“The Biggest Loser” is holding auditions for an upcoming season this weekend in Oklahoma City. A lot of people are expected to show up, and that’s with good reason: In 2012, Oklahoma was ranked the sixth-worst state when it comes to obesity.
Before you head to the audition, please remember that “The Biggest Loser” isn’t without its flaws. That’s not to discourage you from doing what you feel is best, but it’s important to keep this information in the back of your mind. Information like…
5. The real world is thrown out the window
The first thing to remember is “The Biggest Loser” throws reality out the window. One only needs to watch the show just once to realize this.
The contestants all, effectively, live at a rehab facility where the best workout machines, healthiest foods and crew of medical personnel and personal trainers are there for them 24/7. While some people might joke and say they “live at the gym,” it’s the truth about the show’s contestants.
And that’s just not indicative of the real world.
There’s usually one episode per season devoted to seeing the top handful of contestants return home for a week to see how it goes. But, while they’re home, they’re not really into the swing of being “at home.” They don’t go back to work or school, for instance. So, it doesn’t really give them a sense of returning to normalcy. It’s when the contestants completely head back into reality that they realize just how tough things are, and no matter what kind or the number of challenges the show’s writers drum up, they never do an adequate job of preparing people for what they’ll run into when they get home.
What they can do better:
Although “The Biggest Loser” lacks any authentic real world situations that could actually benefit their contestants, the show does manage to stress the importance of nutrition and, to an extent, exercise (more on that later).
The above photo is an example of this. It’s a point in the show where contestants come face-to-face with the foods they love and, admittedly, would gorge on before hitting the Ranch. Foods like burritos, donuts, pizza, fried chicken and bread.
While it is a tad over-the-top for the audience’s viewing pleasure, it does serve a purpose: It lets contestants, and viewers, know just what they’re putting in their bodies. While the signs only mention calories, the show’s host usually breaks down where those calories come from: protein, fat or carbohydrates. This, along with the nutritional education they’re getting elsewhere, allows the contestants and audience to somewhat understand what they’re putting in their bodies, and why it’s potentially unhealthy.
But the show needs more of it. It needs to discuss the differences between simple and complex carbs, soy and whey proteins, and how the body processes both those and fat to use as nutrients. Then, the show can begin to stress that each person’s nutritional needs will differ, based on the goals they have and their body composition.
It wouldn’t be hard at all to do: Show people how to work out in the office, at home, while on vacation and even while doing everyday tasks like tending to the garden or cleaning the house. It would be a unique and worthwhile addition to the show’s premise, and one that would be welcomed with open arms. This would segue naturally into an episode that focuses on long term weight management, so it seems like a no-brainer.
But, before you know it, the show begins to goof up again when it focuses too much on a contestant’s weight, and when…
4. Body composition isn’t discussed enough
The strong emphasis the trainers and show, in general, put on weight loss is disconcerting. Just because someone weighs 300 pounds doesn’t mean they’re unhealthy — just take a look at NFL linebackers. Yet, on the show, that’s how it comes across: If you don’t weigh <insert magical number here>, then you’re tubby and need five more Last Chance Workouts to get into shape!
Then Jillian Michaels will yell at you, Bob Harper will give you a disappointed grimace and Dolvett Quince will pull you aside to ask you if something is bothering you.
It’s understandable why the show uses weight as its measuring tool: Because it’s easy for the audience, and contestants, to see a change in physical appearance and a number. Many viewers think, that if one contestant lost 10 pounds and another lost 15 pounds in a week, that the second contestant is doing a better job. But that’s not entirely accurate.
Notice how I just used the word “pounds” and not “fat.” That’s because the body is made up of much more than just fat, and when these contestants are entering into an extreme caloric deficit to help achieve their weight loss goals, they are likely losing much more than just fat. Ever notice how, in the first week of the competition, many contestants lose obscene amounts of weight? It’s because most of it is water. Notice how in subsequent weeks the weight loss dies down, the trainers get upset and the contestants get severely bummed because they “didn’t reach the goal.” It’s all because there’s no more water left to lose.
But we never hear that explanation on the show, all because it would ruin the element of shock and awe the show has on its millions of viewers. The audience loves seeing people rise to the occasion, then fall like a bag of bricks. It’s drama, and “The Biggest Loser” producers know how to sell it like whoa.
I don’t need to tell you this but I’ll say it anyway: Everyone is made differently, and, surprise, everyone loses fat differently.
What they can do better:
Which is why I don’t understand why the show can’t move from weight loss to fat loss as the litmus test for progress. There is already a medical team on staff, and the trainers know how to educate people on how to lose fat instead of muscle. It seems like it would be a simple transition to perform but, alas, it might not be as good for television.
But an even bigger problem with the show is that…
3. It doesn’t advocate a healthy pace
“The Biggest Loser” contestants are immediately thrown into the thick of it when they get to the Ranch, despite what their individual nutritional and workout needs are. All of the contestants are lumped together and expected to perform at the same level as one another, and at a level dictated by their trainers.
The problem with this is what’s good and healthy for one contestant might be the complete opposite for another.
I mentioned earlier that it’s not uncommon for contestants to lose a good deal of weight in the first week of the show, and that it’s due to a caloric deficit that they have probably never experienced. But it’s also due to the extreme and incredibly intense workouts the contestants are forced to do. For a very small example, watch the video until the 10:07 mark:
Clearly, these people have no business running full speed ahead as their first “workout” on the show. What’s worse, is they are forced to do it if they even want to make it onto the Ranch, less they be eliminated.
The average person, while using a healthy weight-loss regiment, should lose between one and two pounds a week. This is considered both healthy and recommended. And while this can be done by going all-out at the gym, it’s strongly discouraged because it could lead to injuries and other health-related maladies.
“The Biggest Loser” is basically encouraging unsafe workouts. Season one winner Ryan Benson is an example of what being on the show can do to someone, and how returning to the real world can cause their body to go haywire for a while:
In the five days after the show was over I gained about 32 lbs. Not from eating, just from getting my system back to normal (mostly re-hydrating myself). So in five days I was back up to 240.
Benson just touched the tip of the iceberg, though. Here’s what the American Council on Exercise has to say about “The Biggest Loser’s” methods:
The Biggest Loser, which first aired in 2004, aims to jump-start weight loss in the most severely obese individuals through an intensive fitness, nutrition, and behavioral reconditioning program under the supervision of physicians, registered dietitians, and professional fitness trainers (like Jillian, Bob, or Dolvett) who use varying approaches to motivate, inspire, and sometimes embarrass and shame the Biggest Loser participants into pushing through grueling workouts, oftentimes lasting up to a reported four hours per day.
What they can do better:
One way “The Biggest Loser” can score points with the nutrition and health community is by helping contestants come up with realistic goals using realistic strategies that they can use in the real world. That way people at home can follow along, learn more than they already do and are able to apply it to their own lives based on their own dietary needs as discussed with a physician/nutritionist.
Also, the show should stop penalizing contestants for normal rates of weight loss, and making them feel like they didn’t work hard enough. This definitely paints the wrong picture for people watching at home. Instead, the audience would benefit from seeing more encouragement than anything else, especially since 65 percent of dieters return to their original weight shortly after reaching their goal.
With that said: Of all the things “The Biggest Loser” does, there’s one thing it does best…
2. It can inspire and bring you down at the same time
Most people look at this image and immediately drop their jaw: Season 14 contestant Danni Allen, 26, lost 121 pounds, went from a size 20 to a size 4, and won $250,000 as well as the title of Biggest Loser.
Even a couple Oklahomans have seen success after competing on the show.
Broken Arrow native Danny Cahill won his season’s “Biggest Loser” by dropping a 239 pounds.
David Jones is from Kiefer, and though he was eliminated last season, he continued to drop the pounds afterward, and lost 102 of them by the final episode.
Seeing these contestants succeed lets people know, “If they can do it, I can do it.” It also helps convey that the results stem from a mix of determination and hard work. Anyone who has ever tried dieting knows it’s an uphill battle, one that quickly turns into a lifestyle change more than anything.
But, why does there have to be so much yelling and bullying from the trainers? To me, that paints a negative picture of what dealing with a personal trainer is actually like. If you were paying for a trainer, there’s no way you’d appreciate or put up with the way Jillian, for example, treats the show’s contestants.
Don’t get me wrong — I think harsh tones and, at times, words can be a motivator, but it’s also no secret that cursing, ridiculing and the like can result in a lack of motivation, and worse things like mental and emotional distress. When these contestants are already pretty soft-skinned, tossing them into a gym (maybe even for the first time ever) with someone like Jillian will definitely kick in the fight-or-flight reaction. And, some people choose to fly and leave the Ranch, thus eliminating themselves from the show and possibly from a kick start they need to get their life and health back in gear.
Yeah, I did just say “The Biggest Loser” can be a kick starter for some people, despite my criticisms of the show. It all circles back to the idea that everyone is different, physically and mentally. People are fueled by different levels and kinds of motivation: You might flourish with some butt kicking honesty, while your best friend might flounder. Basically: Tough love isn’t for everyone.
What they can do better:
But the show can balance it out more: Every time a trainer drops the F-bomb or calls a contestant tubby, showcase more emotional one-on-one time between trainer and contestant. The emotional stuff will inspire without bringing some viewers down, and it’ll help us get to know the contestants more.
This is all well and good, but we can’t forget…
1. It’s all about the ratings
First and foremost, “The Biggest Loser” is a TV show and it lives and dies by its ratings. It has to perform well in order to sell advertising and attract endorsers, and everyone involved in the show has a stake in its success. If it fails, then Jillian, Bob and Dolvett have one less source of income. If it fails, the writers, producers and photographers have to find new work. If it fails, NBC Universal will no longer rake in the dough from their merchandise, which ranges from books to protein shakes to gym equipment.
So, no kidding they want to produce the best possible show they can! Which usually includes a hefty dose of drama, suspenseful music, shenanigans amongst the cast and, of course, an angry Jillian.
By now, the show runners have this thing by the throat: They’ve been doing it for so long, they practically developed the recipe for a successful reality television show.
Take the Last Chance Workout, for example: It’s a dramatic workout that takes place before the contestants weigh in, and is there to help them lose those pesky pounds that refused to drop during the rest of the week. In reality, it’s likely not helping anything, and only serves the audience in the form of entertainment at the expense of someone else’s well-being.
Don’t take my word for it — here’s what Scott Pullen, senior master instructor at the National Academy of Sports Medicine, has to say:
The extreme methods employed on The Biggest Loser appear to pay no consideration to the structural or physical abilities of the contestants … [and they] fly in the face of what, hopefully, most responsible trainers would do. — Scott Pullen
What they can do better:
I get where the production is coming from from a business perspective, but I can’t help but feel like people at home get the entirely wrong idea about the world of nutrition and fitness. That’s not to say I’m an expert, but as someone who has seen a couple seasons of the show, it’s easy to see that something just isn’t right. Though it’s the goal of NBC Universal to create an entertaining program, they’ve also become a de facto authority to many people where nutrition and fitness are involved. Because of this, they need to own up to that responsibility they created for themselves, and be as open and informational as possible.
I wouldn’t suggest anything change with the show’s overall structure because it is successful, but it’d be great to see the trainers explain why they feel the Last Chance Workout is important, since they put so much importance on it. Explain how a person’s body reacts to such a high-intensity, hours-long boot camp of tears, pain and aggression, if it does at all. The more information an audience has, the better.
It’s a fine line, wanting to maintain an entertaining television show while also refraining from diving too far off the deep end. A majority of the things the show misses out on can be remedied with a couple added minutes of discussion, and it’ll make a larger impact on the contestants and audience.
It ultimately depends on the individual to get the information they need from a credible source, and to apply that information to their new lifestyle. This isn’t to discourage anyone (I’m talking to you, too, Oklahoma) from heading to auditions on Saturday and giving it your all. It’s simply here to serve as a reminder that, just because the show presents itself the way it does, doesn’t mean it does everything right.