The Truth About The Biggest Loser

By Katie, 5:27 am

Sometimes I think I missed my calling. I should have been an investigative journalist, because I so enjoy finding out what really goes on behind the curtain and sharing it with all of you. The weight loss industry is a perfect place to apply this hobby, as it is literally overflowing with myths and misconceptions.

But I can’t take any credit for digging up the dirt on this one. It all goes to reader Alexis, who recently sent me several articles and videos about what really goes on in the making of the television show The Biggest Loser. I admit to only having seen the show a handful of times, usually reruns that I turned off in a matter of minutes. It just rubbed me the wrong way. Now I know why.

The major drops in weight you see on that show? The amazing final weigh-ins? They are definitely not due to adopting healthy habits or honoring your body. Here’s what season one winner Ryan Benson said on his personal website (emphasis mine):

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! If you’ve heard of “The Master Cleanse” that’s what I did. Its basically drinking lemonade made with water, lemon juice, maple syrup, and cayenne pepper. The rules of the show said we couldn’t use any weight-loss drugs, well I didn’t take any drugs, I just starved myself! Twenty-four hours before the final weigh-in I stopped putting ANYTHING in my body, liquid or solid, then I started using some old high school wrestling tricks. I wore a rubber suit while jogging on the treadmill, and then spent a lot of time in the steam room. In the final 24 hours I probably dropped 10-13 lbs in just pure water weight. By the time of the final weigh-in I was peeing blood.

Was this healthy? Heck no! My wife wanted to kill me if I didn’t do it to myself first. But I was in a different place, I knew winning the show could put us in a better place financially and I was willing to do some crazy stuff. All this torture I put myself through has had no lasting effects on me (that I know of) and at the time it was sort of a fun adventure for me – but I am sure it reeked havoc on my system.

In the five days after the show was over I gained about 32 lbs. Not from eating, just from getting my system back to normal (mostly re-hydrating myself). So in five days I was back up to 240 – crazy!

Crazy indeed. Season three contestant Kai Hibbard shared similar information on her blog:

I dehydrated off 19 pounds in the last two weeks before the BIG weigh in. I stopped eating solid food after eating only protein and asparagus (a diuretic) then I had two colonics and spent the night before the weigh in and out of a sauna. there really was no “diet” the day of the weigh in, we weigh in as dehydrated as possible on empty stomachs after 2 hour workouts in the morning.

I actually put on about 31 pounds in two weeks. After my body had a chance to stabilize I spent all last year hovering between 159 and 175, I fight everyday to find some stability.

Of course none of this really surprises me. I understand that “reality” television shows are nothing close to reality, and that the producers don’t care if they trick people so long as they bring in the moula.

Unfortunately, though, not everyone realizes this. Not everyone understands that that kind of weight loss isn’t just difficult, it’s dangerous. Many people don’t see that the biggest loser is losing more than just weight; he/she is also losing an opportunity to be truly healthy, which doesn’t involve peeing blood or master cleanses or living off asparagus.

But now you know. And that’s what investigative journalism is all about.

Are you familiar with The Biggest Loser? What do you think of it? Are you at all surprised by what the contestants really do to lose weight?

57 Responses to “The Truth About The Biggest Loser

  1. I am not surprised at all. I don’t watch the show because it is a totally unhealthy example of how to lose weight; it makes me mad to watch. They are taught from the beginning to take extreme measures that aren’t sustainable and certainly aren’t healthy. So, no, your post doesn’t surprise me. But it does make me want to share so that everyone can know. :D

  2. Becca says:

    Reality tv is pretty gross – I think anyone who doesn’t realise how carefully manipulated it is has their head firmly in the sand.

    Having said that, I just can’t fault the overall message and purpose of the show for the following reasons -

    1. These people are actually dying. If you have never been obese, you really have no idea of the misery and helplessness that go with it. It’s not a few extra pounds – it’s a million miles away from healthy. To be given hope, whether you’re a viewer or a contestant, is an incredible gift.

    2. The focus on sweaty exercise. So many people go for a leisurely stroll and can’t understand why they’re not losing weight. To see people work hard is a positive message.

    3. The message of self-love. At no point is anyone told to reject their former selves – if anything, they are taught to love them even more, because look what they achieved.

    If they would cut the weigh-in drama (with its associated harmful behaviour) and dumb rivalries, then I think it could continue to do a lot of good in the world. Oh… And product placement. Ick.

    • Alexis says:

      I would agree if not for the emergency room visits that are not shown and the fact these ppl exercise some 8-12 hours a day everyday. There are shows where ppl lose hundreds of pounds without injury — and being lied to. My favorite is Too Fat for 15.

  3. Sarah says:

    Not surprised at all! I have read the stories. Kai is still struggling with an eating disorder.
    I don’t believe for a moment the message is self love. Yes, they have the shocking before/after moment but the whole ‘journey’ is based on self punishment, ratings and unreasonable physical and emotional expectations.
    They are not actually dying. Their particular extreme lifestyles, for which they are chosen for, (maybe even a reaction to have dieted their whole lives) have taken their current health to a place where it can be medically measured as abnormal. Changing that lifestyle whether weight is lost or not would probably change those medical results.

    • Katie says:

      Good point, Sarah. Even though I haven’t seen the show a lot, I’m a firm believer that any change based on self-punishment and pain to our bodies isn’t likely to be lasting.

    • Alexis says:

      If anyone heard the interview with the shamed-filled last one weighed who let down the team by not losing the needed 1 1/2 pound advantage, I’d say self-love is last on the list.

  4. Simply Life says:

    I’m like you and only watched a couple episodes – sadly this doesn’t surprise me but it’s good to be informed about it – thanks!

  5. Ugh. Water weight manipulation. THIS is so bad for your kidneys and so pointless. I hope they didn’t do this regularly, they could have really harmed themselves.

  6. Not only does the show promote disordered eating, but the trainers themselves use very bad/dangerous from during the strength training portion of the show. My former trainer would watch the show is astonishment & disgust. She HAD to watch the show, as her clients would ask her so many questions, & she had to dispel a lot of myths that were presented on the show. (nutritionally & training wise.) She is also an RD.

  7. FindingMe says:

    Every time I’ve watched Biggest Loser (which isn’t much), I wondered how long it would be until they actually seriously harmed or even killed a contestant. That kind of physical strain on a body IS going to eventually put one of these people in the hospital. Sad that this is promoted as “healthy”.

  8. Like you, I have only seen a few shows here and there. I think my biggest problem with the show is the rapid weight loss and that it often makes “normal” people unsatisfied with “normal” weight loss. So often I read, “I only lost a pound last week.” Losing a pound a week in a healthy way and really changing what you are doing is great. I think the show feeds into the “I want it now” attitude we already have in this country. I once lost quite a bit of weight 1/2 pound/week, and I really changed my attitude towards food. I made slow but lasting changes.

    I do realize that the people on the show are extremely overweight and do need to lose weight, but I really wish there wasn’t so much focus on extreme numbers. And the accounts of what’s going on before the final weigh in are scary and extremely unhealthy.

    • Katie says:

      Well-said, Andrea, and thanks for pointing this out. I agree that the emphasis on rapid weight loss is harmful; people tend to forget that slow and steady really does win the race.

  9. i always knew that the final weigh in brought out some really weird habits for people, that’s the nature of competition. However, I think the first portion of the show provides motivation for a lot of people to start making healthy changes and for that reason I am ok with the show.

  10. I have never watched the show…I think I may have seen snippets from a few episodes several years ago but these days my TV is rarely on at all! But I don’t need to have seen it to know that it’s not “real.” There are many people who I like and respect who love the show and think it’s serving a higher purpose but I think it’s a sham.

  11. Alaina says:

    I am definitely not surprised. What really opened my eyes was when Jillian Michaels scolded a contestant because they gained weight after training for the marathon. Uh, duh, you have to eat if you’re going to run 26.2 miles!! It gives the wrong perception on healthy weight loss.

    • Katie says:

      Wow, that’s pretty ridiculous!

    • Kristen says:

      That is disgusting….I’ve trained for a 1/2 marathon and during that period of time I actually gained weight (because the constant running/high mileage will build and strengthen muscles), even though everyone said that I LOOKED thinnner. Any long distance runner knows that one MUST eat in order to run all of those miles….food is feul, and if you don’t have the right feul, you can’t even think about going the distance. I remember one time during the training I didn’t have a lot to eat that day, and I then tried to run 8 miles – I felt weak and almost passed out.

  12. I wrote a post about the biggest loser after this season’s finale. I hate how it focus so much on only lowest weight and forces the contestants to go to such extremes. It is so unhealthy!

  13. Kelly says:

    I have watched The Biggest Loser on and off for serveal years. It definitely rubs me the wrong way sometimes and I can’t help but to wonder if the contestants actually suffer from long term side effects and disorderd eating. I don’t see how they can’t. I have heard time and time again contestants say “we live and die by the number on the scale” and that to me isn’t healthy. It isn’t. I don’t feel like The Biggest Loser focuses enough on nutrition. To me healthy nutrition is the way to set up lasting and sustainable habits. I wish they would teach a more everything in moderation approach. I get that these people have substanial amounts of weight to lose but I still feel like maybe losing weight in a longer time frame but with a more healthy attitude towards the scale, exercise and food would go a long way in thier LIFETIME goal of being healthy.

    • Katie says:

      I agree, Kelly! From what I know, there’s not really any focus on the long-term.

  14. UGH. Nothing new to me but it is so frustrating that so many people watch this show. It promotes such disordered eating and behaviors and has long term consequences on a few who have spoken out about it. I just don’t understand shock value tv at the expense of human beings who want help. Not to mention it is entirely weight focused, versus talking about Health at Every Size, nutrition, moderation, balance, etc. But moderation doesn’t sell commercials. I wish people could understand that diets and this mentality is actually what is causing more long term sickness in people, than if people simply were overweight their whole lives. Yo yo diets, and fads are hard on the heart and spirit. So many rants I have :)

  15. I watched the show when it first came on and was struck by how unhealthy it was on all levels: body, mind and spirit. Not only was the diet/exercise routine grueling, but the shaming and competitive focus seemed deadly. I have struggled with overeating and obesity most of my life and tried all sorts of different diets. I even did my doctoral dissertation in psychology on overeating, hoping that would help! I have, finally found a path that feels healthy – using mindful eating and focusing on what is going on when I want to eat and am not hungry… I’ve lost 45lbs, maintained the weight loss and now focus my practice as a psychologist (www.annedinkelspiel.com) on helping people around overeating and being overweight. I really understand the struggle from the inside out!!!

  16. Jen says:

    I have some friends that live and breathe that show. I could never watch it. Someone even suggested I try out for the show :(

  17. peacebeme says:

    I’m not surprised to hear this, but I am surprised that it has been revealed. I am glad it has been revealed though. I have always hated the biggest loser because even before learning this, it exemplifies crash diets and pushing your body to the point of injury because you are increasing your exercise to quickly. I wish everyone in America realized this about that show. It makes me sick to think of all the people that watch it in the huge industry they have created.

  18. Josie says:

    Urinating blood? 30-something pounds in days? I didn’t even know those things could happen!

    I never made it through a whole episode of BL. I’ll tell you the last time I watched. It was when they put all the contestants in a room jam-packed with food and told them to eat as much as they wanted. I’m no expert, but I don’t see the point of that. As someone who struggles with binge eating, it hurt my feelings that bingeing would be encouraged. That might have been the opposite of what was intended, but if the point is fighting willpower, if any of those people are like me, that’s not the root of the problem or the solution. To me, BL is just personal-pain pornography.

    Thank you for putting the sunshine to this, Katie! Maybe what happens on BL isn’t so obvious?!

    • Katie says:

      Wow, that episode you describe is just terrible! I too find it personally offensive to a certain extent. And I completely agree that the message of willpower is a myth. Sigh.

  19. Nicole, RD says:

    Sickening. I’m not sure what more to say :(

  20. bubu says:

    Yech, that is truly stomach turning. And so sad, for the contestants and the audience in whom it raises false hopes. I wonder (I imagine there have been exposes) how many of the contestants gain it all back, because they are not really learning any long-term sustainable weight-management skills… So sad, because it is such a wasted opportunity to teach and inspire. I used to watch the show years ago, but have no interest anymore – mainly just the ridiculous drama and product placement, there are other shows I’d much rather watch (Like Top Gear from the UK!)

    • meli says:

      Yea Top Gear!! another gear head like me :)

      • bubu says:

        It’s great isn’t it? I have zero interest in cars and yet watch that show repeatedly because I just fall over laughing.

  21. meli says:

    I watched a few times, but stopped cold when i saw an episode where Jillian Michaels literally SCREAMED in one of the contests face to “get up now!” when the person had stopped to catch his breath while out on a hike. because of that i will NOT watch anything that has to do with Jillian Michaels. the only thing that would have motivated me to do is punch her in the face. Nope, no surprises here. it’s all about the ratings.

  22. Yikes! Thanks for exposing the strikingly unhealthy tactics that occur behind the scenes on such reality TV shows. Really important stuff, Katie.

  23. Great post, Katie! I’ve also written about the Biggest Loser before. And I can’t stand the show. The trainers push these people beyond their limits a lot of the time – and humiliate them! I really dislike how Jillian Michaels, especially, trains the contestants and her overall mean, snarky and exercise-must-be-painful approach.

    It’s clearly unrealistic, not to mention that the focus is on weight. It’s another horrible message being sent to our society about the importance of doing anything and everything you can to lose weight and look a certain way.

    What’s especially troubling is that I know the producers have to know about the dangerous measures contestants take to lose weight. The fact that they don’t do anything is appalling to me.

  24. I don’t think that is an accurate representation of The Biggest Loser. The behavior discussed are of course unhealthy and are eating disordered habits, but they aren’t taught by the trainers on the show. That’s just what diet culture can eventually do to people who buy into it. A lot of past contestants have spoken only about starving themselves and over-exercising before the finale.

    • Katie says:

      Thanks for stopping by, Sara, and sharing your perspective! My concern is that the totally unhealthy means used to lose the weight – even if they are used just before the finale – are covered up by the show, making it appear that the weight was lost through legitimate ways. While the truth may be obvious to you and me, there are plenty of people who have no idea. That could create a lot of unnecessary frustration when they try to lose weight but cannot see the kinds of results highlighted on the show…which could lead to an even higher prevelance of disordered eating patterns.

      • Yes that is true.. Such a double edged sword, because there is a lot of good in the show. Also I love the show personally, can’t help it. This was a great topic.

        • Katie says:

          I feel a little bad calling it out because, like I said, I’ve only ever seen snippets here and there. I appreciate you mentioning the good stuff too! :)

    • Duong says:

      I agree that the extreme dieting and exercising they do on the show is not the best or safest way to lose weight, but I think its the kind of “tough love” that the contestants need.

      The contestants on this show are an extreme example of a weight problem and sometimes it takes extreme measures to make a change.

  25. McKella says:

    Ugh, don’t get me started on the biggest loser. Honestly, I think it’s all about exploiting heavy people who need the money. One of the contestants actually came out about the horrific treatment the contestants endure, such as having unflattering pictures of themselves posted around their living space, having to supply their own water (which gets hot in the sun) while the crew gets coolers and catering, and working out despite injuries. The show is awful and it teaches all sorts of dangerous behaviors and negative mindsets, and it’s inspired a slew of BL competitions in workplaces, which is also ridiculous. The whole thing makes me sick.

  26. Sarah says:

    Such a difficult topic…the stories do seem so inspiring, but when you look at the steps the contestants take to get there, is there really a healthy balance? It seems that so many go straight from being utterly careless w/food and their bodies to the other extreme of being completely obsessed. Neither extreme is healthy. Somewhere in the middle is where we learn to find balance and RESPECT our bodies. Lasting weight loss and crash dieting/extreme exercising are not compatible. Our entire nonprofit, FINDINGbalance, Inc, is dedicated to the topic of learning to respect our bodies in a healthy way. http://www.findingbalance.com

    • Katie says:

      I’m right there with you, Sarah; balance and respect are the keys to creating a truly healthy relationship with food and our bodies. I’ve actually checked out FINDINGbalance’s website before, after reading one of Constance Rhode’s books, and I loved the mission and message behind it. It seems my blog is very well-aligned with what your organization is working to accomplish.

      • Sarah says:

        Absolutely! I just ran across your blog through Facebook and I can tell we are well-aligned. What a great blog! We love “Intuitive Eating” also. Great to “meet” you :) – Sarah

    • Alexis says:

      IA. How inspired will ppl be when they don’t lose 22 pounds in one week? They think they are failures and something is wrong with them, not with the show. Also how much of what these ppl lose is fat and how much is muscle? Instead of a weight in they need to so a BMI.

  27. I think it’s horrible, but doesn’t surprise me.

    This promotes some very unrealistic weight loss standard. It doesn’t happen like that in real life.

  28. Cara says:

    I admit that I used to be a big fan, but haven’t watched the last season or two. I’ve always known deep down that that amount of weight loss simply can’t be healthful or natural, and it’s gotten to the point that it pains me to watch, imagining what’s really going on.

  29. This is sick. Thank you for posting this!

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