By Janet Helm, MS, RD
Dieting has become such a national obsession in this country that we even want to watch it on TV. Weight loss reality shows, like NBC’s The Biggest Loser, have devoted followings and score big ratings, yet they’ve also been hotly debated. Each episode sparks a flurry of online discussions – from tweets to blog posts – with each side passionately making their case on why the show is good or bad, inspiring or insulting.
The critics have come out swinging even harder against the episodes featuring children. Even though there’s a pediatrician working with the show, other pediatricians have expressed concerns about the humiliation and potential long-term harm inflicted on the young participants.
So are these shows good or bad? I looked at what some recent studies have found and talked to a few experts to get their perspective of weight loss reality shows.
First, I think it’s an extremely good thing that a registered dietitian consults with The Biggest Loser. Cheryl Forberg has worked with the show from the beginning — providing behind-the-scenes nutrition consultation with each of the contestants. She evaluates their food journals, monitors the nutritional adequacy of their diets, and is an on-going nutrition coach via weekly conference calls.
Forberg thinks the biggest benefit of the show is inspiration. She hears from a lot from people who say: “If they can do, then so can I.” There’s always a lot of emotion expressed on the show, and the stories can be inspiring to others. It also promotes the concept of accountability. If you have a workout buddy, for instance, you’ll be more likely to stick with a new exercise routine. A friendly competition, or some type of incentive, has been shown to help people follow through on a commitment and reach a goal. Plus, there’s growing evidence that healthy habits are contagious. So if you’re in a social network – whether online, at work, or in your own neighborhood – you may be more likely to adopt positive behaviors if others around you are doing the same.
The Biggest Loser has its own fan club, with lots of supporters, and there’s been a slew of best-selling books, DVDs and other products based on the show. But there are also vocal critics of weight loss reality shows like The Biggest Loser, including nutrition researcher and advocate Linda Bacon, who thinks they humiliate the participants. “I can’t find anything ‘pro’ or positive about shows built on shaming and self-hate,” said Bacon, who is the author of Health at Every Size: The Surprising Truth About Your Weight. “The damage to the participants seems pretty obvious. For viewers, rather than inspiring people to care for themselves, weight-loss shows are more likely to inspire discomfort and fear: Even thin people can fear being judged by the harsh standards of reality TV.”
Boston-based registered dietitian Nancy Clark agrees. “The messages in The Biggest Loser are all about deprivation, denial, starvation and punishment. Eating is viewed as cheating and food is the fattening enemy,” said Clark, who is the author of Nancy’s Clarks Sports Nutrition Guidebook. Clark is especially troubled by how the show depicts exercise, which is akin to “torture,” she said
Exercise by intimidation?
One recent study in the American Journal of Health Behavior suggests this type of intimidating, punishing approach to exercise could backfire. After viewing episodes of The Biggest Loser, participants in the study were less motivated to exercise because they anticipated it would be an unpleasant experience.
“The E in exercise should also stand for enjoyment,”said Clark. “When exercise feels like punishment for having undesirable body fat, the day will come when that dieter no longer feels like whipping his or her body into shape and instead reverts to lazing on the couch. The Biggest Losers lose-out in the long run, because extreme diets (either on TV or in your life) teach nothing about sustainable eating and exercise practices that can be enjoyably maintained for the rest of one’s life.”
That brings us to another common complaint about The Biggest Loser, which is the lack of relevance to real-world situations. The contestants move out of their homes and onto a “ranch” where their only focus is on losing weight. Even Forberg admits that this set-up is unique because this is their full-time job. It would be a mistake to expect the same results at home, she said.
Keeping it real
Sports nutritionist Nancy Clark thinks the lack of reality in the weight loss reality shows is a major downfall. “What happens in the long run, when the Biggest Losers return to the real world with no personal trainer to snap the whip, with no pre-made, pre-portioned food, and no ‘fat camp’ dedicated to full time weight loss? Inevitably, without rigid vigilance, the weight will return with a vengeance. The physiological response to starvation is to overcompensate, commonly known as “binge eating” or “blowing the diet.” This desire to over-eat has little to do with willpower and lots to do with physiology. Just as a person gasps for air if oxygen has been withheld, the same person will grab for carbs if food has been withheld.”
Withholding food may also slow down your metabolism, which will make it even harder to maintain the weight loss. That’s what Darcy Johannsen and colleagues found after studying 16 participants of The Biggest Loser. Published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, the study found that some of individuals who lost weight had their metabolisms slowed by more than 500 calories – which is basically a meal’s worth of calories that they no longer burn as a result of severely restricting calories on the show.
So what is your opinion of weight loss reality shows? Do the benefits outweigh any potential harm? Maybe these shows are far from reality, but do they inspire and motivate? Are they getting people off the couch? Maybe the participants can’t maintain this extreme routine once they get home, but my hope is that they’re learning new habits. That’s the only way to sustain a healthier lifestyle.