As NBC's popular weight loss show The Biggest Loser: Couples presents a live, three-hour finale tonight, some fitness trainers and health experts remain skeptical of the example it sets — 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 of 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 just 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."
As the final four contestants — Tara Costa, Mike and Ron Morelli and Helen Phillips — face off, here's a quick look at the objections some experts have raised about the show, and what participants say about the issues.
Contestants work out too hard, too quickly. "You don't just decide to run a marathon overnight," 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."
Germanakos acknowledged participants are placed in an extreme environment, 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.
Viewers see contestants' radical weight loss and may get discouraged. "To lose 10 pounds a week is such a bad message to people," said Boston area registered dietitian and author Nancy Clark. "The physiological reaction to starving is to overeat. … People say 'I lost my willpower,' but it's just the body reacting."
Germanakos said viewers should understand 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.