Psychologist Lydia Turner has written another significant guest blog, this time dissecting the weight loss show The Biggest Loser, and arguing that a weight-based approach can never provide long-lasting health outcomes.
The Biggest Loser: A Danger to Health
The time to expose the dangers of the popular weight loss show The Biggest Loser is overdue. We need to look beyond the show’s manipulative emotionalism at exactly what messages it promotes about health and dealing with weight-related issues.
Here are some of the irresponsible ways the show’s trainers promote weight loss.
- Encouraging contestants to dehydrate prior to weigh-ins – even up to 36 hours beforehand;
- Encouraging weight losses of up to 17 kilos in one week even when it’s well know that such rapid loss is dangerous;
- Making those who are labelled ‘morbidly obese’ run up to 10 kilometres in the summer heat, putting them at risk of heat exhaustion and dehydration – a deadly combination;
- Encouraging contestants to continue intense exercise despite injuries;
- Encouraging contestants to continue intense exercise despite vomiting;
- Putting contestants on a starvation diet of 1000 calories per day – and overlooking those who choose to consume even less than that;
- Berating those who haven’t shed enough kilos at the weigh-ins for “letting down the team” – even when they have already lost more than the recommended average for healthy weight loss per week.
We have seen some of the results. One contestant collapsed two days after filming ended, having lost 40 kilos in 12 weeks. His gallbladder was removed after being rushed to hospital.
Another contestant was hospitalised for low pulse rate as a result of starvation.
Yet another was treated for dehydration. And these are just the cases we’ve heard about.
When contestant John Jeffrey resigned from the Australian show in 2008 fearing someone would die, he wasn’t the only one with this concern. Just last month American trainers Jillian Michaels and Michelle Bridges expressed the same fear.
The Biggest Loser relies solely on weight as the only measure of true ‘progress.’ Even if weight is an accurate indicator of health (which it is clearly not), why wouldn’t The Biggest Loser take into account the fact that women’s menstrual cycles can lead to up five kilos in weight change? Or that muscle weighs more than fat? And why prescribe ‘anorexic’ solutions such as starvation diets, exercise while vomiting, and the public shaming contestants in extreme measures to achieve such results?
It’s not just the dangerous weight loss methods that should worry us. What really disturbs me as a psychologist working in this field, are the messages The Biggest Loser sends to viewers about what it means to exist in a fat body, and how fat people can be justifiably bullied under the guise of health. Even the show’s name promotes assumptions that are widely accepted about people who are fat.
In reality, The Biggest Loser is a show that promotes the socially sanctioned bullying of fat people.
The competitive nature of the show involves pitting people against each other for our voyeuristic entertainment. Positioning contestants alongside comical amounts of food perpetuates the myth that fat people are always eating and need to be taught some ‘discipline.’ The contestants can’t even cover their tummies with a flimsy lightweight top during the weight-in, encouraging viewers to reel in disgust. This show is not far off having the feel of a Victorian freak-show.
The way in which the contestants are portrayed is not much different to how fat people are portrayed by the media in general. Even mainstream news coverage systematically denies fat people identity, as it is protocol not to show their faces and only film their bodies in reports on “obesity.”
Imagine if we did this to any particular race of people. To deny a group of people the right to even be seen, simply because we are conditioned to be repulsed by their bodies, informs us that what we are really dealing with is an issue of human rights.
Morgan Spurlock’s Supersize Me went as far as blacking out the eyes of five-year-olds while they ate chips and cake- at a birthday party.
New ads for Rush Chocolate Milk show a woman who is not fat, drinking full-cream chocolate milk. She is subsequently pulled over by a police officer and treated like a drunk driver. Having demonstrated that she able to walk up and down in a straight line without stumbling, he eventually allows her to drive off – but only after she accepts a new low-fat version of chocolate milk.
Since when did drinking full-cream milk become a crime?
We allow fat people to continually be discriminated against because we incorrectly assume that all people who are fat are eating too much ‘junk’ food and are too lazy to work out. Yet there are many reasons that lead a person to this state – and many naturally sit above the pharmaceutically-funded and arbitrary determination that the maximum “healthy” BMI limit is 25.
The idea that “excess” fat is evidence of negative character traits is incredibly harmful to all of us. Fat people are systematically discriminated against, while those of us who are not fat may find ourselves compromising our health in fear of becoming so.
The shame attached to being fat does not help to promote healthy habits but is a significant predictor of harmful weight loss methods and lack of exercise due to body shame. One fat interviewee on Oprah recently stated she was too ashamed to go to the gym – and why wouldn’t she be? People don’t go where they don’t feel welcome.
In my clinical experience, a fat patient reported being abused while going for a jog. That’s right – abused while engaging in a healthy activity. Other experiences fat people have reported include being told off by other shoppers about the content of their shopping trolleys, seeing themselves as the target of ‘hate speech’ in comments posted in response to articles about “obesity,” and having doctors assume that all of their physical ailments must be due to their fatness rather than properly screening them like any other person.
Given that 84% of health professionals in Australia hold prejudicial views against those who are fat, even accessing health care – a fundamental human right – poses a problem of epic proportions. US Whole Foods CEO John Mackey is actually introducing a system in which people with higher BMIs will pay more for the same groceries than lower-BMI patrons! Yet studies repeatedly show that stigma and shame significantly predict poorer health outcomes.
So why do we keep doing this? Why do we insist on giving fat people a bad time and why do fat people continue to put up with such treatment?
We are continually fed the myth that anyone who exercises regularly and eats ‘right,’ can be within a healthy BMI range. We are fed the myth that body size is simply a matter of ‘energy-in, energy-out.’
With $414m invested into weight loss each year, the truth is that Australians are putting in the effort to lose weight. It’s just that the ‘solutions’ marketed to them aren’t working. And often, even the solutions endorsed by the medical profession become commercialised, as we are now seeing with the pharmaceutically-funded report by Allergan that advocates gastric banding for 14-year old girls.
What most of us are not told is that currently weight loss solutions carry a 98 percent failure rate after two to five years. So what should we do? People who attempt to lose weight hold high hopes that they will be that odd two percent of the population that keeps the weight off.
But more than likely, their bodies will rebel. We’ve seen this happen with the majority of the contestants from the previous seasons of The Biggest Loser already; many of them have reported in the January edition of New Idea that they have already regained weight and are now trying to lose it again – a prime recipe for weight cycling.
The best you can do for yourself is engage in a healthy lifestyle. So that everyday, regardless of body size, you are participating in health-giving activities and feel great about that, rather than chastise yourself for not yet being a certain number on the scales. Using fitness rather than a weight-based approach will liberate us from our culture of disordered eating and fat prejudice.