For anyone who watches The Biggest Loser, or the news, you have probably seen controversy over this season’s winner, Rachel Fredrickson. Standing between 5’4” and 5’5”, her final weigh-in registered 105 pounds, 155 pounds lighter than when she began the show at 260 pounds. She dropped 45 pounds between the final weigh-in and the season finale, bringing her to a reported size 0/2. People are now asking if she went too far, and if she is too skinny. In order to find the answer to these questions, it is best to look at the route of her driving factor for that weight loss: the show itself.
Is The Biggest Loser true to life? Of course not, it is a game show made to entertain. Like many other game shows, it takes people of an extreme nature and sets a goal with a prize at the end. Jeopardy is made up of people with a plethora of knowledge (albeit some of it seemingly useless). Survivor is a game of extreme, yet controlled conditions for contestants to compete as the most able bodied in “the wilderness”. Biggest Loser, now 15 years running, is a show designed around contestants with extreme obesity. These contestants are pitted against each other to win a grand prize of $250,000 dollars for losing the most weight.
The Biggest Loser is filmed in a controlled environment where nutritionists and trainers surround the contestants. There are doctors to tell them what physical diseases the contestants have, or are at risk for, based on their weight and body composition. The contestants spend several hours per day exercising. In many seasons we also catch a glimpse of a cook who is there for much of the time doing the meal preparation for the contestants. For all intents and purposes, this is an ideal environment in which to launch a healthy lifestyle because it is completely controlled.
While one goal of the show is to inspire the audience to take control of their life, the show sets unrealistic expectations for real world situations. In the real world, most people have family, social obligations, and work. This means their food is not as controlled and they do not have the hours to dedicate to working out that the contestants have. Furthermore, the contestants have one week between each weigh-in with the exception of the finale. Each week we see contestants losing up to fifteen pounds (and sometimes more!), and trainers who are disappointed in those who “only” lose two or three pounds. These elements set-up unrealistic expectations for the real world. I have had clients complain about losing “only three pounds this week.” In reality, it is healthy to lose one to two pounds per week – anything faster can set your body up for heart failure, and other negative physical side effects.
With the show focusing more on the contestants’ workouts then it does on their food, people assume that working out has more of an effect on weight loss than diet. This could not be further from the truth as diet has much more influence over your health than working out. Working out expedites results when combine with healthy eating. The hours spent at the ranch working out leads to overtraining injuries. Signs of overtraining include, but are not limited to: elevated resting heart rate, increased susceptibility to infections, insomnia, increased incidence of injuries, decreased appetite, and depression.
People are quick to scream that Rachel went too far and is clearly anorexic. Did she simply trade one eating disorder for another, and is it helpful for people to jump to that conclusion? Overeating disorders, such as binge eating disorder, lead to being overweight or obese. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), being overweight or obese can lead to coronary heart disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, stroke, sleep apnea, osteoarthritis, infertility, and death.
According to the eating disorder foundation, risks of restrictive eating disorders, such as anorexia or bulimia, include magnesium and/or calcium deficiency, dehydration, low blood pressure, low heart rate, heart failure, osteoporosis, heart arrhythmias, and death. If she truly is suffering from, or suffered from, one of these extremes, a therapist is likely more beneficial then a frenzy of social media judgment.
Is this fit-shaming? Honestly, there is no way to say for certain. Unless Rachel or The Biggest Loser producers share what her diet and exercise regiment was for the last few months before the finale, there is no way of knowing whether or not she achieved her weight loss in a healthy manner. She certainly looks small, especially considering where she began; however, as she was overweight her whole life there is no real way to see what her natural body shape is supposed to be. Some people are naturally small when they are eating the right kinds of food. To automatically assume she went from one extreme to another certainly belittles all of the hard work she did put forth to reach her goals. In the end, her goal was to win $250,000 dollars, which she did.
How I Would Improve The Show
Psychological intervention. In order to become morbidly obese, and by listening to many of the stories these contestants recount, they typically have a psychological issue that needs to be addressed. Food is being used as a coping mechanism, yet in 15 years we only see the trainers as therapists and never hear any mention of counseling on the ranch. Adding psychological intervention would lead to more long-term success by addressing the real problems that led to the weight gain, and finding other long-term coping mechanisms. Trading out food for exercise is certainly not the healthiest road to recovery, mentally or physically.
Slowly Reacclimate Contestants Into Society. There is no program to reacclimate the contestants into society once they are off the ranch. These contestants go from a completely controlled environment with trainers, nutritionists, and doctors, to an environment of anarchy with no adjustment period. On the ranch, the contestants are not accustomed to having their family around while they try to eat healthy. They are not used to having work calls and everyday stressors while making time for working out and preparing meals. Ideally there is a support system at home to help them with these challenges, but that is not always the case. Setting them up with a trainer, nutritionist, doctor, and/or a way to check back in at the ranch until they are back on their feet may help them maintain the habits they learned at the ranch.
Judge Success by Body Fat Percentage, Not Weight. “Muscle weighs more than fat.” Although a pound is a pound, muscle takes up less space than fat. Therefore, two people could be the same weight, with one person looking much smaller due to an increase in muscle mass. Body fat percentage indicates the percentage of your body that is made up of fat. This is a much more accurate indication of health than weight or the archaic BMI. A muscular person’s BMI may indicate that they are overweight, but their body fat percentage indicates he or she is an athlete. Right now, the show is designed to punish those who gain muscle, while rewarding those who drop a lot of weight quickly, which would indicate a loss of muscle. Muscle is extremely important in everyday tasks and much more necessary than attaining a low weight.
Put More Emphasis On Real Food. Most of the “nutrition advice” given on The Biggest Loser, is in the form of an overt advertisement for a food company. That means, most of the “advice” is actually being paid for and the general public is eating it up! These companies are showing food-like products and diet foods as being the most sound food for weight loss, when in reality the easiest thing to do is just eat real food. Real food is anything that comes from the earth and is not packaged. It is much easier than counting calories, fat, and grams in general, yet appears to be a difficult concept to grasp. Eating real, whole food is in no way more expensive then the medical bills that will accumulate once the body shuts down after eating too many years of overly processed “food”.
While everyone is debating whether or not Rachel’s rapid weight loss is right, no one is batting an eye at the actors losing a lot of weight in a short time frame for roles. Their job is to look the part, and the media rarely gets into a frenzy over the physical toll this can take a on a man’s body. Christian Bale was applauded for his rapid weight loss for his role in The Machinist, because it showed his dedication. Matthew McConaughey was also appraised as dedicated for his weight loss to film Dallas Buyers Club. Actresses seem to only get recognition for their rapid weight gain for movie roles. Is this a women’s issue? Maybe, maybe not. What I observe is that all of these actors getting paid to lose weight are appraised, yet, when Rachel lost 155 pounds to win $250,000 for a game, the media lost its mind.