The recent article in the New York Times about The Biggest Loser has sparked a lot of conversation and debate. Contestants on the show not only gained back the weight lost during the show, but years later have a much slower metabolism. I think it impresses upon us more than just “diets don’t work”, it has left a sting of hopelessness where there was hope. It has taken away the idea that working hard enough will give you back your life.
These emotional words aren’t coming from me, this is how weight loss “success” stories are so often portrayed in the media. Over and over these stories perpetuate the idea that (A) if you care enough and you will work hard and the weight will come off, and (B) if you do this, you’ll get your life back.
Is that what these contestants experienced? No.
The literature in a nutshell: researchers showed that contestants not only gained back the weight, but in the years after the show their resting metabolism has decreased significantly, some of them 500-800 calories per day.
Wow, that’s a shock.
But is it really a huge surprise? We’ve all seen studies show that diets don’t work, but when we see a show like The Biggest Loser it seems to scream “It’s working!” “Diets work if you try hard enough!” “if you really care, you can get results!” Never mind the incredibly grueling physical activity they’re put through day after day is medically ill advised. Never mind the dangerous strain that puts on their cardiovascular system, kidneys, and mental health. Never mind that they had to uproot their entire lives to participate in this “bubble” which leaves them exactly zero support for the transition back into their daily lives.
The Biggest Loser is a crock. It’s unhealthy and unrealistic and pure money-driven sensationalism. I had a client who was formerly on the show talk about how frustrating and disappointing it was that “it didn’t work” and “adjusting back to real life was terrible.”
Which leads us back to that question: now what? Does that mean we should all load up on Cheetos and hot dogs and forget about any health advice we’ve ever been given? Of course not. Should we “give up” on losing weight? Well, it’s certainly time to redefine health. We’ve been told our entire lives that health and weight are inter-related and weight is a primary indicator for health. What if we give up on the weight-focused dieting mentality and pursue health for health’s sake.
In the New York Times article, they call on the pharmaceutical industry to offer hope through medications to suppress hunger cues. I disagree. We need a fundamental change in how we think about health in the first place. Instead of looking for another way to manipulate and control our bodies, we need to look for ways to get better at self-care.
Looking back at your life, you friends’ lives, at the lives of people on The Biggest Loser I think we can see that losing weight comes at a cost. It’s not just the cost of the gym membership, the Weight Watchers membership, the fancy organic food and the dieting books. Believing in the diet myth comes at a much higher cost. I imagine the people on The Biggest Loser lost a lot more than the weight. The research tells us it cost them a chunk of their metabolism. It cost them the time they spent away from their friends, family, and jobs. It cost them the frustration that was sure to come after the false hope the show touts faded away.
The dieting industry and The Biggest Loser are selling the message that hard work and weight loss will lead to skinnier bodies and a happier life. This is certainly not true for those contestants and not true for any of us. The wonderful thing about this research is to give all of us permission to stop blaming ourselves.
It’s time for a change.
This blog post is a product of my many years in the health industry teaching nutrition, fitness and even weight management. I’ve seen first-hand the frustration and soul-sucking effects of the diet mentality. I’ve also worked closely with those suffering from eating disorders and seen the devastating effect food rules and the diet mentality have had on their lives.
These thoughts and others are the product of much mulling and obsessing about this question “What Now?” A book that is in the works.