The general American population is not necessarily known for their glowing health and vitality, and The Biggest Loser is making them even more unhealthy. Ironic for a show that is supposedly about helping people become healthier…but, unfortunately for viewers and contestants alike, it’s true.
The Biggest Loser franchise is built on sensationalism and instant gratification. You need to first understand that the show’s ratings are its bottom line. The show may revolve around health-related matter, but the ratings are the heartbeat of the show – bad ratings (those that are not remedied by a “new and exciting” twist on the show, such as a new trainer who makes Jillian Michaels looks more docile than a house cat) mean the end of the franchise. The entire premise is to structured to determine how fast these morbidly obese contestants can lose weight. Obviously, being morbidly obese is unhealthy, and these folks would do well to lose weight – it would improve their health, quality of life, and likely their self-confidence, too. But the show does not measure how well the contestants improve any of those factors. All that is at stake is weight, and how much of it they can rid themselves of in the 8-week season. So the contestants lose weight – some of them lose an enormous amount of weight, getting close to half their starting weight. I have no doubt that the contestants employ an incredible amount of discipline and fortitude in their publicly-televised weight-loss endeavors. Changing your habits can be trying and painful, and habits of diet and exercise are often all the more so. I commend Biggest Loser contestants for taking a step to improve their health, and I admire their willingness to give their utmost effort and change themselves so drastically. But the means by which they accomplish this is profoundly unhealthy. Starvation diets, hours upon hours of exercise each day, and public humiliation and shaming (such as shirtless weigh-ins on national television) are the tools that The Biggest Loser contestants receive to help them achieve dramatic weight loss in a very short time. These tools are effective, but only at the cost of the long-term health of those who use them.
The real problem with the show is that these damaging habits (starvation diets, excessive exercise, and shaming) are not only taught to the contestants, but to everyone watching. It feeds the “diet culture” that is so prevalent in our society. “Diet culture” promotes restriction and uses punishment/shame as the motivators behind health habits. On the contrary, true wellness (including a healthy bodyweight and composition, but also a healthy mindset) comes about from healthy habits that are focused on abundance and getting plenty of “the good stuff,” rather than restriction and getting as little as possible of “the bad stuff.” Diet culture breeds fear, healthy habits breed freedom.
Ultimately, The Biggest Loser is not about health, or even losing weight. It is about training contestants to adopt destructive habits of thought and action with headline-making results…and making headlines is not always a good thing. Nothing about the lifestyle is sustainable. After all, why else would so many of The Biggest Loser contestants (including winners) have gained back all of the weight they lost within two years of their time on the show?None of the dietary tactics will work in the long term unless someone is willing to compromise their health in order to maintain a diet with as few calories (and as few nutrients) as possible. None of the training would be feasible when someone also has responsibilities such as a job, family, home/property, and so on. The only people who train for hours and hours upon end each day are elite athletes, or those with eating disorders. The Biggest Loser is not in the business of building elite athletes, but it sure does seem to do its best to create disordered habits of eating and exercise.
And that’s the biggest problem of all.