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The Biggest Loser: The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly

The Biggest Loser Logo - Calgary Gym

Ah, The Biggest Loser. Such a controversial program. Just ask anyone in the fitness industry what they think and watch the flood gates open. It’s the TV show that has defined what society believes working out, health, fitness, and body transformation ought to be. On a weekly basis I get clients asking my opinion of the hit TV Show.

For me, The Biggest Loser is a catch 22. When I first started watching it, it inspired me to become a trainer and help thousands of people transform their lives. However, as I got more educated and well versed as a trainer, and learned from others with decades experience, I realized a lot about the show. The big conclusion I have come to over the years is how misleading and detrimental this show is to contestants, and also to viewers watching from home.

I’m going to share with you my analysis of the Biggest Loser, and why overall it is a horrible representation of health, fitness, training, weight loss, and body transformation. You may or may not reconsider watching another episode after reading this post, but if there is one thing I do know, you will walk away with a much more informed perspective.

Let’s Begin.

The Good

With anything in life, you cannot have Bad without Good. There are a few positive attributes about the Biggest Loser that I am willing to acknowledge.
Group Environment.

Countless research studies and anecdotal evidence have shown that training in groups produces more weight loss and better results than working individually. This is why group programs like fitness bootcamps are so popular in the industry right now.

  • Accountability.

The Biggest Loser places people on teams, which creates more accountability to their workouts and nutrition, to themselves, and to their teams. When accountability systems are in place, you have a greater success rate, especially with weight loss and body transformation. The added pressure of letting the team down also enhances accountability.

  • Competition.

During these bootcamp style workouts, the trainers often encourage competition among contestants in order to push them to the next level. Competition will always get you out of your comfort zone, to a point where you are doing things you would never do on your own. Also, who doesn’t love beating the person next to them on a set of sprints?

  • Nutritional Education.

Contestants are educated on nutrition, meal planning, and proper food choices. Contestants are also put on structured, regimented food plans during the course of the show. As most of you know a structured nutrition plan is critical to achieving any weight loss, fitness, or body transformation goal.

The Bad

  • Fat loss vs. Weight Loss.

One thing that really annoys me about the show is how they focus so much on weight loss, not fat loss. There is no credence given to doing regular measurements or tracking body fat percentage. The argument that always comes up is that body fat tracking devices are inaccurate. Really? Have you heard of a dexa scan? This is the most reliable way to track body fat, and is used in many research labs and universities. I’m sure they could afford to get a few of those on the ranch. Fat loss is what counts, not weight loss. Weight loss can mean so many different things. What if you lost all water and muscle weight one week, is your weight loss really healthy from this perspective? Absolutely not.

  • Extremely Misleading.

I’m going to share a fact that many people don’t know. The human body is physiologically capable of losing only 1-2lbs of fat per week. This means anything above and beyond that is muscle tissue and water. I’m sure you’re thinking “Yeah but the people on the show are like 400lbs, so this rule doesn’t apply”. You’re sort of right, but not really. For those who weigh 400lbs this rule changes a bit to 3-4lbs per week, or 1% of your body weight. But that’s it! Those 20 lb weight changes you see on the show week to week are completely misleading. Probably 3-5lbs of that is fat, at most (for bigger contestants), and the rest is muscle tissue and water. Decreasing your muscle tissue will actually slow your metabolism down in the long run, and make fat loss than much harder.

The problem with this is that it creates misleading expectations for contestants, thinking that if they aren’t losing at least 10lbs a week, they are failing, and letting themselves and the team down. Give me a break! What’s even worse is that they get lectured and chastised by the trainers for ”only losing 2lbs!”
This is such a disempowering experience for the contestant.

Furthermore, it gives the viewer at home a false idea of what is realistic for their own weight loss goals. I’ve lost track of how many of my clients beat themselves up for only losing 2lbs in a week! I blame, in part, the misleading expectations created by shows like the Biggest Loser. And to think, this is healthy, sustainable weight loss!

  • Unsustainable.

The experience, environment, and schedule the contestants are immersed in is completely unsustainable once they step off the ranch. They train just as much as Olympic Athletes, if not more, and have all of their food prepared and cooked for them. Clients need to be taught weight loss strategies that will work for their individual lifestyle and take into account things like work schedule, kids, finances, and other responsibilities. This is one of the reasons so many clients regain their weight after the show, as they haven’t been taught strategies that will aid them in long term weight loss success at home.

This also presents the viewer with a false sense of reality, thinking that they can achieve the same results as the contestants, but the environment and schedule they are part of is completely different.

  • The Results Happen Too Fast and Too Quick.

This is something I will be writing about in future blog posts. Whenever I hear about fast fat loss, lose 10 pounds in 10 days, or any other get “results fast” scheme, my radar goes off, as should yours. Any form of success that is achieved fast and quick, and that you haven’t developed the emotional and mental capacity to handle, will not last.

An unrelated example that will drive this point home is to look at lottery winners. I’m sure you’ve heard of people winning the lottery and acquiring millions of dollars overnight, yet 5 years later they find themselves completely broke. Many ask themselves, what happened? I’ll tell you exactly what happened. They achieved a level of success and responsibility quick and fast; one they weren’t ready to handle emotionally or mentally. The same concept can apply to weight loss and body transformation.

This is a new perspective I encourage you to take on immediately: Your body can only change and evolve physically to the same extent that you evolve and change emotionally and mentally. Whenever someone loses weight really fast, often times the rate of physical evolution is faster than the rate of emotional and mental change. They have yet to fully change their mindset through this process, or deal with deep emotional issues, both of which have contributed to their excess weight and poor eating habits in the first place.

Until these areas are addressed, you can physically transform your body as much as you want, but you will revert back to old behavioural patterns, poor food choices, self-sabotaging ways, and find yourself back to where you started. This is another reason why so many contestants gain their weight back after the show. I’m sure you know a few people this has happened to, or maybe it’s happened to you. As cliché as it sounds, change can only happen from the inside out. Never put the cart before the horse.

  • Method of Motivation.

Everyone is motivated and inspired in different ways. However, if there is one thing I do know, human beings want to feel empowered in any endeavour they choose to take on. Empowering others requires a delicate balance between being firm and assertive, and also having the ability to be understanding and compassionate. The Biggest Loser accomplishes neither. Screaming and yelling at contestants like a bootcamp drill sergeant to the point where they are going to cry doesn’t empower people. Neither does criticizing them for “only losing 2lbs this week”, or judging them for staying the same on the scale from one week to the next. Or yelling at them to start sprinting on the treadmill, or their kids won’t have a Dad in 10 years.

Here is the reality of where an overweight person is in their head. They know they are fat, they know they are obese, they know they could die in the next 10 years if they don’t get their act together, and they already feel like shit about themselves, so reminding them about it isn’t going to do anything to inspire them to change.

I’m not saying that Jillian and Bob need to give the contestants a big warm, fuzzy hug after a set of deadlifts or squats, but a little more compassion and less aggression is in order. And yes, anyone looking to lose weight needs a trainer who is firm and a bit of a hard ass, but there are many ways to go about this. Firm and assertive, yes. Aggressive and demoralizing, no.

The Ugly.

  • Exercise form and programming.

The level of technique and proper form contestants display on the show is atrocious at best. Most of the contestants are not properly trained in how to perform movements like deadlifts, squats, pushups, etc. This will inevitably lead to injury either now or sometime down the road. Furthermore, some of the exercises are completely unacceptable for where they are physically. Pounding away on a treadmill when you are 200lbs overweight is never a good idea, and your joints are going to hate you 10 years later. Neither is having an obese client do power cleans, snatches, or deadlifts with a rounded back.

Contestants who are that overweight and out of shape need to start with the basics first, and build up a solid foundation before they progress to more advanced stuff. This is also one of the reasons we always start off new clients with simple body weight movements in our bootcamp. Logical exercise progressions are key to long term success and injury prevention.

  • Intensity.

Intensity is a critical variable for any weight loss program. This is one of the things we pride ourselves on with our bootcamp program, intense yet effective training. However, there comes a point where intensity can be taken overboard. Puking and passing out are a few indicators. Whenever you finish a training session, you always want to feel better than when you walked in. Getting to the point where you feel sick or light headed means you need to slow down and should dial back the intensity.

On The Biggest Loser, contestants are continually puking or passing out. Really, is that a good depiction of health and fitness? Absolutely not. It’s always a delicate balance. Work clients hard, push them out of their comfort zone, but please, not to the point of puking or passing out.

This concludes my analysis of the Biggest Loser. I hope you have a new perspective the next time you watch this show, and take everything you see with a grain of salt.


Always here to inspire and motivate you,

David Macdonald.