It's a show about fitness that keeps people dumb and in the dark about getting fit. Here's the big fat truth about The Biggest Loser.
Here's what you need to know...
- The Biggest Loser is a show about fitness that teaches people nothing about fitness.
- The show tells uninformed viewers that exercise must be debilitating and that scale weight is the only thing that matters.
- The show keeps people ignorant about the metabolic impact of building muscle and sustained fat loss.
- The Biggest Loser overemphasizes cardio, making its overweight followers injury-prone, metabolically weak, and skinny fat at best.
- The show does have some redeeming factors for already-fit viewers.
Non-Advice From The Biggest Loser
It's like The Biggest Loser creators got together and said, "How can we make a show about fitness without offering any useful fitness advice?"
Or maybe the producers had the informative content edited out and replaced with more "meaningful" lessons, like becoming motivated by love, celebrating life, and reaching for the stars. As if remembering these sickeningly sweet clichés will make fat people any less fat.
After the latest season, the only concrete tips I could recall were the following: drink more water, eat at Subway, wear a fitness bracelet that pesters you into taking a walk, and let go of the old you... whatever that means.
Time to Un-Learn the Lies
Since there's not a lot of real information dispersed about increasing your metabolism, building muscle, or becoming leaner permanently, out-of-shape viewers only learn from what they see: obese people being forced to work out in excess.
Between the show's premise itself, the overuse of bad metaphors, the scripted product placement, and Bob's harem pants, it's all a little cringe-worthy.
And while it does a great job of giving us some inspiring touchy-feely moments, there are four egregious lies that The Biggest Loser needs to kill.
Lie #1 – Exercise has to be excruciating in order to be effective.
The show perpetuates the idea that unfit people must go to extremes in order to transform their bodies.
This is great for TV: grown adults laying on the ground crying, having rage-filled outbursts, falling off treadmills, puking, and getting injured. It's a contest after all – a contest meant to shock and entertain the audience.
The problem? Unfit viewers assume that this is what they'll actually have to do to lose weight and get healthy.
This would be like telling the weight training community that they must follow the diet Mr. Olympia uses the week before his show in order to get lean and stay lean – too extreme, unhealthy, and totally unsustainable.
How many of these uninformed viewers just think, "If that's what it takes, screw it and pass the chips."
The Biggest Loser advocates an all-or-nothing approach. It tells the viewer you must either have an agonizing workout that requires medical supervision or don't bother trying. You must train on the brink of injury or it's not worth the effort.
This is so false it's revolting. If unfit people knew the reality of most of our weight training workouts, they wouldn't just be interested in getting started, they'd be able to stick with it and eventually become stronger and leaner.
I'm not saying our workouts are easy. I'm saying they're appropriate.
The show completely misses the opportunity to teach participants and viewers about rewarding workouts that build muscle and the metabolic advantage that comes along with them.
But of course, slower, sustainable progress doesn't make for a good TV show, so instead we get obese people on Slip 'N Slides and sand-hills where they can twist ankles and tear ACLs for ratings.
The best way for overweight people to transform is to weight train regularly, walk every single day, and gradually start replacing sugar and obvious junk with home cooked meals, satiating protein, and more food from Mother Nature.
They'd also need to learn to cope with their emotions in non-food ways, and eat meals at the dining table rather than at the wheel.
It's a process that wouldn't make for great TV but at least the contestants would end up with results they could keep.
Lie #2 – Scale weight is the ultimate barometer for success.
The Biggest Loser is a game of who can lose the greatest percentage of weight on a week to week basis for six months. Success is determined by nothing but the scale.
The all-or-nothing mentality rears its ugly head at contestant weigh-ins: You must either lose several pounds of weight or your effort was all for naught. Contestants hang their heads in shame after losing "only" three pounds in a week.
This show perpetuates the quick-fix mentality that makes overweight people do stupid things in order to see the scale go down temporarily. It's not unlike the behaviors of anorexics and bulimics who sometimes use laxatives and diuretics to see their weight drop.
When rapid weight loss is prized over gradual but permanent weight loss, it keeps viewers ignorant about what they can do to slowly lose weight and keep it off.
The show's trainers must hate this aspect of their jobs because they know that the pursuit of muscle is what will help keep the fat off permanently.
Yet they can't possibly help the contestants gain it because building muscle is a hindrance to rapid weight loss. Put a few pounds of metabolism-boosting muscle on your trainees and they'll go home.
There are many ways to make progress that have nothing to do with weight. Emphasizing it negates the achievements that don't always show up on the scale. Example: Building muscle and improving body composition.
Body comp is the ratio of lean body mass to fat mass. As you build muscle, your body composition improves. As you lose fat, your body composition improves. You become a leaner person.
But if you build muscle at the same time you're losing fat, the scale may take its time going down, and it may even momentarily stay the same. Does that mean that you're making zero progress? Absolutely not.
Not once has The Biggest Loser addressed body composition, and as long as scale weight is top priority, it never will.
Behavioral changes are another example of progress that doesn't show up immediately on the scale. Is it not a win if a person makes it a habit to walk every day instead of sitting on the couch? Is it not a win if a person becomes consistent with preparing healthy meals instead of eating boxes of cookies?
Behavioral changes eventually result in weight loss, but they're shat on every time weight becomes the overriding goal.
The scale is unpredictable. Simple biological things like water retention, constipation, and muscle glycogen can all make body weight fluctuate dramatically.
If I want to lose ten pounds in five days all I have to do is deplete my muscle glycogen by avoiding carbs. My hard-earned glutes and delts will look flat as hell and my workouts will suck, but the scale will say that I'm 143 instead of 153. Do you think weighing ten pounds less actually makes me a fitter person?
The scale is a dumb device for measuring progress. It doesn't know the difference between fat weight, water weight, muscle, and poop.
Improving your body composition and behaviors are a win regardless of what the scale says. But a show titled, The Biggest Behavioral Changes that Eventually Result in Weight Loss just isn't as catchy.
Lie #3 – Effective workouts must involve tons of cardio.
How much of an impact can the foot, ankle, hip, and knee joints handle when 300 to 500 pounds comes crashing down on them repeatedly?
Most viewers know forcing obese people to run on treadmills and jump around doing plyo is the most idiotic thing you could do as a trainer. But what viewers don't know is that excess cardio doesn't even pay off. It's a misapplied tool for long-term leanness.
Confirm this for yourself: Look up the contestants from former seasons. Most who've been "successful" at keeping the weight off are still skinny fat. They're not lean. Why? Because they've been taught to prioritize cardio over weight training. They're not building any muscle, so they're squishy at best, obese again at worst.
There's one former contestant who's become lean and muscular. He did so by turning to bodybuilding instead of marathons.
The truth about excess cardio doesn't matter to The Biggest Loser. No matter how many injuries contestants rack up during the show, or how overweight they get after the show, The Biggest Loser won't be discontinuing the jogging myth anytime soon.
First, they've gotta keep those Planet Fitness treadmills in the limelight. Second, The Biggest Loser hosts a half marathon, 10K, 5K, and "fun run" across multiple cities, where they bank a lot of cash and keep the cardio myth rolling.
Overuse injuries are hard to fend off with running – even if you're lean. They're inevitable if you're obese. And if you're a fitness newb, the last thing you need is an easy excuse to make you go back to being sedentary.
Former contestants have come forward saying they were injured while training at the ranch. According to them, producers and show editors conveniently leave out most of the medevac rescues, hospitalizations, stress fractures, and other bone and joint trauma.
Aside from injury prevention, if you're trying to raise your metabolism and hang on to muscle, the last thing you should start doing is long duration cardio. Why? Because the body adapts to it. The more efficient a runner you become, the less of an impact it will have on your waistline.
The real path to permanent fat loss? Weights, some metcon, and a healthy diet. No incessant treadmill pounding required.
Lie #4 – Your life must be overhauled for you to get in shape.
Here's what The Biggest Loser does. It removes desperate people from their homes and secludes them on a "ranch" for months. They're only able to eat what they're given – a very low calorie, low fat diet. They are trained, according to former contestants, for 4-6 hours a day, and kept in isolation.
It's an artificial environment, unrealistic and unsustainable once the contestants are thrown back into the real world. By micromanaging their behaviors and stripping away their autonomy, it spreads the myth that out-of-shape people can't think for themselves and shouldn't even try.
The Biggest Loser ranch is contrived; it's a set for a TV game show. It's not something anyone can recreate – these contestants aren't going home to lock themselves in their rooms until it's time to hit the Planet Fitness gym for six hours, and then eat their 250-calorie Subway sandwich.
They have jobs, kids, spouses, and buddies who are still going to order the giant fried onion appetizer at restaurants. They have lives. And the show doesn't assimilate fitness into those lives.
The people who lose weight for good are the ones who make improvements without trying to alter every aspect of their existence. They train themselves to live differently by making gradual changes.
Abruptly working out several hours a day, being spoon-fed a restrictive diet you have no control over, and never seeing your family aren't sustainable ways of getting in shape. You never learn to work out on your own accord or think for yourself in the kitchen.
The successful learn to avoid situations that'll tempt them to digress. They learn to prepare meals ahead of time. They cut out crap-foods that only make them hungry for more. They learn to program exercise into their day. They master these changes little by little until they're no longer hard.
Autonomy is the ultimate accomplishment when it comes to fitness: knowing how to live, train, and eat on your own for the best results.
Those who have the longest lasting progress aren't the people who continually follow orders. They're the people who, after receiving guidance and doing their own research, can prove for themselves what works and what doesn't.
Three Semi-Redeeming Factors
Despite the overall messages the show sends to those who are unfit, there are three reasons we keep watching.
1 – It teaches you some powerful lessons about obesity.
These contestants aren't stupid. The Biggest Loser participants are folks who never learned to cope with hardships in productive, non-food ways. They're people whose cravings have been hijacked by the types junk they began seeking for comfort. They're clearly hurting.
And if you've ever been overweight, felt invisible to others because of the way you looked, sought food for emotional comfort, or felt like your eating was out of control, you can – even in some small way – relate and be empathetic.
2 – It gives you a big picture perspective.
The Biggest Loser reminds you of things you take for granted, like being able-bodied and going to bed at night without worrying about dying in your sleep.
Your perceived body flaws are suddenly forgotten when you hear obese people talk about all the medications they're on, their difficulty fitting in airplane or theater seats, and the embarrassment they feel on a daily basis. It's a reality check.
3 – The trainers are improving.
Jen Weiderstrom has visible muscle. She's not just "toned." This is refreshing to see on primetime TV. She leads with kindness instead of abrasiveness like former female trainers we've seen.
Bob Harper is incorporating CrossFit into his workouts, which is a better option than cardio on top of cardio. Dolvett is hot; he clearly does more than cardio. And Jesse seems knowledgeable too.
If only these coaches could show us how they eat and train themselves – without any input from production – that would be a show worth watching. It'd probably also be a lot more sensible than 4-6 hours of exercise and the calorie restricted diet that competitors have claimed they were on during the show.
The Real Biggest Loser
The most frustrating thing about the program is that it has potential to teach real lessons about permanent body transformation. But instead, it continues to disseminate the strategies that keep a lot of people from making progress.
The real biggest loser here? The person watching the show who needs sound nutrition advice and sustainable workout tips.