at worst ended up sick.

It will surely be interesting to see what happens to the show now. Will they parade their winner around for interviews? If she is struggling with an ED will she be allowed to talk about it? Time will tell, but I have a feeling history will not look kindly on this show.

What do you think about The Biggest Loser?


For more Salty posts about eating disorders go here.

If you suspect a friend is suffering from an eating disorder go here.

Salty Running boss and mother of 3 little ones with PRs of 3:10:15 (26.2), 1:25:59 (13.1) and 18:15 (5k). I love to write about running culture, mental training, and fitting in a serious running habit with the rest of a busy life.

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  1. I agree with you, Salty, on the show’s misplaced emphasis on what the scale shows each week. If they have to measure something in order to figure out who goes home, I think lost body fat would be better than scale weight. I disagree, however, that Rachel looks unhealthy, and that anyone should assume she has an eating disorder or exercise obsession, etc. In the early episodes of the show, they showed her before she gained all the weight, and she was quite thin then.

    I am 5’7” tall and weigh between 105-110 lbs. I’m certainly not anorexic or bullemic, and I don’t have any unhealthy obsessions. It’s just how I’m built, and other than pregnancy, always have been. Throughout my adulthood I’ve been asked way too many times if I have an eating disorder, and find it unfair, presumptive, and insulting.

    I’ve read the accounts from previous contestants about the unhealthy behaviors the show supposedly encourages, and I’ve read accounts from other contestants who say it’s not true. Will we ever know? Probably not.

    In summary, I’m not a fan of everything on the show and can think of numerous things I’d like to see changed. However, it makes me sad to see that rumors are already circulating about this season’s winner simply because she had such a drastic transformation. Let’s celebrate her achievement, and the fact that obesity is no longer a health issue she must overcome.

    1. I don’t know if she is or isn’t struggling with an ed, but something seemed off about the whole thing to an awful lot of people. That doesn’t mean something is or is not wrong with her, but there is something wrong with this show and that’s my point.

    2. Rachel does have a problem, and one NBC, her doctors, and her trainer should have prevented. On a call with the press today, she said she has religiously stuck to her diet of 1600 calories and what sounded like 6+ hours of exercise a day as the show, her trainer, and her doctors told her to do. She sounded confused when asked if that was unhealthy.

      So if she’s telling the truth, we basically know she destroyed muscle and bone mass due to negligence by the Biggest Loser staff. It is extremely unhealthy and outright dangerous to already be at your goal weight and eat 1600 calories and exercise 6 hours a day.

      That she even said this stuff on the call this afternoon goes to show, even after the outcry, NBC still hasn’t educated her. NBC is allowing her to give dangerous advice and pose a dangerous example to others. I certainly don’t blame Rachel, but I certainly cannot be happy for her either.

      1. I eat like double that when running 90 minutes a day when I’m at my thinnest. Sheesh! Sounds like she needs some deprogramming. Scary stuff.

  2. I haven’t watched the Biggest Loser in several seasons, so when the most recent winner hubbub started I wasn’t sure what was going on. Then I heard how much she weighed and how tall she was- she was my height, but a good 12 pounds less than I’ve ever been. At 117, I felt I was too thin. As someone who has lost over 100 lbs, I can understand the need to want to drop every last nagging pound. It took me about 2 years to lose the weight and there were days that I would look in the mirror and not recognize the person i was looking at. That kind of transformation takes a long time for the brain to accept. For people to lose such large amounts of weight in under six months is unhealthy, not maintainable, and just sets the stage for a host of disorders. I think America has a need for instant gratification and weight loss is anything but instant. I hate that the Biggest Loser makes weight loss out to be just a one time thing and you move on. Being healthy is a choice you have to make daily.

    1. It’s not the weight. It’s not her thinness. It was that something didn’t seem right about her – to me, she did not appear healthy and based on what I know about the show, behind the scenes and otherwise, I can’t help but suspect she’s not at a healthy place. Of course I do not know what she did or what her mental state is. If she is healthy and happy than yeah! But the show is still shady and promoting unrealistic ideals and unhealthy expectations.

  3. And the plot thickens…just read a tweet from Bob Harper saying (paraphrasing here) that neither he nor Jillian can comment on Rachel’s journey because they weren’t her trainers and were never allowed to work with her. Hmm…I thought all the trainers worked with all the contestants. Was Dolvet her only trainer? I don’t remember.

  4. Yeah, I’m with ya on this. I don’t even watch the show, so I can’t comment with credibility. But I can say that The Biggest Loser seems to be about helping people become healthier and happier as much as The Bachelor is about helping people find true love. Which is to say, NOT AT ALL. They are after ratings and advertising income, pure and simple. I think the tv folks have made it pretty clear that they don’t give a crap about what a show does to an individual’s life long-term, once the show and hype is over…

  5. As someone who watches the Biggest Loser every single week, I wanted to avoid seeing the results prior to watching the finale. (I cannot watch the show on Tuesday evenings and have to catch it later in the week). However, by 6AM today, I couldn’t go online or turn on the TV without seeing headlines about Rachel’s shocking weight loss. And with good reason, too.

    It was clear that Rachel was a fierce competitor from the beginning. With her previous swimming background, she knows what it takes to climb to the top. She did what she had to do to win, even if that led her down a potentially unhealthy path.

    I thought she looked very healthy and fit at 150 pounds, her weight following the last week on the ranch. However, David and Bobby still had a significant amount of weight to lose and would both likely shape up considerably in the 3 months between the last week on the ranch and the finale. Even though Rachel would have looked great ending at that point, I’m sure she knew she would have to continue to lose a ton of weight in order to stand a chance against David and Bobby. She would have had to weigh less than ~119 pounds in order to have lost a greater percentage of body weight than David! If she weighed in at 119 last night, it still would have been a pretty shocking weigh-in.

    That, in my opinion, is a major problem with the show. Contestants who start with higher body weights obviously have more to lose, so if they are successful in their endeavor, they have an advantage. Contestants who start at a lower weight can only lose so much before they plateau or reach their goal weight. Take Jay, for instance. He looked great prior to being eliminated…but he was very near his ideal weight and was happy and fit at that point. He was satisfied with that and didn’t appear to have the desire to lose an unhealthy amount of weight so he could take home a prize. When winning a huge prize becomes more important than being healthy, the show is setting itself up for problems.

  6. It’s been so hard for me to see all of the comments about it since watching the show last night. On one hand, I’m upset that all of the attention and focus is on how she’s too thin and on her appearance. But at the same time, I feel for her because I’ve been there. It’s been difficult to read some of the awful comments that people have been posting on Twitter and Facebook, especially because they’re from people who have either never been overweight in their lives or if they were, they weren’t obese and had to lose 100+ lbs to get down to a healthy weight.
    Close to the end of my weight loss journey, I was becoming so incredibly obsessive. I was eating about 18 Weight Watcher points per day and running 30-35 miles per week. I did my long runs on the same day as my weigh ins. I’d eat a small breakfast, run 10-12 miles and then not eat anything until my meeting at 6:30 pm. Sometimes, I’d go to the gym, get on the bike and then go to Zumba before my meeting. It’s all because I had that goal in mind and I’d do anything to get there, the same thing that Rachel did. And once the compliments and “OMG YOUR DRAMATIC WEIGHT LOSS IS SO INSPIRING!” comments start rolling in, you feel pressure to keep it up and to impress everyone.
    And TBL, Weight Watchers, every single diet has the same issue. Rachel went through it, I went through it. We learn how to lose weight and lose it quickly. It keeps us going back and it keeps them in business.

    1. Yes! They (Biggest Loser and every weight loss plan and diet book or product) capitalize on fat shame! It’s awful. In fact, the more people fail the more money these things make because people blame themselves and then go back and try to do better next time. When experts say the only thing that works is a lifestyle adjustment, it’s true. But that doesn’t mean a life time of calorie counting and excessive exercise. It means making good choices automatic. It’s certainly not for everyone, but competitive athletics is great because it takes the focus off of obsessing about calories and weight and onto performance and when you are eating and exercising for performance you can find the happy fit place for you body, whatever it is when you feel and perform your best. Thanks for sharing your personal story. It makes me want to go in a time machine to those weight watchers meetings and give you a big hug!

  7. It’d be awesome if there was a show that helped get people educated on fitness and healthy eating, and entered into a fun event like spartan race or tough mudder. I always wondered how people didn’t have more physical and mental problems on the show because of the massive amounts of weight they are losing. I’ve always been told that your body can go into shock if you lose weight too quickly. It’s important to have a mental support system to help in any life transformation and I don’t know if ‘The Biggest Loser’ aids that necessity.

    1. I agree, Marie. It would be great to see a show like that. I think when someone has a training goal, the healthy eating and maybe even weight loss will happen more naturally.