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.
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?
You can lose weight. Granted, it would be a hell of a lot easier if you could quit your job, live on a ranch and completely devote yourself to fitting into a pair of skinny jeans. But since that’s not reality for most of us, you’ll just have to work harder and be more creative with your resources. Take for example, a group of co-workers who created their own version of The Biggest Loser. Twenty overweight staffers working at the Department of Child Welfare in Philadelphia paid $50 to participate in a weight-loss competition. For two 45-day intervals, they held weekly weigh-ins and monitored each other’s progress.
“Watching really big people work so hard on the show motivated me to do something about my own weight. Being able to make it a game and having the support of my co-workers made me accountable and made me want to stick with it,” says Elizabeth B., a 22-year-old social worker. “There was a lot of encouragement and a group of us worked out together at the gym. We stopped eating fast food and would bring in a healthy, brown bag lunch.” Three months later, they held the final weigh-in. Elizabeth won the overall competition: She dropped 37 pounds and won $500. She said the money was a big part of her motivation; she was planning a move to New York to attend grad school and could use the extra cash.
So The Biggest Loser is good, bad and ugly. Take it for what it is: television. Losing weight, especially a lot of weight, is a huge undertaking and requires hard work and commitment. But in the meantime, for a little inspiration, tune in, learn the lessons—and lose the weight.
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Alicia Villarosa is a regular contributor to The Root.