NYT on The Biggest Loser: “Health Can Take A Back Seat”

From The New York Times‘ article on The Biggest Loser today:

Doctors, nutritionists and physiologists not affiliated with “The Biggest Loser” express doubt about the program’s regimen of severe caloric restriction and up to six hours a day of strenuous exercise, which cause contestants to sometimes lose more than 15 pounds a week.

At least one other contestant has confessed to using dangerous weight-loss techniques, including self-induced dehydration. On the first episode of the current season, two contestants were sent to the hospital, one by airlift after collapsing from heat stroke during a one-mile race.

I don’t watch the show, so the fact that contestants ended up in hospital was news to me.  I was pleased to see the Times got into a bit more detail on specific risks, stating that:

Rapid weight loss can cause many medical problems, including a weakening of the heart muscle, irregular heartbeat and dangerous reductions in potassium and electrolytes.

The Times also quotes the waiver contestants have to sign to be on the show, including that they believe themselves to be “in excellent physical, emotional, psychological and mental health.”   If they really believe that, why do I hear the show showcases whining about “getting my life back”  and “hating how I used to be”?  Hello?

I also thought this was hysterical:

Getting contestants to talk openly about the environment of the program is difficult. Shortly after a reporter started contacting former contestants to interview them about their experiences, a talent producer on the series sent an e-mail message to many former contestants reminding them that “serious consequences” could ensue if they ever talked to a reporter without the show’s permission.

To do so could subject them to a fine of $100,000 or $1 million, depending on the timing of the interview, according to the e-mail message, which was obtained by The New York Times. The show’s producers did provide an opportunity to interview several former contestants, but the interviews were conducted with an NBC publicist listening in.

Way to come off as if NBC, the producers and medical advisor have something to hide!

28 thoughts on “NYT on The Biggest Loser: “Health Can Take A Back Seat”

  1. The fact that people consider “The Biggest Loser” to be in any universe okay to watch has astounded me for years. Seriously, when the show premiered, I was literally starving myself to lose weight and even then I got that it was fucked up. And yet SO MANY seemingly reasonably people have been like “Well, I guess it’s a little bad how they do things, but it’s so positive and inspiring!!” I’m glad it’s finally getting some negative publicity . . . if it sticks.

  2. What about the emotional problems that this sort of regimen can cause? Spending 24 hours a day for weeks and months on end doing nothing but dieting, exercising, and thinking about dieting and exercising isn’t exactly healthy.

  3. Of course they have something to hide. They don’t want anyone to know how they’re endangering lives on their show, all for ratings. The show is supposed to be about helping people, but it’s about ratings and making money, and if people are harmed in the process, well, that’s just collateral damage that those people knew could happen and didn’t have to do if they didn’t want to. Which doesn’t take into account all the fat-phobia that fat people deal with on a daily basis and how that affects them and can push them into doing dangerous things in order to stop the hate.

  4. Yah know, I used to wonder how some stupid conspiracy theories survived long enough to actually propagate. The Black Vans @ WTC Pre 9/11 / US Missile / Govt Demolition Theories. The Lunar Landing Filmed on a Sound Stage Theory. The Hiroshima / Nagasaki A-bomb Hoax (No. Really. Look it up). I mean, how could people actually believe some of this stuff? Then along comes something like TBL and despite all previous evidence, despite KNOWN medical facts, and even despite common sense which one would think might tell them otherwise. People are still convinced that a) The producers of this show might be interested in anything besides their ratings b) that this show has anything to do with healthy / safe / good health practices.

    TBL not practicing safe weight loss? Get outta town. My mind; it boggles.

    Not over the possibility that TBL is damaging and may, one day, end up killing somebody in the name of entertainment. But that it takes a NYTimes investigative article to even call it into question. Crazier still? Even if the DO end up killing somebody, not only will there probably be people out there clamoring for info on next seasons contestants, but there probably won’t be any shortage of applicants waiting to sign-up. I can just see the Memorial Segment now; CUE; emotive music. CUE: slow-mo montage of contestant / victim striving to ‘change their lives’. CUT TO: Trainers and team mates crying and hugging. FADE TO BLACK. . . . . VOICE OVER; Next week on, THE BIGGEST LOSER!!!. . . . .

  5. Ironic that this article came out, since I just told my mother over the phone that my 81 year-old grandfather (her father) should not go on the show (she suggested he should because he doesn’t get enough exercise). First of all, I don’t expect an 81 year-old, even if they’re able-bodied, to be forced into any type of exercise. Second, I told my mom the show is a scam because of the things the contestants are made to do and cited this article. She didn’t believe me.

    The tide may be starting to turn, but slowly. Even some people on the QVC message boards (I really don’t shop QVC, but like to read the boards for fun) balked at TBL’s tactics, in response to complaints about QVC having Jillian Michaels shill weight-loss products on the channel due to her potty mouth and belligerent attitude.

  6. Gee, I wonder. How could they possibly be endangering fat people’s health by forcing them to work out far more than anyone ever should in a day and not eat much at the same time?

    It took watching the show once to realize it was disgusting, dangerous and highly irresponsible.

  7. I never watched it either but I knew that anything billed as a race to lose weight couldn’t be healthy. In the name of prize money I knew they would do silly things to lose more weight. and even when I was an athlete I couldn’t work out 6 hours a day. Craziness!

  8. I don’t think it’s the six hours of working out that’s harmful–it’s the dietary restriction, but even more the WATER restriction. Most people in decent health can handle that kind of physical exertion (6hr/day) with the proper nutritional support, sleep and hydration. Otherwise no one would ever hike the Appalacian Trail or climb Everest.

    What scares me is seeing those contestants drinking nothing and trying to dehydrate themselves into that last 5 pounds of weight loss. That *will* kill someone on their show one day.

  9. Otherwise no one would ever hike the Appalacian Trail or climb Everest.

    That’s true, but how many people exersize 6 hours/day most days for months or even years? And how healthy is it for the few that do so? And the message seems to be that fat people/ former fat people should do these extreme workouts for the rest of their lives. Also, I do not know how difficult to hike the Appalachian trail is, but there is a huge difference between strenuous and less strenuous activities. My grandparents were farmers and I am pretty sure they did physical work for many hours a day every day (since my grandpa was born in 1907, there was quite a lot of manual labor for many years). However, while they (and actually almost all the farmers I know – it is pretty hard work even nowadays) had hip, back and knee problems they usually worked at a steady but not extremely fast pace from what I know. That’s different from, say, six hours of running per day.

    However, I do agree that water restriction (and to a lower level calorie restriction) is a far bigger problem.

    • Sannanina–

      So, I’m looking at the PCT in a year or two so I can speak somewhat to what it means physically–

      It’s not something anyone I know of does long-term (and even doing it short term will eventually start to make your starting condition *go downhill*), but doing the Appalacian or PCT is 18-20 miles a day, every day, 6-7 days a week, for 5-8 hours a day, for 4-6 months. Most of that is going to be cardio or anaerobic, depending on the day and your starting condition. And people finish in pretty fantastic health, from what I’ve seen. Of course they also drink multiple gallons of H2O a day and eat a pretty enormous amt of calories (a girlfriend of mine took to eating whole sticks of butter, straight, on her days in town).

      As for TBL, my impression is that the contestants don’t run 6 hrs/day, they do a smaller # of hours working at their maximum HR and the rest at a lower intensity activity. So I can see that part of it being fine IF the contestant were training on a proper gradient. However, the injuries (stress fractures, for the most part), seem to be the result of classic overtraining.

      • Also, my using Everest as an example was kind of misplaced. That’s one of the activities where you finish with fewer brain cells, worse physical condition than you start with, and lucky to be alive with all your limbs. (I hate mountaineering, can we tell?)

        I always though mountaineering was one of those things the FA movement should use to point to the fact that extreme athletes put their lives at risk every day, and no one says we shouldn’t give *them* health coverage….

  10. The worst of it is knowing that when the first contestant does die, the reaction won’t be ‘this show is dangerous’ but rather a sage shaking of heads as ‘experts’ intone that the reason (s)he died was because (s)he waited too long to make a Healthy Lifestyle Change.

    • Yup.

      I’ve one seen one episode, and I was disgusted. One of the contestants had apparently been rushed to the hospital with heat stroke in a previous episode, and it was all about how her being so fat was the cause of it.

      She was the smallest contestant on the show at that point. If being fat caused heat stroke, then I don’t see why she would have been the one to get it, but they didn’t bother to acknowledge that.

      And, there was obviously NO consideration given to the idea that maybe, just maybe, putting somebody on a starvation diet and then forcing them to exercise for hours and hours each day might lead to dehydration, which is a genuine cause of heat stroke.

      I was so infuriated that they were blaming her health problem on her fat rather than looking at the very, very obvious ways in which the regime the show had her on could have caused it that I had to turn it off.

      • Argh. I have had heat exhaustion. I’ve also noticed I’m MORE likely to get it when I’m taking antihistamines, am more active, and not getting enough water.

        But of course, if the people on the show thought about “dehydration” that might make them think about things they don’t like to think about. How uncomfortable.

      • I find it amazing how you can speak with such certainty about the BL. Yet, you’ve only watched one episode. The episode in which you are criticizing was day one. The contestants had not started any diet or exercise regiment. The contestant walked less than a mile and collapsed. The only time that I have seen someone have a problem with dehydration was at the begging. I watch the BL and I know that they are always talking about the importance of drinking a lot of water, in fact if you don’t drink enough water then your body will retain the water and cause you to gain weight. That seems to be counter productive to staying in the game. Also, even though the contestants are on a caloric restricted diet they have a day each week where they eat with out restriction. I am not saying that the program and all that they do is perfect, but some of what has been said in the comments is simply not factual or at the very least it is out of context.

  11. I have never watched this show except for so called highlights or whatever but always thought it was really really wack. It is freakin abusive and scary as hell. “Entertainment”? Only in America. If they were targeting any other group the show would never have survived, but it’s living proof that weight discrimination is societally acceptable. Ugh! I like “X-Weighted”; it’s Canadian, :) and not so harsh. The trainer’s still a bit of a dorkus, i’d like to beat him with his own, um, barbell, but overall it’s a lot more realistic.
    That said, is this kind of program ever realistic, or entertaining? I feel so Amish sometimes.

  12. I saw one episode, out of morbid curiosity. They had all 16 contestants get off their bus and run a full mile in the (summer, LA) heat with no drinking water in sight. It seemed like standard boot camp fair until one of the women fell on the ground and couldn’t get up. Instead of, say, calling an ambulance, the other contestants “helped her finish” by dragging her/helping her crawl the rest of the way.

    Also, one guy was told that he had type 2 diabetes because he wasn’t exercising enough. Because, yeah, it had nothing to do with his sugar intake or anything vaguely medical like that. Diet company propaganda is gross.

  13. I must fess up that I watched TBL “where are they now” special the other day. I was very curious to see if there would be anyone from the first 3 seasons on the show (that would be someone who kept the weight off for 5+ years). I didn’t see anyone, but truth be told, I kept changing the channel because the sobbing about “getting my life back” was really getting on my nerves (so much for sacrificing for the sake of science ;)

    I did notice that a lot of the people who were from the earlier seasons had become fitness professionals in one form or another. I have no problem with that. I love sports and wouldn’t mind spending my days at a gym being a trainer or coach, but… the idea that someone who has other strengths, other gifts, or just other interests doing that just to be thinner really bugs me. I’d really hate it if my dad’s excellent cardiologist had decided to be a personal trainer instead of a doctor just to keep her ass a size 8.

    I’m torn on the whole, “is it ok to watch this stuff?” question. On the one hand, they’re adults and if they want to volunteer to be on TBL or Survivor or whatever other schlock TV show will give them 15 minutes of fame, it’s none of my nevermind. On the other hand, I do question how independent a choice a fat person can make in our fat hating society. But then again, society is misogynistic, but it still grates my cheese when someone says that women therefore can’t make a fully free choice to be stay at home moms… it’s all way to sticky and complex for me to unravel while clicking the remote looking for a new episode of Inspector Lewis (we’re still missing an episode here in the US… sooooo sad, I have a mad crush on Lawrence Fox).

    I will say that, now, having seen that chick Jillian in action I’m stunned she’s still breathing. I woulda sat my fat ass on her until she turned blue, but then I don’t think I’d be very nice if I tried to work out all day on no food.

  14. I sporadically watch Biggest Loser, but mostly in a wow-this-show-is-from-bizarro-world, agog kind of way. In addition to multiple contestants having to go to the hospital, I believe they have at least one stress fracture most seasons as well. This is health?

    And if the producers were actually concerned about the players’ weight loss, they’d let all of them stay on the show the entire season instead of forcing the other players to vote someone off the show every week. Rather than weight loss, the show is about drama and strategizing.

  15. I openly admit to having watched the first 2 or 3 seasons of TBL before losing interest. I got through Season 1 before I realized that it was rather ridiculous.(What? I hadn’t found FA until long after I stopped watching.)

    The average person is not going to have 5-6 hours to spend exercising everyday. Hell, my sister can barely fit in 30 minutes, and she’s single with 2 teenagers and works at home.

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