Everyone's favorite fat-as-entertainment reality show, The Biggest Loser, proudly proclaims that it serves as a catalyst for life change among participants, helping them find their true selves through losing weight and exercising, etc. At the end of each season, the winner is revealed in a shower of confetti, never to be seen again — and it turns out that there's a reason for that, because most participants regain that weight after the show, according to a new study published in Obesity. This should not be earth-shattering news, because 95 percent of dieters put the weight they lose right back on, but in this case, it could (hopefully) spark an actual conversation because of the huge pop culture profile that The Biggest Loser occupies.
Competitors on The Biggest Loser are put through a brutal fat camp for the entertainment of viewers. For some fat people, the scenery may be gruesomely familiar — some people actually attended fat camps that bear a striking similarity to an environment where people are deprived of food, pushed past the point of serious injury, and subjected to other dangerous tactics to force them to lose weight. This is supposed to be done in the interests of their "health," but really, it reinforces the culture of shaming and hatred that surrounds fat.
Don't just take it from me — research links The Biggest Loser quite decisively with fat hatred. Diets, not even the extreme ones on this show, don't work. Every body is different, people react to diet and exercise in many different ways, and numerous factors are involved in people's set points. Weight should really only be medically worrying when a patient gains or loses a lot of weight very rapidly and with no obvious explanation, because this could indicate an underlying health problem like thyroid disease.
The only good thing to come out of The Biggest Loser is a huge body (so to speak) of information about people who lose a lot of weight very quickly with a potentially dangerous diet and exercise routine. No institutional review board would ever approve extremely rapid and aggressive weight loss with human subjects in a clinical setting, but fortunately, reality television isn't subject to such limitations and requirements — like an obligation to ensure that participants aren't exposed to lasting health risks. Researchers have drawn upon the show for a substantial amount of data from studies on social attitudes about fat to the actual metabolic results of participating, and that's what the most recent research explores.
What happens when you lose a lot of weight extremely quickly? The researchers found that the metabolism of participants slowed, and stayed slower after they left the show. Some participants gained substantial amounts of weight back — in fact, only one kept the weight off. Some contestants are now heavier than they started out. With their bodies left off-kilter as a result of the rapid weight loss, many struggle with food cravings, and they don't have any medical or psychosocial support after they're dumped back out into the real world after the show.
One contestant, talking about her experiences on the show and her subsequent weight gain, said: "I gained 130 pounds back. It's awful — embarrassing. I feel ashamed."
She's living in a culture where being fat is viewed as a moral failing, but it's even more of a moral failing when you briefly achieve the dream of being thin and then get fat again. Weight regain is usually attributed to a lack of "willpower" and the inability to take weight loss seriously, despite the fact that study after study shows that people who diet regain the weight, even if they continue to consume an artificially low level of calories later. This isn't moral weakness, but the way bodies work, and people are shamed for it — otherwise, The Biggest Loser wouldn't be so popular.
Thanks to the hatred of fat in American society, the media seize upon any research that blames fat people for being fat, while casually passing over studies that indicate the complexities of weight, particularly relationships between weight gain and loss. This kind of research usually receives a passing headline buried deep in a handful of publications, not a New York Times feature, as was the case here, and it's a bit astounding to see honest discussions about weight, including interviews with participants who feel betrayed and frustrated with the bill of goods they were sold, in a major newspaper.
They definitely lost, but it wasn't weight they lost. Aside from the social and personal shame they're experiencing, the study shows the lasting metabolic and other clinical changes they experienced. These aren't things that are going to go away — while they may regain the weight from The Biggest Loser, they're still going to have a legacy from the show in other ways. Much as anorexia causes lasting health problems, like heart conditions, rapid weight loss is dangerous, and that's something that not all participants understood very well when they entered the competition.
The question here is not whether weight loss works — we know it doesn't in the long term, and we know that failure to keep weight off actually isn't a failure at all, but an inevitable biological reality. The question is whether a New York Times feature and a high profile study that's rapidly spreading across the media could tip the scales when it comes to talking about weight, potentially creating a space for addressing the fact that weight loss doesn't work, and that we need to stop endangering people in the name of public entertainment, let alone "health."
Maybe people will finally admit that weight loss doesn't work, and will finally stop shaming people who won't lose weight or can't keep weight off when they do lose, if they're confronted with this study. Will it be the straw that breaks the camel's back? Sadly, probably not, because society has a great deal of energy invested in fat shaming and keeping fat people at a distance, but there's a sliver of hope that this might shift the conversation for at least some people — though certainly not in the Times' comments section.