The reality TV show “The Biggest Loser” sends patients an unhealthy and unrealistic message about weight loss, a researcher said here.
The message that overweight people can and should lose significant amounts of weight in a short period of time is unhealthy and makes it seem that extreme dieting, plus hours of daily exercise, are what heavy people should strive for, Natalie Ingraham, MPH, of the University of California San Francisco, told attendees at the American Public Health Association meeting.
Ingraham and her colleagues studied the “cultural ideologies about fat, fitness, and the body” that they believe are addressed on the popular TV show.
“The Biggest Loser” contestants live in relative isolation on a ranch in California, where they exercise for many hours a day, cut calories, and compete in challenges to see who can drop the most weight. A contestant who fails in the challenges runs the risk of being kicked off the show.
While at the ranch, contestants have access to exercise facilities, fitness trainers, and meals prepared by chefs.
While Ingraham eventually hopes to assess 12 episodes from seven seasons of the show, her early findings revealed that the show stigmatizes people who are heavy or overweight and suggests that the contestants seek redemption through drastic weight loss — up to 100 lbs in one television season.
But the show rarely depicts contestants eating or focuses much on healthy food choices. It also rarely follows up with contestants from past seasons, Ingraham said.
Ingraham told MedPage Today that the show promotes unrealistic expectations about the weight loss process. For example, most physicians recommend that overweight patients safely lose one or two pounds per week, but a patient may tell the doctor “A contestant on ‘The Biggest Loser’ lost 50 pounds in a few weeks,” she added.
Ingraham’s continuing research will include a statistical analysis of weight loss results and a content analysis of remarks made by trainers and contestants during the show.
Ingraham is an advocate of the grassroots “Health at Every Size” (HAES) movement, which focuses on healthy living regardless of a person’s size.
She spoke at a presentation on “The Politics of Obesity,” sponsored by APHA’s committee on women’s rights. All the panelists advocated for the HEAS approach and argued that fat should not be used as a proxy for health. Instead, other biomarkers, such as cholesterol levels and psychologic well being, should inform the definition of “health.”
“What we think of as obesity has been as much socially constructed as medically constructed,” said panelist Sonya Satinsky, PhD, MPH, of the University of Kansas in Kansas City.
The panelists also spoke out against:
- The use of terms such as “overweight” and “obese”
- The use of the body mass index (BMI) as a way to label people as “fat”
- The use of national obesity reduction and prevention programs that vilify large kids and adults
According to the HAES website, the nation has “lost the war on obesity” because making fat the number one enemy of health hasn’t resulted in a slimmer nation. However, it has resulted in the “collateral damage” of preoccupation with one’s body, eating disorders, and discrimination, according to HAES.
While the APHA panel drew a huge crowd, many other sessions at the meeting focused on anti-obesity strategies, such as healthier school lunches and creating more walkable neighborhoods.