Shocker: “The Biggest Loser” promotes unhealthy weight loss practices

Apparently contestants on The Biggest Loser exercise for six hours a day, dehydrate themselves until they urinate blood, and push their bodies to extreme limits, sometimes causing them to pass out or be otherwise injured. Two contestants were taken to the emergency room on the first episode of the current season. Gawker summarizes the Times article thusly:

  • The winner of season one “dropped some of the weight by fasting and dehydrating himself to the point that he was urinating blood.” Actually many of the people dropped mostly water weight, and gained much of it back after the show ended and they began hydrating properly.
  • Whose fault is it that these dangerously fat people are dangerously dehydrating themselves in pursuit of a cash prize? The fault of the fat people themselves, according to the professional fitness trainer Jillian “Evil” Michaels. “Contestants can get a little too crazy and they can get too thin,” she said.
  • Don’t go blaming the show for that; they never said they were qualified to know about health and weight loss and whatever! The show’s waivers state that no guarantees have been made that the medical professionals are qualified to “diagnose medical conditions that may affect my fitness to participate in the series.”
  • Also the show tried to intimidate former contestants into not speaking to the New York Times.

The contestants also end up gaining weight back after the show, through such unhealthy practices as drinking water.

Inspiring people to eat healthier and exercise more is a great goal. Exercise is great! Healthy, nutritious food is great! But that’s not what The Biggest Loser does. The Biggest Loser puts fat people on display as moral failures — it suggests that people are fat simply because they are lazy, and if only they worked a little harder, they could lose the weight. In reality, the contestants are nearly killing themselves for the amusement of the viewing audience. I’ve never actually watched The Biggest Loser because the whole concept disturbs me, but I’m further unnerved to know that the show puts its contestants through extreme weight-loss without proper medical oversight. To make matters worse, they do it under the guise of “health” — as if extreme exercise, disordered eating and intentional dehydration are “healthy” so long as they make you thin.

I suppose, though, that a real show about health — where in the end there would still be some healthy fat people and some healthy thin people and some healthy in-between people — would make really boring TV. But NBC could at least drop the pretense of The Biggest Loser being a “health” show and just admit it’s about making fat people do all sorts of extreme and dangerous things for our entertainment. You know, hold up the mirror.

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17 comments for “Shocker: “The Biggest Loser” promotes unhealthy weight loss practices

  1. Dana
    November 25, 2009 at 1:24 pm

    Hmmm. I have always been extremely uncomfortable with that show (I’ve seen maybe 5 minutes total channel-flicking during ad breaks), but I have a very overweight friend who finds it inspirational.

    It is both unsurprising and depressing to hear how unhealthy and simply ridiculous the show is – overtraining never helped anyone even looking at this in the best possible light.

    Oh and “Don’t go blaming the show for that; they never said they were qualified to know about health and weight loss and whatever”? Nice dodging any responsibility. Eugh.

  2. me and not you
    November 25, 2009 at 2:03 pm

    I despise that show thoroughly. Someone, I don’t remember who, pointed out that if they were ACTUALLY interested in improving the health of the people involved, they wouldn’t eliminate anyone. There could still be a -winner-, but people wouldn’t loose out on the potential to improve their lives (based on the premise of the show – i.e. becoming ‘healthy’ by loosing excess weight should improve life for whatever individual reason).

  3. Tonya
    November 25, 2009 at 2:03 pm

    I’ve watched it a few times. On one episode, I saw someone exercise so much and THROW UP. That’s extremely unhealthy. I can’t believe the show would say that they can’t determine people’s health and don’t claim to be experts. Last time I checked, a person that claims to be a personal trainer or nutritionist is supposed to be able to determine whether someone should participate in this show. Are they saying they just allow random people to say they’re personal trainers or nutritionists to come be on the show and torture people??? WTF?!?!

    I, personally, don’t think there’s anything wrong with someone wanting to lose weight, but doing it in this unhealthy way is crazy.

    They’re going to wait for someone to die on this show before they take it off the air or investigate the producers for allowing this madness to carry on.

  4. kutsuwamushi
    November 25, 2009 at 2:16 pm

    I’ve seen the show a few times. They probably edit a lot of the “reality” out of it before it airs; the personal trainer blaming the contestants for pushing themselves too hard is hard to believe, when one of most frequent types of scenes on the show is a fat person wanting to give up an quit exercising because they’re exhausted, while their virtuously thin trainer yells encouragement at them.

    The unhealthy diet is something the audience didn’t see in any of the episodes I caught. That’s probably edited out too. Unless you suspect it from the amount of weight loss (and the show’s entire narrative is that you can lose that much just through trying), you wouldn’t know about the crash dieting and dehydration.

    When a contestant does collapse, it’s glamorized. I haven’t seen any of those episodes – I avoid it when I can, but I have seen the ads. No awareness whatsoever that this person collapsed because they were doing something unhealthy; they collapsed because they were trying so hard and were such good fat people, so willing to lose weight that they would work until they fall over.

    I hate the Biggest Loser with the fiery hatred of a thousand fiery suns.

    I hated it even before I knew about the extremes the contestants go to, because the focus of the show is entirely wrong: it’s about how much weight you lose, not how much healthier you become. It’s flawed from the start. The show’s metric of success is who’s lost the most weight, regardless of how healthy it is for different people. And that’s just emblematic of everything that’s wrong about our approach to fat in our society.

  5. November 25, 2009 at 3:26 pm

    I cannot express in words how much I agree withe everyfuckingthing you said here. That shows gives me major heebie-jeebies. As a fat woman who has worked hard to turn her thinking around and correct her heavily disordered dieting behavior, that show would trigger all sorts of horrible things deep in my ever-loving gut. Thankfully I’ve never had to watch even 2 minutes of it, but I am constantly appalled by the fact that many people I know DO watch it. It’s such an affront to women, fat people, and pretty much everyone.

  6. jayinchicago
    November 25, 2009 at 4:02 pm

    Whose fault is it that these dangerously fat people are dangerously dehydrating

    • November 25, 2009 at 4:08 pm

      Jay, I read that as Gawker being sarcastic. Maybe I was being too generous.

  7. Nicholas
    November 25, 2009 at 4:10 pm

    Meh, the show is not that outrageous if one has ever played football (some people are pukers), cut weight for wrestling or gone to boot camp/officer candidate school.

    While not hydrating is EXTREMELY unhealthy, the fact is that people freely compete just to get on the show, and that lots of Americans enjoy the spectacle. I find it hard to muster outrage, and while the personal trainers’ physiques might imply a particular ideal body image, the major message of the show seems to me to be that morbid obesity is not healthy, not that every man must have muscles and every woman must be a size 2.

    It is, of course, well within any person’s right to choose to ignore what we deem to be “societally ideal” concepts of weight. But pushing your body to move beyond a limit you’ve never done before is a very human characteristic and one has been rewarded in legend and lore throughout history (e.g. The Marathon). And sometimes you puke or collapse. I know I have.

  8. November 25, 2009 at 4:14 pm

    “Biggest Loser” is a bizarrely post-modern show. It’s weight-loss as a spectator sport! That alone makes my mind boggle.

    The most transparent falsehood of the series is the notion that the contestants have “failed” before this to be healthy. If you had a six-week vacation with access to personal trainers and quite literally had nothing else to do but exercise, yes, you too would lose weight. But that’s not a realistic standard, and everyone knows it. Like most ‘reality’ television, it is utterly unreal and unrealistic. It’s heavily edited with clear narratives established through selective editing, and while the contestants aren’t professional actors, they are aware of the cameras, give interviews, and are acting.

  9. November 25, 2009 at 4:33 pm

    When you are pissing blood, something is wrong. That’s not “oh, these people can’t tough it out, no pain, no gain.” That’s “holy shit, these people need medical attention and how the fuck did anyone think this was okay.” Yes, some people are “pukers,” but I’m pretty sure that any high school football coach that would work out their team to the point of pissing blood would be fired, at least where I live.

  10. November 25, 2009 at 5:02 pm

    I despise that show thoroughly. Someone, I don’t remember who, pointed out that if they were ACTUALLY interested in improving the health of the people involved, they wouldn’t eliminate anyone.
    And this is why I refuse to watch that show. This show did not come about because someone thought it would be inspirational. (And anyone who does find it inspirational is not their target audience, they are people who found the inspiration on their own from the show.) It came about because reality tv is what is making the big bucks these days and the makers of the show were only looking for a topic that would get them ratings. Like those cooking, modelling, or singer shows the makers don’t care about who wins its all about the money and attention they get from the show itself. (Kinda like people who make a fortune selling books and kits on how to make a fortune.)

    Weight is a serious issue these days (especially with all this talk of health care) and makers of the show know that and saw a chance to profit from it. I get enough flack about being fat that I don’t have to voluntarily tune in to watch fat men worked to unhealthey extremes for entertainment.

    Sadly I think Tonya is right its going to take someone dying on that show to put that show under a serious microscope.

  11. Bitter Scribe
    November 25, 2009 at 5:22 pm

    Reality TV in general seems to be a genre where rules get tossed out the window, and participants can be abused seemingly at will. Check out this NY Times article for a good overview. These kids (and they’re mostly kids) are isolated, deprived of food and sleep, and plied with liquor, to make them more volative and combative. Creepy and exploitive.

  12. MB
    November 25, 2009 at 7:19 pm

    I hope you don’t think less of me but I have to admit I do watch this show and I agree with almost everything that was said here. It is so unrealistic and extremely dangerous but I still love it.

    The one thing I disagree with here is that I don’t believe the Biggest Loser portrays fat people as moral failures or suggests that people are fat simply because they are lazy. The trainers actually work with the contestants to help them figure out why they are overweight. The ones that keep it off are the ones that figure out their underlying issues.

    I definitely have a love/hate relationship with the show. I wrote a post about it here:

  13. Dana
    November 26, 2009 at 6:33 pm

    Meh, the show is not that outrageous if one has ever played football (some people are pukers), cut weight for wrestling or gone to boot camp/officer candidate school.

    I find it shocking. Yeah, people puking is a non-issue to me but I have dieted extremely and saunaed down to fight weight (kickboxing) but at the end of the day people doing that are already slim and extremely fit.

    That is a different beast altogether from people who are obese, may be completely sedentary, and certainly are not in a good condition to be dehydrating themselves down – for what reason? The point of the show is to get slimmer, losing water-weight gets you points but ultimately is counterproductive for losing fat long-term.

    Oh and I’ve never known any fighters or bodybuilders who pissed blood due to getting cut. I mean seriously?

    And I really hope the “up to 6 hours a day” is not every day, because that would just be stupid. Rest is as important as exercise for muscle growth and fat loss, if they’re training that much every day it’s entirely counterproductive.

    Yup, it’s a disgusting farce so people like the awful trainer referenced above can laugh at fat people and feel superior. Sure, it makes money, but I don’t have to like it – and if it has to exist, they could make it slightly more realistic.

  14. Laurie
    November 27, 2009 at 3:28 pm

    I admit that I have been watching and enjoying the show this season, as do a lot of people I know. The criticisms of the show are well-taken but I am not sure it is fair to demonize “The Biggest Loser.”

    Watching it, I have wondered about the high number of pounds the contestants lose each week. The conventional medical wisdom (which I accept) is that it is not healthy to lose more than one or two pounds a week; yet the contests generally lose between five and fifteen pounds a week. I had assumed (perhaps incorrectly?) that the medical rules are different for people who are as heavy as the contestants on the show and who are under medical supervision. But I was disturbed that there is not an adequate disclaimer advising viewers to take weight loss more slowly at home.

    I was also disturbed that that this season began with a one mile race. As a runner, I know that it is not a good idea to have people who are not used to exercising run that far without training for it. That is a distance you work up to gradually over time — and to make it a race was just asking for trouble. It wasn’t exactly a shocker to me when a contestant collapsed. But I note that the consulting doctor admitted in the New York Times story that the race was a mistake.

    On the other hand, I am not sure it is fair to blame the show for unhealthy practices like contestants dehydrating themselves. The Times story claims that the show tests and disqualifies contestants who show signs of dehydration or the use of diuretics. Moreover, having been involved in competitive sports much of my life, I know competitors often go to extremes to lose weight even when such is strongly discouraged by coaches.

    Of course, this begs the question of whether, weight loss should ever be considered be made into a competition, especially on national television, where the pressure must seem enormous. I think this is a judgment call and may depend on the individuals involved. For many, the element of competition may be an important motivating factor. But the element of competition may drive others off the deep end.

    I strongly disagree with the contention that the show presents weight as a moral issue with the contestants as moral failures. I think a really strong aspect of the show is that it presents the contestants’ starting weight in context and also very much humanizes the contestants. The show repeatedly points out that the contestants gained their weight in a world where we are constantly surrounded by huge portions of unhealthy foods, starting as early as the school cafeteria. It is also made clear that individual factors leading to weight gain have nothing to do with lack of virtue. Rather, it is often a response to stressors — like being everyone’s caretaker, experiencing personal tragedy or a dysfunctional upbringing, or dealing with a very demanding schedule. Peer pressure and family pressure also play a role. I actually think the show does a good job of fully humanizing the contestants and establishing that obesity is not a product of laziness and lack of willpower. It also shows contestants coming up with solutions to their obstacles — like incorporating one children’s into one’s exercise routine so as to juggle demands of both parenthood and healthy living.

    Viewers enjoy the show because we all struggle with how hard it can be to eat healthfully and exercise regularly. We see ourselves in the contestants and find some inspiration in their successes. I don’t think there is any vibe of, “Ha ha, look at the fat people.”

  15. Em
    November 28, 2009 at 7:02 pm

    “The trainers actually work with the contestants to help them figure out why they are overweight. The ones that keep it off are the ones that figure out their underlying issues.”

    This statement is problematic because it implies that being fat is a symptom of an underlying problem. Some people are healthy, whole, active – and also fat. Humans naturally and healthfully come in all shapes and sizes. To imply that being “of size” is an outward sign of being psycholigcally broken is insulting.

  16. November 29, 2009 at 12:30 pm

    Meh, the show is not that outrageous if one has ever played football (some people are pukers), cut weight for wrestling or gone to boot camp/officer candidate school.

    Regardless of the setting, working yourself into dehyration, pissing blood and puking is not healthy. Football and wrestling coaches look the other way when their players do dangerous things to lose weight or just to make the team, and quite often, these athletes die as a result. The military at least has the excuse that soldiers will face harsh conditions for which they must be fit (and, since they own your ass in the military, they will take some precautions to protect their investment); football, wrestling and The Biggest Loser are all just for our amusement.

    Oh, and the messenger at Marathon? Died after delivering his message.

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