NBC’s The Biggest Loser: Biggest Motivator or Biggest Myth?

NBC’s hit TV show “The Biggest Loser ” has helped overweight and obese people from all over the country lose hundreds of pounds in a matter of months. These contestants apparently, shed the weight through grueling workouts and low-calorie diets. Their dynamic and tough trainers, Jillian Michaels and Bob Harper, along with registered dietitians, push them to succeed and the contestants who meet their ideal weight win the ultimate prize: healthy, skinny bodies, beautiful confidence and role model statuses for the rest of America. The fairytale gets even better -for NBC. In its ninth season, the mega-hit reality show has raked in over 100 million dollars from advertisements, books, workout videos and other endorsement deals. This star-studded phenomenon has just one problem: the show’s techniques are not as glamorous or as safe as you may think.

“The Biggest Loser” season three finalist Kai Hibbard spoke with the CBS early show this week to break the show’s weight-loss myths. While she is grateful for her weight-loss, she says the show “misled the public by claiming a week was not always a week” when it came to how much weight she lost. For example, when she lost 12 pounds in one week, that time-frame may have been longer than advertised.

Hibbard admits she was “dehydrated to manipulate the scales.” This method is quite unsafe as dehydration can cause fatigue, food cravings, constipation, dizziness and lightheadedness, dry skin and in severe cases, death. Another drastic diet tactic? Hibbard ate “only sugar-free jello and asparagus” for days leading up to the finals and claims these low-calorie methods led to an eating disorder and a poor body image. Her husband adds that after the show, she thought coffee was a meal. She has reportedly gained back 70 pounds since she left the show 118-pounds lighter. The National Institutes of Health recommends a weight-loss of one- to two- pounds per week. This average normally indicates a loss of true fat as opposed to lean body stores and water. Yet, for “The Biggest Loser,” one- to two- pounds a week is not good television. But 10 to 12 pounds? Now, those are some good ratings.

In an effort to reach viewers, the contestants are set up to fail from the start. Their food calories do not support their four- to eight-hour daily workouts, which leads to problems such as starvation, a lowered metabolism, energy depletion and emotional disturbances; yet, they are losing weight. The show’s dietitians and trainers ensure that calories ingested are less than their calories expended – the true marker of weight-loss. Coincidentally, the contestants’ fat-loss is never measured. Why? Because most of the weight lost was NOT fat-loss but water, muscle and tissue. The calories eaten are not enough to support their daily activity levels, let alone the grueling exercise they are performing.

In addition, this high-intensity cardio is not even fat-burning cardio. Every person has a certain heart rate range where they efficiently burn fat. Go above this level – where you feel breathless for an extended period of time – and you are no longer burning fat but sugar. Interval training – alternating high heart rate ranges for up to a minute or two with lower heart rate recovery ranges – is great for power, but staying at this level is not appropriate for fat-loss, only muscle-wasting. The contestants’ heart rate ranges for fat-burning are assumed  to be much lower than the heart rates they were forced to maintain during those millions of sprints, jumping jacks and squat thrusts. So the harder the contestants worked, the more calories they burned and the more weight they lost. But most likely, these poor souls were outside of their fat-burning ranges and lost muscle and tissue instead of the coveted fat-loss they so desired.

But not all is bad in “The Biggest Loser” camp. I admit after watching some of the show, I pulled myself out of bed and went for a run, assuming Jillian would think I’m lazy if I just lied around in my sweatpants all evening. And some contestants have maintained a lot of their weight-loss and will continue to praise the show for their successes. First season runner-up Kelly Minner went from 242 lbs. to 163 lbs. by the finale. She has continued to lose weight and is now 140 pounds.

But the truth remains; most of these contestants do not have a happy ending. Season one winner Ryan Benson’s story is another example of the negative consequences of not losing weight slowly and healthily. Benson admits, “I wanted to win so bad that the last ten days before the final weigh-in, I didn’t eat one piece of solid food!…The rules of the show said I couldn’t use drugs to lose weight so I starved myself.” He says he used “The Master Cleanse” diet, a concoction of water mixed with fresh squeezed lemon juice, pure maple syrup and cayenne pepper. Then, 24 hours before the final weigh-in, he admits, “I wore a rubber suit while jogging on the treadmill then spent a lot of time in the steam room.” By the final weigh-in, he indulges, “I was peeing blood.”

Yet, Benson lost 10-13 pounds in days and was 122-pounds lighter. Crowned the show’s first fairy-tale success story, he returned home gaining “32 pounds in five days (through) water weight.” He has since gained much of his weight back since winning the season. Sounds like a successful fairytale, doesn’t it?

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