Why Won’t “Biggest Loser” Contests Die Already?

I have always hated “Biggest Loser” style contests, and yet they remain one of the most-requested wellness campaigns. To be clear, this is what we are trying to replicate in the name of health:

After the first season, participants confessed to resorting to extreme dehydration to lose weight, and the winner, Ryan Benson, told The New York Times that he was urinating blood. He also said that he gained 32 pounds (lbs) in five days after the show ended and he rehydrated himself. Suzanne Mendonca, a contestant on the second season, admitted to eating baby food, wrapping herself in garbage bags to sweat, using the sauna for up to six hours a day, and exercising four hours a day. She has publicly stated that five people were rushed to the hospital during her season and that several people passed out. 

In early 2010, Kai Hibbard, a contestant on the third season, referred to the show as a “fat-shaming disaster” and said that her family and friends staged an intervention because they were concerned about her health before the season three finale. She reported that she developed an eating disorder after three months on the ranch and was eating about 1,000 calories a day while working out for between five to eight hours a day. She has reported that she was told things like, “You’re going to die before your children grow up” and “We’ve picked out your fat-person coffin.” Furthermore, she reported that a trainer told her not to drink the electrolyte-balancing liquids prescribed by an on-site doctor. She also said that one production assistant encouraged another participant to smoke to help her lose weight.

Another contestant on the second season, Mark Yesitis, stated that he lost 17 lbs of water weight before the final weigh-in and described himself as being “probably near death.” He also blamed his gallbladder removal following the show on the rapid weight loss.

Lezlye Donahue, a contestant on the fourth season, claimed that 12 contestants were kept in one room of a psychiatric hospital with no air conditioning or working toilets during her season and that she was forced to gain 40 lbs because she was not “fat enough” before she could appear on the show. She said that her daily food intake consisted of seven asparagus spears and three ounces of turkey. She asserted that she has since gained all of the weight back, lost her job, developed depression, and has extensive medical bills from the physical effects of being on the show.

When season 15 winner Rachel Frederickson weighed in at 105 lbs, after losing 155 pounds, on the season finale, watchers of the show erupted in anger at her weight, which met the standard for “underweight” according to body mass index (BMI) measurement. Still, many people contend that while thin, she looked healthy. Two months later, Jillian Michaels told People magazine that she was “deeply concerned by the negative direction the show has taken” and announced that she was leaving the show. 

Other former contestants have stated that they were kept in their rooms so that they would not leak storylines, that they were harassed and bullied by their trainers and the production team, that they had their laptops “bugged,” and were not allowed to speak to their loved ones for six weeks. Perhaps even most concerning, several former contestants have come forward to admit that they were encouraged to take street drugs during filming. Specifically, Bob Harper and one of his assistants have been accused of providing contestants with “yellow jackets,” Adderall, and Ephedra. In an email to the New York Post, Dr. Huizenga responded that “Nothing could be further from the truth. Contestants are told at the start of the show that there is zero-tolerance for any weight-loss drugs. Urine drug screens and the evaluation of serial weights are repeatedly used for flushing out possible illicit use.”

Side effects of Adderall include stomach pain, loss of appetite, weight loss, mood changes and nervousness, fast heart rate, headache, dizziness, insomnia, and dry mouth. The Food and Drug Administration banned Ephedra in 2006 after several years of fighting the issue in courts. Ephedra can cause severe life-threatening or disabling conditions in some people. Ephedra use is linked to high blood pressure, heart attacks, muscle disorders, seizures, strokes, irregular heartbeat, loss of consciousness, and death. 

The truth about “biggest loser” contests are that:

  • Most people regain the weight as soon as the program ends; studies show that in a disappointing 63 to 80 percent of cases, dieters end up gaining back the weight they lose and often more.
  • They glorify extreme and rapid weight loss, promoting slowed metabolism, potential nutrient deficiency, and increased blood triglycerides.
  • They can lead to very disordered thought patterns about food and body image. It’s not unusual to find that the “team mentality” has turned into a “cult mentality” with people goading each other on to dangerous dieting and exercising practices.
  • They don’t take health conditions and differences in body shape and metabolism into account.
  • They generally promote diets that aren’t evidence-based or sustainable.

A Few Alternatives Worth Considering:

  1. Maintain, Don’t Gain campaign (especially good over Holidays/winter season):
  • Surviving Holiday parties
  • Managing Holiday Stress
  • Sneaking in exercise when traveling
  • 10-minute meal ideas
  • Healthy Holiday recipes or samples
  • Eat This, Not That style tips
  • Loudspeaker announcement to move!
  • End with some sort of resolution campaign
  • “Please don’t tempt me” signs for cubicles

2. Mindful/Intuitive Eating campaign (could call it the UNdiet): Research indicates that non-diet programs have positive and lasting effects on many dimensions of well-being, including improvements in blood lipids, blood pressure, and mood. Examples of weekly topics could be, “Practice Just Right Eating,” “Replace Chaos with Structure,” and “Eat Real Food.” 

3. Go Foods, Slow Foods, and WHOA Foods campaign (traffic light approach to diet)

4. Shop, Cook, Eat campaign

  • Local RD to do grocery store tour or virtual tour
  • Provide menus, grocery lists, prep plans, etc.
  • Cooking demos
  • Incorporate Slow Food and Mindful Eating Principle
  • Making healthful meals that are also kid-friendly
  • Cook once, eat twice (or more)
  • Meal Subscription service as an incentive?
  • Labels and Lingo

5. 50 Days to Fabulous (every day get a different challenge such as Spoon up Soup or Eat Breakfast for Lunch)

6. DASH Your Way to Good Health – The DASH diet does much more than lower blood pressure; it also:

  • Reduces the risk of heart failure by 37%
  • Reduces the risk of heart attack by 19%
  • Reduces the risk of stroke by 24%
  • Reduces the risk of kidney stones by 45%
  • Reduces the risk of developing colon cancer by 20%
  • Encourages weight loss and reduces the risk of developing diabetes

There are many healthful alternatives to “Biggest Loser” contests that teach employees how to eat in the long-term rather than how to win a prize by adopting temporary and dangerous habits. Unless metabolic derangement, mood issues, and lessened productivity sound like good ideas to you, let’s move past this whole “Biggest Loser” thing and embrace a fresh idea of what “wellness” really is.