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NY Times ‘Biggest Loser’ article – your thoughts?

Wednesday, May 4, 2016 by  
Filed under Daily Blog

May
4
2016

biggest loserI was catching up on the JSF Fitness Journals last night when I saw that Seltzer posted a link to a NY Time article titled, “After ‘The Biggest Loser,’ Their Bodies Fought to Regain Weight“.

Contestants lost hundreds of pounds during Season 8, but gained them back. A study of their struggles helps explain why so many people fail to keep off the weight they lose.”

Interested, I clicked through and gave the article a read. If you have a few minutes, please give the article a gander. I’d really like to read your reactions, especially if you’ve seen the show.

As you’ll see in my reply to Seltzer (below), I have never watched “The Biggest Loser”. I know a little about the show from discussions I’ve had with JSF members and friends over the years, and my reply is based on that information. I’ll re-post my reply here:

I read the article. I’ve, admittedly, never watched this television show, and since the article wasn’t that great I’m going to have to make some assumptions here.

My understanding (correct me if I’m wrong) is that the Biggest Loser emphasizes rapid weight loss, at all costs.

The article fails to discuss strength training. I don’t know if these people lifted during, or after the show. I can guess, though, and I’m probably right.

If these people went on crash diets and lost what I’d characterize as an abnormal amount of weight in a short period time, and if that weight loss included a substantial amount of muscle….

DUH.

 

Again, I’ve never seen the show, so it’s certainly possible that I’ve made some incorrect assumptions. If so, please set me straight.

There’s really nothing surprising in the article. Something I’ve seen time and time again over the years is those people who choose to go on rapid fat loss diets almost always gain the weight back. This is especially true when the dieter loses an appreciable amount of muscle, and does not do any strength training during the weight loss phase, or after. As the NY Times article correctly points out, our metabolisms already slow down while in a prolonged caloric deficit; losing muscle on top of that is like a one-two punch, metabolically speaking. When you factor in the extreme caloric deficit the show uses to facilitate fast and dramatic weight loss, it’s a recipe for long-term failure.

These folks really didn’t stand a chance. I do not believe, however, that the reason these people gained the weight back is because they are predisposed to be a certain weight (as the article seems to conclude). The article struck me as nothing more than pandering to people who are at an unhealthy weight, and don’t want to accept responsibility for it.

Your thoughts?

John Stone Fitness Comments

33 Responses to “NY Times ‘Biggest Loser’ article – your thoughts?”
  1. My thoughts on this. It would not surprise me if the science eventually supports these people have irreversibly harmed their ability to process calories with this rapid weight loss. I agree the article is sounding like an excuse for obese people to give up. The article should have stressed that the extreme way their bodies were treated is a likely cause for the extreme way their bodies are handling food now. The lesson should be don’t ever replicate the show, as not only does it not work, the act of doing it could harm you for years later. Another complaint I have, is they mentioned things like leptin but only wrt a drug that may help restore it. An article like this would absolutely benefit from discussing the concept of insulin resistance and sensitivity. Your degree of insulin resistance determines whether the food you consume goes straight to fat or is used by the body for other normal operation.

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    • I’m having trouble accepting that their metabolisms have been irreversibly harmed. They’ve unquestionably done some bad damage, and that damage will take a lot of time and effort to repair, but irreversible? I personally know lots of people who did all the wrong things–often for many years, if not their entire lives–only to become incredibly successful once they learned about proper fat loss and then applied that knowledge.

      That’s an excellent point about insulin sensitivity.

      The whole concept of this show strikes me as exploitative and irresponsible.

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    • Yes, of course, irreversible is a strong word. And that would be the ultimate extreme But I would believe that they may have harmed something about how food is processed that will take a long time to heal. They state how reduced metabolism is and how off the hormones are from the beginning. It may not be just muscle mass. I’ve done a lot of reading about insulin resistance this year and definitely think it has something to do with why I’ve cycled 30 pounds of fat about 5 times or so. It really dispels calories in and calories out as irrelevant. If the calories-in are disproportionately being stored as fat (because the system is out of wack – science term, haha) at the expense of the calories being used to keep people alive and functional. Then the fat is essentially starving the person. When the concept sinks in, you realize that calories-in vs calories-out is irrelevant.

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    • Sure, I can compile some things. Surprisingly the website that has been the most useful in reading about this stuff is t-nation. Remember how like 10 years ago they were the worst of the bro-lifting type sites? They’ve morphed into an amazing collection of really knowledgeable articles.

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  2. I read it, and I’ve watched the show a handful of times (early seasons). My understanding is the contestants DO engage in some strength training, though I’ve never seen anyone using a challenging weight. The trainers on the show seem fairly well-rounded (or as well-rounded as a trainer agreeing to help individuals lose 200+ pounds in seven months can be); Bob Harper, in particular, is a big CrossFit fanatic, and obvious proponent of strength work.

    The key, to me, is “rapid.” One so-called expert quoted in the piece said something akin to “if these people who are great at dieting and losing all this weight can’t keep it off, what hope do the rest of us have?” I almost punched my monitor. Healthy weight loss — as John has demonstrated multiple times — is a pound or two a week. Couple that with weight training in order to maintain muscle mass, and you’ve got a recipe for success.

    I remember watching the show with my wife, and during one of the weekly weigh-ins, one contestant got on the scale and discovered she’d “only” lost something like six or seven pounds. She SOBBED. The trainers looked on in disbelief. I remember thinking, “WTF? That’s GREAT work!” But when you’re doing some sort of cardio work six hours a day — LISS, primarily — and consuming barely enough calories to get by, you expect double-digit weight loss in a week. And that’s neither healthy nor sustainable in the long run, in my opinion.

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    • So, if I understand you correctly, it sounds like the “strength training” the contestants do is more like cardio with added resistance than true strength training.

      I’m hearing over and over from people that these trainers know their stuff. As I just wrote in another reply, I find it really disgusting that trainers are okay giving out what they damn well know to be terrible information. All about the money, I guess.

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      • Exactly. As I said, I’ve never seen anyone under a heavy barbell, for example. That’s not to say it definitely never happened — I just don’t recall ever seeing it. It was usually a treadmill, or battle ropes, or air squats while holding dumbbells. Maybe “resistance training” was the better description. LOL.

        And it’s true — the almighty dollar will allow many people to rationalize that what they’re doing is “helping” people.

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        • That’s a shame about the weight training. I can’t imagine how my initial transformation would have turned out if I’d not lifted. Hitting the weights a few times per week was a critical part of my program–second only to diet. And these people are losing a lot more weight than I did, and a lot faster.

          The only thing that would surprise me is if a contestant did not put the weight back on after the show ended.

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  3. The show is a guilty pleasure of mine. They do actually do lots of strength training and tons of full body challenges that help with strength. That said, they also do a full time job’s worth of cardio each day and eat dangerously few calories. They’re not really making lifestyle changes, they’re just in an enclosed bootcamp for half a year. Bob Harper seems like the most genuine person on the show, and he really does want to help people. I think it started as a real attempt to get people to change, but chasing ratings over the seasons has turned it into a largely scripted extreme game show. It’s a shame because I personally know people who are banking on getting on the show someday before they take control of their health. It’s not the answer.

    TL;DR- They do actually do lots of strength work, but it can’t cancel out the terrible way they are treating their bodies.

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    • It’s despicable, then, that the trainers are actually knowledgeable. If these trainers are purposely going against everything they know about healthy fat loss for money, they should be ashamed. This is particularly true considering how many people watch the show and, presumably, attempt to duplicate what they see.

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      • I wouldn’t say the trainers are going against everything they know about healthy fat loss… their goal is weight loss, not fat loss, and their goal is not healthy weight loss, but rapid weight loss.

        Going 350lbs to 175lbs is a great accomplishment. But if that person goes from 175 to 225 after the “diet,” they’re still far healthier than they were at 350.

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        • “…their goal is weight loss, not fat loss, and their goal is not healthy weight loss, but rapid weight loss.”

          I have a real problem with that.

          “Going 350lbs to 175lbs is a great accomplishment. But if that person goes from 175 to 225 after the “diet,” they’re still far healthier than they were at 350.”

          Absolutely–provided they can maintain that weight, and do so without feeling like they are starving to death. It sounds to me like that’s often not the case, which I don’t find surprising.

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    • Like all other reality shows its driven off of ratings. I avoid all of them. While it might have started with good intentions I don’t think they help develop real lifestyle changes that real everyday people can assimilate into their lives! The only positive that can be taken from this show is that the trainers prove to the contestants that they are able to push themselves and reach weight and fitness goals that they thought were unattainable. Most extreme overweight people think that it’s an insurmountable task to lose the weight and fail or don’t even try!!

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    • Thanks for your comments, Matthew! I guess a television show that proves morbidly obese people can not only safely lose the weight, but keep that weight off forever, would be too “slow” and boring for the average viewer. Shame, but I guess that’s the society we live in these days.

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    • John Stone Fitness Yup there was a show called Heavy on A&E that was about morbidly obese people slowly losing weight and facing their demons. No games, no contests. It was hard to watch, yet hopeful and beautiful at times. Of course it only got one season.

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  4. I’ve watched the show several times with the curiosity of witnessing a train wreck. Plus, we all seem to like transformational stories, eh? They eat minimal calories, and engage in hours of cardio and resistance training each day — including weights. They’re monitored by doctors — a death on the show would be bad ratings, no? They’re also extensive nutritional education. Of course, the show is about rapid weight loss, but they buttress that with heavy education on training, diet, nutrition, body composition, food choices, portion control, etc etc. Plus, so what about the rapid weight loss? These people are are morbidly obese and are a cheeseburger away from dying of a heart attack or some other disease. Certainly, their life expectancy has to be fairly short from any manner of disease. The quick weight-loss, IMHO, probably is saving their lives. Weighing well over 400#, I would think they’d need to get that weight off of them asap. Not to mention the damage to their joints and other issues.

    That they end up with some metabolic slowing — I’d need to see the facts on that. It may be, but imho it’s a small trade-off for what was a bigger (pun intended) health concern previously. My guess is that they’re simply going back to eating the way they always did. So, *perhaps* these folks need another year of monitoring for maintenance but, really, they’re fully educated by the end of the show — they’re just not using that knowledge if they’re regaining weight.

    As an aside, during the finale of these shows they sometimes bring on old contestants — some of whom are ripped. So, it’s not the show that’s causing the problems but resorting to the same bad habits that got most of these people into trouble in the first place.

    Finally, if one of them started at 495 and lost to to 195 but has gained back a lot of weight to 295 — isn’t that still a win over the starting weight?

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    • Even healthy fat loss will slow the metabolism down, and crash dieting will take that to an extreme. This is pretty well established science. We also know that a pound of muscle takes a lot more calories to sustain than a pound of fat. This television program seems to throw all that out the window in the name of dramatic results.

      Even for the morbidly obese, I believe healthy and sustainable fat loss is a better solution than extreme dieting. Some former contestants have actually put on all the weight they lost, and even more. And this all happened while eating fewer calories than they once could eat.

      Now you could say that those who put on weight went back to their old bad habits (and certainly some of them have), but many of them are truly fighting a battle they can’t easily win–not because they are genetically doomed (as the article seems to suggest), but because their metabolisms have been seriously damaged.

      We may not agree here, but I certainly appreciate your take on things!

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  5. John,

    First, despite this being my first post, for several years I have enjoyed reading your website and blog. What has made JSF different and special, in my opinion, is your honesty and your willingness to share almost everything – not only the success stories, but the occasional failures, and the cold hard facts that many people don’t want to hear – so that readers are armed with accurate information to empower themselves to tackle their own fitness goals.

    I have watched The Biggest Loser several times. From my experience, it is no different than the plethora of fitness-based shows, articles, and websites in existence today that substantially mislead or outright lie to their viewers/readers. The New York Times perpetuates a different set of misconceptions, but they are just as dangerous. Here are a few huge issues that I have with the article and the show:

    – The show and the article focus entirely on weight loss – a quantifiable and easily understood number that is presumably necessary for a competition. Of course, there are other numbers, such as bodyfat percentage and lean mass pounds, that would be more meaningful with respect to overall health, but no suggestion is made in the article that the show is measuring the wrong thing.

    – In support of the foregoing, consider the following – the NYT article mentions the word “pounds” 48 times and “weight” another 89 times! The word “muscle” appears exactly zero (!!) times. That speaks volumes.

    – The article doesn’t even attempt to critique the means by which contestants lost weight during the show – through intensive cardio in a state of extremely reduced caloric intake. Instead, it merely assumes that rapid and extensive weight loss will always result in reduced metabolism, without any suggestion that weight loss can be accomplished through different means, or that a person’s resulting metabolism might be influenced by the way in which the weight loss was accomplished.

    – The article doesn’t ask hard questions, such as (i) are we too focused on scale weight and ignoring other metrics and what is going on inside our bodies, which may be more important; (ii) isn’t The Biggest Loser another form of fad diet, setting people up to fail in the long-term despite achieving short-term success; (iii) what is this show doing to our overweight population, if it promotes this form of diet (excessive cardio and caloric deficits) as the solution; and (iv) why is there such a continued resistance in our society to looking at health and fitness from a long-term perspective, and instead a constant willingness to fall for every quick solution that is proferred.

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    • NovaFit, you know how to make an entrance. That’s one hell of an insightful and well-considered first post! I’m very glad you decided to de-lurk after all these years.

      I can honestly say I agree with every single one of your points. Again, I’ve not seen the show, but based on the feedback I’ve read today most of my suspicions have been confirmed. It’s not just garbage television, it’s dangerous and highly misleading television.

      Then you’ve got the article in the Times which, as you pointed out, fails to ask any hard questions or do any real journalism. Junk science like the Times article propagates is why the same fat loss myths and misconceptions are believed by the vast majority of people. I still get emails asking me for the best exercise to “tone” abs. I wonder why?

      Thanks again for posting. Please don’t be a stranger. I’d love to read your thoughts on other topics here, and on the forums.

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  6. Do you feel your metabolism has slowed due to your dieting and exercise?

    Also, what do you think the proper caloric deficit should be for someone 50 pounds overweight?

    I will post more on the show later, bottom line, the contestants are encouraged to lift, eat lean protein, and gain muscle, but they are running 3500 calorie deficits a day by doing about 6 hours of LISS type cardio, undoing much of the gains IMHO

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    • I think that, by definition, if you’re in a caloric deficit for a prolonged period of time and, as a result, you wind up at a lower weight, then yes–your metabolism will slow. The idea is to minimize that. Exercise helps, weight training helps, a mild caloric deficit helps.

      The ideal caloric deficit for someone 50 pounds overweight will vary greatly from one individual to the next. There are so many individual factors involved that this is not a question that can be accurately answered without much more information. If there was a pat answer, there wouldn’t be much need for discussion. 🙂

      6 hours of LISS cardio per day is crazy! Especially considering the small amount of calories the contestants consume (so I’ve been told).

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      • For diet, they generally did 7*weight down to 1200. So a 300 pound guy would eat 2100 Kcal. They preached a balanced diet.
        On exercise, they did a 1 hour trainer workout which included lifting, then 4-6 hours of low level cardio. The idea was to build a 3500+ calorie deficit a day. Based on the weight lost, they were pretty diligent in the short term.
        As for heavy lifting, the majority of the contestants are reaLly out of shape, I mean can lift the bar out of shape. For the athletes, they did what you would expect (squat, DL) the trainers had fun with these guys.
        The Dr behind it all was the Dr for the Raiders. He would always comment that building muscle was desirable.
        The Dr also emphasized that 60-90 minutes of exercise a day plus diet monitoring was needed to keep the weight off.

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          • Week 1 was always a bloat week, most larger guys would lose 20-25 pounds. After week 1, average weekly weight loss for a guy was still around 5-10 pounds, only way to do that was huge daily deficits.

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  7. I dont watch much tv, but I did watch a couple episodes of this show several years ago. The training I saw the contestants doing was fairly intense, and included weights, liss, hiit, etc and their diet could probably be considered similar to the final 3 weeks of a bodybuilding contest diet.

    I really don’t have a problem with what I had seen, as far as diet and exercise, though I only watched a couple episodes. Its likely good for television ratings to watch them suffer, so they make it look as awful as possible.

    IMO I think the problem is/was is that, from what I saw, there was no training on how to live post boot camp. Once they have reached an ideal weight, and their metabolism has had a few months to stabilise, they would need to learn how to live back in the real world withpout trainers and on a regular normal diet.

    Initially estimating and monitoring their new BMR, and learning how to hit those calories on a daily basis, while eating a balanced diet with normal foods, and not on a ‘contest’ diet. Learning that having a few beers and a pizza once a week won’t upset the apple cart, but going back to eating 4 big macs every day will. Learning how to keep an ideal body weight with an an hour a day of exercise.

    Like I said, I only watched a few episodes, and maybe they already do this, but if part of their boot camp consisted of taking them to the grocer to learn how to shop, to the kitchen to learn how to cook, and to a few restaraunts to learn how to eat out without going off the rails, addressing some of the emotional reasons why these people have been over eating in the first place and teaching them healthier outlets to manage stress/boredom/emotions/etc, then maybe the success rate would be higher.

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    • The post-transformation transition is a great point. The Times article actually touched on that a little bit (a very little bit):

      “Unfortunately, many contestants are unable to find or afford adequate ongoing support with exercise doctors, psychologists, sleep specialists, and trainers — and that’s something we all need to work hard to change,” he said in an email.”

      That quote was from the show’s doctor, Robert Huizenga.

      I guess that’s one angle. Another is that the program makes things after the show is over extremely difficult on the contestants by putting their bodies in a state that makes maintenance life nearly impossible for most of them. I mean, should people actually need a team of “exercise doctors, psychologists, sleep specialists and trainers” after they lose weight? Even a lot of weight?

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  8. I haven’t read all the comments so this may have been addressed. They tested the participants metabolism years after there show. There was no test before the show and the weight loss. The test site their metabolism is below normal bases on the standard equations. The equations are based on averages. These people probably had slower than average metabolisms to start with contributing to their obesity. No excuse though. We each need to find our calorie in calorie out balance to maintain a healthy weight. I’m lucky I skew to the high side and get to eat well while maintaining. Don’t hate me. 🙂

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