As NBC's Biggest Loser ends tonight, one expert asks: Is it abusive?
As NBC’s popular weight loss show The Biggest Loser presents a live, three-hour finale tonight, some fitness trainers and health experts remain skeptical of the example set by the show -- with one authority calling the series’ marathon workouts an unrealistic example of “abusing people for having excess body fat.”
Run that analysis by Bill Germanakos, winner to the Biggest Loser’s fourth cycle in 2007, and he offers a surprising response: He agrees. Sort of.
“Of course it’s not real, it’s television,” said Germanakos, who sold his businesses and started a career as a spokesman and public speaker after losing 164 pounds to take the show’s $250,000 prize. “It’s not meant to teach people what to do . . . it’s entertainment. It’s meant to inspire and motivate, not to educate.”
Seasoned viewers know that NBC’s weight-loss competition actually tries to have it both ways, as trainers Bob Harper and Jillian Michaels offer tips on diet and exercise one moment, just before riding on contestants’ backs during workouts that can last eight hours.
Former contestant Jenn Widder says the show, which starts contestants who may not have exercised in years with four-hour workouts and 1,300 calories each day, “was almost like we went through a detox program . . . I felt like I was sweating out sugar for the first week.”
But Boston area registered dietitian and author Nancy Clark, who wrote about how Biggest Loser makes her “feel like throwing my shoe at the TV,” said the show mostly teaches viewers to starve themselves to lose weight, making it hard to develop the consistent, life-changing habits that keep weight off.
“How can something so abusive be inspirational?” said Clark, who found, to her surprise, that about 20 percent of those who responded to her article said the show was exactly that. “It just shocked me that the show doesn’t turn people off.”
As the final four contestants face off -- Tara Costa (left), Mike and Ron Morelli and Helen Phillips – click below to see the biggest objections some experts have raised about the show:
Contestants work out too hard, too quickly – “You don’t just decide to run a marathon overnigh . . . you train for months,” said Alexandra Stefanes, wellness center supervisor at the YMCA of Greater St. Petersburg. “(Biggest Loser) has overweight people jumping on big boxes, running on treadmills right away . . . it’s not healthy to put your body through such total extremes.”
Gemanakos acknowledged participants are placed in an extreme environment, where committed contestants can spend 10 hours a day working out, without the pressures of a job, family, friends or everyday life. But he said the show doesn’t highlight how often participants consult with experts such as a dietitian and psychologist, outside of the show’s two trainers.
Contestants don’t learn about changing their lifestyles for long-term weight loss – “I don’t believe in diets, because one day you’ve got to stop the diet,” said John Hunter, sales manager for Gold’s Gym Northeast in St. Petersburg, who questioned how the show limits contestants to such a low-calorie intake. “It’s about changing your eating habits within reason, for the rest of your life.”
But Widder, who said she has maintained her 70-pound weight loss from the show’s fifth cycle last year, said contestants learn to cook their own healthy meals and keep house while on the show, helping foster a change in eating habits.
Viewers see contestants’ radical weight loss and may get discouraged – “To lose 10 pounds a week is such a bad message to people,” said Clark. “The physiological reaction to starving is to overeat . . . people say ‘I lost my willpower,’ but it’s just the body reacting. The reality is, you want to chip away, losing a pound or two a week.”
Germanakos said viewers should understand that the dramatic weight loss is extreme, but that the overall lessons of the show – that regular exercise and healthy eating are the keys to weight loss – are sound.
“The amount of time I spend working out now, that’s the amount of time I would spend watching (ESPN’s) SportsCenter,” he said. “So much of this is mental . . . until people decide to let go and put together a support system, they will have trouble keeping the weight off.”