NBC’s The Biggest Loser has been one of the network’s, ahem, biggest reality TV success stories. It’s paired consistently strong ratings with feel-good storylines about overweight people working hard to get back to a healthy size and all of the good things that come with it.
Everybody wins, right? After all, what could be wrong with challenging participants to embrace a healthier future?
Perhaps more than you might think.
In fact, a chorus of criticism is growing regarding reality weight-loss shows such as The Biggest Loser. (Others include now-concluded series such as ABC’s Extreme Weight Loss, VH1’s Celebrity Fit Club, Bravo’s Thintervention as well as A&E’s new series Fit to Fat to Fit). Experts are concerned that participants’ weight loss is unhealthy and unsustainable, and that it’s motivated by tactics behind the scenes that are borderline abusive.
A new study by federal researcher Kevin Hall published in the journal Obesity Biology and Integrated Physiology followed 14 Season 8 Biggest Loser contestants for six years after they left the show. Hall found that most of its contestants had regained much of the weight they’d lost, and that some were even heavier now than when they went on the show. Researchers are discovering that such rapid weight loss slows the body’s metabolism for years afterward, making it difficult, if not impossible, for former contestants to keep weight off going forward.
Former contestant Dina Mercado told Fox News, “If I had known [the results of the study] I probably would have thought twice about doing something along these lines. Initially, you go into it thinking you are going to be better and healthier and good things are going to come from it and then you learn something like this and it’s just like ‘wow, if I had known this would I have done it before?’”
Season 3 participant Kai Hibbard, meanwhile, has become an outspoken critic of the series, saying that her health suffered badly during her own weight-loss process. “My hair was falling out. My period stopped. I was only sleeping three hours a night,” she told the New York Post last year. She said her knees took a beating and added, “My thyroid, which I never had problems with, is now crap.”
Sometimes, she said, real health concerns were minimized or ignored on the show. “One contestant had a torn calf muscle and bursitis in her knees,” Hibbard claimed. “The doctor told her, ‘You need to rest.’ She said, ‘Production told me I can’t rest.’ At one point after that, production ordered her to run, and she said, ‘I can’t.’ She was seriously injured. But they edited her to make her look lazy and b–chy and combative.”
But health problems aren’t the only concern. Hibbard also said that the Loser producers’ motivational tactics were so psychologically manipulative and ethically dubious that she compared them to being kidnapped and brainwashed. “They would say things to contestants like, ‘You’re going die before your children grow up.’ ‘You’re going to die, just like your mother.’ ‘We’ve picked out your fat-person coffin’—that was in a text message. … You’re brainwashed to believe that you’re super-lucky to be there.”
Hibbard alleged that access to other contestants, to food, to communication with the outside world were all prohibitively monitored and regulated. The Post reports that one contestant even said she felt as if she had Stockholm Syndrome, the condition in which those who’ve been taken hostage begin to feel empathy for their captors. Hibbard’s final assessment? “[It’s] a fat-shaming disaster that I’m embarrassed to have participated in.”
All of that begs the question of why there’s so much bad behavior behind the scenes of a show that’s ostensibly about health and inspiration. The simple answer is money, and lots of it. The New York Post reports that The Biggest Loser alone earns $100 million annually. And that’s not counting myriad marketing tie-ins, from weight-loss camps to clothing, cookbooks to weight-loss products, clothing to video games.
Pop culture expert Lisa Durden summarizes show’s dramatic allure and its core problems:
Of course we love seeing the dramatic weight loss of contestants’ season after season because in some ways, many of us are living vicariously through them. But what they aren’t telling us is, they put these people through extreme, outrageous, exercise regimes, like working out four hours a day, sweating bullets in a sauna six hours a day, and eating like birds, all in a very controlled environment, knowing that once they go home, there is no possible way to maintain that in the real world. And sadly, the producers don’t care about them. They only care about the ratings.
And that’s a sad reality indeed, both for participants who long for the transformation The Biggest Loser promises but may not deliver and for fans who long to believe that Cinderella-like metamorphosis can be squeezed into 16 weeks if only they muster up enough willpower.
Alas, for most, neither of these realities is true.