Reflections on The Biggest Loser “Tell-All”

I know, I know – I should be using today to issue a full review of the SAG awards red carpet.  And believe me, that post is coming!  But for now, something that’s been on my mind since it was posted (and re-posted, and re-posted…) on my wall a couple weeks ago.

As some of you know, I love the TV reality competition show The Biggest Loser.  Caveat: I’m not saying the show is perfect, or realistic, or a model I use for my own training career, or anything of that sort.

I am just saying I am a fan, I watch the program, and I have watched every episode since Season 2 (cut me a break, I didn’t have a proper TV when Season 1 aired).

Lately, there’s been all this hubbub about the “extreme” methods used to lose weight on the show and the “fat shaming” aspect of the entire franchise.  Former contestants are claiming “abuse” and noting that they’re all “fat again anyway.”

So what do I think of it all?  Well, some of it’s bullshit, and some of it isn’t.  

Here’s what’s bullshit:

  • the “only things eaten” are foods sponsored by the show.  Not true.  What IS true is that they have to demonstrate ways to cook with the sponsors’ food, which is why you see so many Jennie-O turkey tacos on the show.  But the kitchens on the ranch are stocked with healthy, whole, real foods – not just sponsored products – and contestants learn to cook for themselves (there are no chefs/cooks at the ranch).
  • the trainers get pleasure from watching clients suffer.  This is offensive.  Personal trainers are health professionals that use a variety of tactics to help clients push through their self-imposed boundaries – tactics that vary by trainer, but are never intended to humiliate, hurt, or shame clients.  Reminding a client that she is susceptible to severe health issues like diabetes, high blood pressure, and metabolic syndrome is not “shaming” – it’s being upfront and realistic, which many of these folks aren’t getting from their enablers back home.
  • the contestants are “forced” to work out too much.  I work out about two hours a day (granted, because of my job) and I am not even overweight.  The contestants work out 4-6 hours per day, primarily walking or low-impact cardio like swimming, and learn to build a schedule that is consistent and well-balanced and includes weight training, high-intensity intervals, and stretching.  Sure, 4-6 hours daily is not sustainable in the long run – but as a kickstart tactic to lose weight over a period of five months, it is completely reasonable and manageable.
  • the contestants don’t address the underlying issues surrounding their weight.  All the contestants attend therapy sessions in addition to their workout sessions to help them get a grip on both their personal problems and the stress and fatigue of being on a show like BL.  I’m not saying they leave the ranch with their problems solved (and the “competition” part of the show means each contestant’s journey ends somewhat abruptly anyway), but it’s not like they’re being brought there, yelled at, and left for dead.

On the other hand, here’s what I think is questionable and/or not so great about the show:

  • you rarely see the contestants cook or eat.  I think it’s important to watch these people prepare and consume their own food, so those watching at home can get a sense of what truly clean eating (NO processed food, NO carbs outside of fruit and veggies, NO alcohol, LOTS of protein on the plate) actually looks like – and what portions look like, both in the beginning and toward the end when their weight starts to stabilize and their muscle mass is significantly higher.
  • many of the contestants DO gain the weight back.  Why?  The same reason any of us would – there’s not $250,000 riding on your success anymore.  There are a lot of habits I could form (or break) in the short-term if someone was going to pay me for them – but true success comes from a lifetime of moderation, which many of the people on the show aren’t prepared for when the dollar signs aren’t backing them.  Again, are they bad people for it?  Nope.  Is the show bad to offer them money?  Nope.  But a paradigm shift and a lifestyle change is harder than it seems, and lots of people (on Biggest Loser and in real life) aren’t up for the challenge.
  • the level of exercise necessary to achieve fast results is not realistic.  Read this clearly: I am not saying that the methods to lose weight on the show are bad, I am saying they’re not sustainable.  No one has time to work out 4-6 hours per day, sure.  But that’s why this is a TV competition show and not a documentary series.  The thrill is in the results; the challenge is in maintaining them on a smaller scale with 1-2 hours of exercise per day and a consistently clean, well-portioned diet.

To the writers at Jezebel (should you be checking out small-time bloggers like myself) or the producers at The Biggest Loser (should you be looking for new trainer talent), I am not saying either one of you is entirely correct nor entirely blameless.  Weight loss is a sensitive, multifaceted issue, and one that tends to polarize even otherwise calm people.

But what I will not stand behind is criticism of the overarching concept of The Biggest Loser, which is that if you work out (intensely, consistently, and with a professional) and eat right (clean, low-sugar-and-sodium, with a focus on lean protein and vegetables), you will lose weight.  That’s the message that more people need to hear, and it’s the only one that will get Americans to reverse the pattern of sedentary behavior and processed junk food diets that have gotten us to the obesity epidemic we have today.

*drops the mic*

Do you watch The Biggest Loser or weight loss competition shows?  Why or why not?

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2 thoughts on “Reflections on The Biggest Loser “Tell-All”

  1. No alcohol!! How do they make it though? All kidding aside, I don’t watch this type of programming since I am a scripted TV snob but the delusions people suffer from on the differences between “body-shaming” and “how to be healthy” is epic in this country right now. Telling one to put down the mac&cheese is not the same as telling one they are a worthless person because the mac&cheese makes them fat. Substitute red wine for mac&cheese and that shoe fits me perfectly.

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