This past Tuesday, I was one of many who watched the finale of NBC’s The Biggest Loser. I was also one of many whose jaw literally dropped when the winner, Rachel Fredrickson took stage for her final reveal. However, unlike most, I was actually quite horrified by nearly every contestant’s dramatic weight loss. And actually, I’ve been rather horrified by the show in general. As each season has progressed, contestants seem to lose more and more weight. The challenge to out-lose the last season’s contestants seems to be raising the stakes. It’s not only disturbing, it’s unhealthy and a terrible way to promote weight loss to a country of people who already struggle with extreme dieting issues.
Overweight and obesity are major health problems in America, there’s no arguing that fact. 69.2% of American adults are overweight or obese. Almost 36% are obese. Over 18% of children aged 6 to 19 are considered obese, and over 12% of 2-5 year olds are obese (1).
On the other hand, eating disorders are another horrifyingly disturbing health problem in this country. Up to 24 million Americans suffer from an eating disorder. About 20% of people with anorexia nervosa will die from complications related to their disorder. We have extreme ideals in America. My guess is that most people would not recognize an “obese” person because it is so common to see people of that weight classification. Similarly, we don’t recognize when someone is underweight because we tend to idealize people who are “too” thin. A shocking 42% of 1st-3rd graders want to be thinner and 81% of 10 year olds are afraid of being fat (2).
To put this bluntly, we are raising obese children who are afraid of being “fat,” and who then learn to dislike their body figure, feeling shame and embarrassment regarding their weight. They are taught that being skinny or muscular is “ideal” and dieting is the way to get that figure. Over 50% of teenage girls and about 1/3 of teenage boys use unhealthy methods of weight loss, such as skipping meals, fasting, smoking cigarettes, vomiting, and/or taking laxatives (2).
The Biggest Loser gathers together a group of obese individuals who are “unhealthy” and generally have a history of struggling with their weight and force them to lose mass amounts of weight in a very short period of time. The “biggest loser” wins money. This season’s winner, Rachel Fredrickson, lost 155 pounds in just 5 months. This equates to about 1 pound per day, which is quite a lot of weight! If you go by the standard way of thinking (not that I entirely agree with this, but it gives you an idea of how much a person has to burn to actually lose this kind of weight), that would mean that she was burning 3,500 calories every single day. That means that through dieting and exercise, her body was in a deficit of 3,500 calories every day for 5 months. That is extreme. For a super rough estimate, I’d say that a 130 pound person (not taking into account multiple factors, such as lean body mass or gender), would have to jog nearly 9 hours each day to burn 3,500 calories. He/she could exercise less by also decreasing their caloric intake. So maybe they decrease their intake by 500 calories…this still means that they would have to jog for over 7 hours each day. Not to mention that losing such a drastic amount of weight in a short period of time puts an individual at risk for many complications, including loss of bone mass and lean body mass, an increase in bone marrow fat, heart conditions, electrolyte imbalances, and obviously psychological issues.
Those involved with the show generally try to defend its purpose, touting that the show is meant to inspire others to live a healthier lifestyle. Healthier?? By what, drastically losing large amounts of weight in a short period of time? Or by pushing themselves so hard in the gym that they are crying and vomiting? Or by limiting their daily caloric intake so that their bodies are not even being supported in vital functioning? Or by recommending “healthy” foods, such as Subway sandwiches, low fat dairy, and Progresso soups? To top it off, trainer Julian usually attempts to “help” and “heal” contestants’ past struggles by screaming at them until they break down and cry. As if one moment of tears is the magical cure for their lifetime of weight struggles… The contestants actually ridicule their former selves. This doesn’t seem like a positive weight-loss journey to me.
I am biased. I am negative when it comes to the entire format of the show. I am a registered dietitian and beyond that an opinioned American who witnesses the imbalance of health in this country. We live at extremes—obese or anorexic (or both!!)—and I think this show is the perfect example of the problems we are promoting in America. Don’t fool yourself—little girls (and boys) watch this show and they watched Rachel laugh at her “fat” self and praise her new emaciated body. Those 10 year old girls who are afraid of being fat watched this episode and prior episodes and learned to over-exercise, diet, and lose weight fast. They will not ask for help or tell anyone what their plans are in regards to losing weight. But when they do lose some weight, boys will notice them and adults will likely praise their efforts and “strong will power.”
Our country isn’t going to change overnight. That can’t happen, just as we can’t lose weight overnight. But what we can do—each one of us—is stop supporting unhealthy messages, products, and companies. We can stop supporting processed foods by not purchasing them (supply and demand!). We can stop giving The Biggest Loser our ratings. We can stop buying magazines that idealize thin girls and ridicule those who don’t live up to our thin standards. We can stop teaching unhealthy USDA guidelines to our nation of adults and kids. We can support a more natural lifestyle that includes eating real food. There’s no need to understand everything about food labels; glance at the ingredients. Too many? Can’t understand or pronounce most of them? Put it down and replace it with something that doesn’t even have a label in the first place! Don’t worry about fat free or low fat or even reduced fat products; purchase real food with less preservatives and you’re likely to feed your body and your children’s bodies in a balanced manner. Understand what foods are proteins, carbs, and fats. Eat a good balance of these foods at each meal. Be a good example for yourself and your kids. Eat when you are actually hungry and stop when you have had a realistic portion. Eat treats on special occasions, not daily. Enjoy food without fear or guilt. Disconnect what you eat from the shape and/or size of your body. Focus on the full picture of life, including body movement and relaxation.
Yes, I could go on and on and on and on… But I will end this post for now. I can’t express enough how passionate I am about this topic. I am so passionate about the health of America and how important it is to create balance—not weight loss or gain. I hate when people come to me and just want to focus on weight loss. I will tell you what I tell them: to achieve true health and happiness, we must heal from the inside-out, not the outside-in.
Until next time, healthy, happy, balanced eating and living xo. I leave you with my love and hopes for healing us all in America and across the world <3
1.) CDC. Obesity and Overweight. Nov. 21, 2013.
2.) ANAD. Eating Disorder Statistics. 2014.