Big, Fat and Not Wack

"The Biggest Loser" is dramatic, fun, but not quite "real." Still, you can gain some real lessons about losing weight.


Season four of The Biggest Loser is about to kick off, so get ready for the blood, sweat and tears as we tune in to cheer on our favorite fatty. Fans will sit riveted as they strip down to shorts and bras—topless for the men—kick off a few ounces of flip-flops and mount the platform for the weekly weigh in. Big props to the contestants for having the guts—pun intended—to bare bellies and Moobs in front of millions of people. Not to mention standing on a scale while a gigantic neon sign flashes their weight overhead. And these aren’t just folks battling those last 10 pounds. These are people, who, if they dropped 100 pounds, would still be living large. For those who tune in each week, The Biggest Loser is crackishly addictive. Sure there’s that unsettling element of voyeurism, watching semi-sadistic trainers exact a pound (or 10) of flesh from contestants. But it’s not just a guilty pleasure; there are positive things that can be learned from the show. So here’s the Good, Bad and Ugly of The Biggest Loser:

First, The Good

It’s incredibly inspirational. Imagine being so overweight that you’ve become a massive, nearly unrecognizable version of yourself, basically eating your way toward an Oprah, Richard Simmons intervention. When you’re that big, getting back the body you once had would seem like an impossibility. Faced with such a daunting task, it’s miraculous that they haven’t given up and are willing to try, one more time, to lose weight. So if you’re watching at home and think that you’re too old or too fat to ever shed the pounds, the show will quickly render those excuses moot. In season four, a 62-year-old finalist dropped half his body weight; the biggest contestant, weighing in at 454, lost 150 pounds. Proof that you can do it, too.

Another positive? The emphasis on exercise, a lot of exercise. Every promo has at least one scene of Trainer Jillian screaming “PUSH IT!” into the face of her sweat-soaked, verdant victim, sobbing on a treadmill. Biggest Losers hike, swim, hit the gym. The message: You have to move your body in order to lose the weight.

And then there’s the food. An abundance of Americans don’t practice proper nutrition, particularly obese people who often have no clue about what’s in their food; nor do they understand how to make better food choices. On the show, nutritionists teach the biggest losers how to eat by literally taking them by the hand and showing them how to navigate the supermarket. They pick out healthy foods, and for some, it’s the first time they’ve ever shopped in the produce aisle. Contestants learn how to read labels, what to eat and how much. For meals on the ranch, a deck of cards equals a protein; it’s a softball-sized serving of vegetables, a baseball measures rice or pasta and a domino is a serving of cheese. This makes it easy for the home viewer to makeover their own pantry and adopt the ranch serving sizes to correct their own portion distortion.

The Bad

And The Ugly

Let’s revisit that extreme(ly) fast weight loss. Yes, the show is medically supervised. Yes, participants are required to eat a minimum number of calories. But sometimes they don’t. It’s a competition with a lot a stake. People will take desperate measures: Starve themselves; sneak in middle of the night workouts and bake in the sauna to keep from falling below the yellow line, according to blogs and post-show interviews of Biggest Loser contestants. (Finalist Ryan Benson has said that he stopped eating solid food before the finale and resorted to old wrestling weight-loss tricks like putting on a plastic suit and sitting in the sauna to drop water weight.) And lest we forget, this is TV—ratings matter. To grab your attention, The Biggest Loser throws in some humiliating segments. They rotate several different setups like tempting competitors with platters of fattening foods to test their resistance, or have them hang onto a rope over a pool to see who’s the last to fall off. I guess that’s meant to build willpower and stamina, but really it’s just a way to abuse them and entertain us.

And another ugly is that too often they regain the weight. Once the cameras stop rolling and ranchers go back home and back to their old lifestyles and eating habits, they pack on the pounds. Trainer Bob says about 50 percent maintain the weight loss, which is better than the 20 percent success rate of going it alone.

So what’s the takeaway?