Weight Loss Reality TV Shows: Good, Bad or Ugly?

The pros and cons of weight loss reality shows, such as NBC’s The Biggest Loser, was the topic of my most recent post for WebMD’s blog Real Life Nutrition.  Hope you’ll check it out.


Are you a fan of the show?  It certainly has its fans and distractors.  No doubt, The Biggest Loser pulls in the ratings, yet each episode sparks a flurry of online discussions — from tweets to blog posts — with each side passionately making their case on why the show is good or bad, inspiring or insulting.  One vocal critic as been physician Yoni Freedhoff, who has sounded off against The Biggest Loser’s approach on his blog Weighty Matters and on U.S. News, including this post  When Science Met The Biggest Loser.

The critics , including Dr. Freedhoff, have come out swinging even harder against the episodes featuring children.  Even though there’s a pediatrician working with the show, other pediatricians have expressed concerns about the humiliation and potential long-term harm inflicted on the young participants.

So what do you think, are these shows good or bad? I looked at what some recent studies have found and talked to a few experts to get their perspective of weight loss reality shows.

First, I think it’s an extremely good thing that a registered dietitian consults with The Biggest Loser. Cheryl Forberg has worked with the show from the beginning — providing behind-the-scenes nutrition consultation with each of the contestants.  She evaluates their food journals, monitors the nutritional adequacy of their diets, and is an on-going nutrition coach via weekly conference calls. Forberg thinks the biggest benefit of the show is inspiration. She hears from a lot from people who say: “If they can do, then so can I.” There’s always a lot of emotion expressed on the show, and the stories can be inspiring to others.  It also promotes the concept of accountability.  If you have a workout buddy, for instance, you’ll be more likely to stick with a new exercise routine. A friendly competition, or some type of incentive, has been shown to help people follow through on a commitment and reach a goal. Plus, there’s growing evidence that healthy habits are contagious.  So if you’re in a social network – whether online, at work, or in your own neighborhood – you may be more likely to adopt positive behaviors if others around you are doing the same.

The Biggest Loser has its own fan club, with lots of supporters, and there’s been a slew of best-selling books, DVDs and other products based on the show.  But there are also vocal critics of weight loss reality shows like The Biggest Loser, including nutrition researcher and advocate Linda Bacon, who thinks they humiliate the participants.

“I can’t find anything ‘pro’ or positive about shows built on shaming and self-hate,” said Bacon, who is the author of Health at Every Size: The Surprising Truth About Your Weight.  “The damage to the participants seems pretty obvious. For viewers, rather than inspiring people to care for themselves, weight-loss shows are more likely to inspire discomfort and fear: Even thin people can fear being judged by the harsh standards of reality TV.”

Boston-based registered dietitian Nancy Clark agrees.

“The messages in The Biggest Loser are all about deprivation, denial, starvation and punishment. Eating is viewed as cheating and food is  the fattening enemy,” said Clark, who is the author of Nancy’s Clarks Sports Nutrition Guidebook. Clark is especially troubled by how the show depicts exercise, which is akin to “torture,” she said

One recent study in the American Journal of Health Behavior suggests this type of intimidating, punishing approach to exercise could backfire. After viewing episodes ofThe Biggest Loser, participants in the study were less motivated to exercise because they anticipated it would be an unpleasant experience.

Clark told me

“The E in exercise should also stand for enjoyment. When exercise feels like punishment for having undesirable body fat, the day will come when that dieter no longer feels like whipping his or her body into shape and instead reverts to lazing on the couch. The Biggest Losers lose-out in the long run, because extreme diets (either on TV or in your life) teach nothing about sustainable eating and exercise practices that can be enjoyably maintained for the rest of one’s life.”

That brings me to another common complaint about The Biggest Loser, which is the lack of relevance to real-world situations.  The contestants move out of their homes and onto a “ranch” where their only focus is on losing weight.  Even Forberg admits that this set-up is unique because this is their full-time job.  It would be a mistake to expect the same results at home, she said.
Sports nutritionist Nancy Clark thinks the lack of reality in the weight loss reality shows is a major downfall.

“What happens in the long run, when the Biggest Losers return to the real world with no personal trainer to snap the whip, with no pre-made, pre-portioned food, and no ‘fat camp’ dedicated to full time weight loss?  Inevitably, without rigid vigilance, the weight will return with a vengeance. The physiological response to starvation is to overcompensate, commonly known as “binge eating” or “blowing the diet.” This desire to over-eat has little to do with willpower and lots to do with physiology. Just as a person gasps for air if oxygen has been withheld, the same person will grab for carbs if food has been withheld.”

Withholding food may also slow down your metabolism, which will make it even harder to maintain the weight loss.  That’s what Darcy Johannsen and colleagues found after studying 16 participants of The Biggest Loser. Published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, the study found that some of individuals who lost weight had their metabolisms slowed by more than 500 calories – which is basically a meal’s worth of calories that they  no longer burn as a result of severely restricting calories on the show.

So what is your opinion of weight loss reality shows?  Do the benefits outweigh any potential harm?  Maybe these shows are far from reality, but do they inspire and motivate?  Are they getting people off the couch? Maybe the participants can’t maintain this extreme routine once they get home, but my hope is that they’re learning new habits. That’s the only way to sustain a healthier lifestyle.

image courtesy of DivaonaDiet on flickr

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  • You make some really good points in your post. I’ve watched the biggest loser a bunch and its a nice show. I think it’d be better if they’d make it a point to let the audience know this shouldn’t be expected at home. And as a dietetic intern… I really wish the RD on the show got more spotlight. It’s not all about exercise. Nutrition is such a HUGE part that it really deserves way more attention than they give it. Plus… a little extra nod towards RDs being the nutrition experts wouldn’t hurt!

  • So what is your opinion of weight loss reality shows? Do the benefits outweigh any potential harm?

    That’s a tough one to answer. I don’t really watch them, however if they help at least one person to change their habits, lose weight and live a healthier lifestyle., then that can only be a good thing. But if its watched for mere entertainment its a complete waste of time.

  • Ari

    So what is your opinion of weight loss reality shows? Do the benefits outweigh any potential harm?

    Wow, I’d have to say the benefits outweigh (no pun intended) the negative. If nothing else, these shows get out the message that change is possible. If only one person watching the show decides to change his or her life, then it’s worth it.

  • James

    I do have to note one thing: Studies have shown the whole idea that calorie deprivation slows down one’s metabolism to be a myth. Even the study you cited does NOT offer the “conclusion” that the Biggest Loser participants’ experience of caloric deprivation “slowed their metabolism.” There is, in fact, quite a simple explanation. While everyone’s metabolism is different, there is a general rule of thumb you can use, whereby you can estimate the number of calories you need to simply maintain your current weight, by multiplying your weight by about 12. So if someone is 300 pounds at the outset of the show, they can reasonably be assumed to maintain their weight at 300 pounds if they consume 3600 calories a day. However, if they then lost 50 pounds and weighed 250, at that point, they only need 3000 calories a day to maintain their weight. So their metabolism has seemingly “slowed,” but this has NOTHING to do with their diet and everything to do with their success at losing weight.

    I have more issues to quibble about with the show’s detractors (not “distractors”), but I’ll let it drop for now. Suffice to say I find this show, along with A&E’s “Heavy” and ABC’s “Extreme Makeovers: Weight-Loss Edition” to be tremendously inspiring for myself and a lot of people I have as my workout and diet buddies online. (Though I do have a strong preference to Bob’s more “caring” and “encouraging” approach to training than Jillian’s “drill sargeant” and “if you’re not puking, you’re unworthy of my time” appraoch.)

  • James

    I wholeheartedly agree with Maria above that the show needs to reveal a lot more of the “behind the scenes” work — more discussion about HOW LONG they workout all day. (Reports from participants, violating their contracts, on boards like TelevisionWithoutPity.com’s, reveal that it IS essentially a full-time job, with at least two major sessions of 1-2 hours in the gym each day, plus another 2-4 hours of walking the ranch’s 20 miles of trails.) And yes, the first season had some talk about how many calories they were eating — there was even a bit of Jillian vs Bob competiiton, as their teams followed slightly different diets — but that sort of talk has been lacking, brought back a tiny bit more this season with the dietician involved with discussions at home with the child contestants. They should discuss more the dangers of injury from overdoing things and that there are medics on-hand 24/7 so this sort of 4-6 hours a day from Day #1 should NEVER be attempted at home. They need to let everyone know that women’s menstrual cycles affect things a lot. They are doing better at talking about the importance of proper hydration now, but that should be stressed even more. There should also be a psychologist included on the show for when contestants that make it to the finale are at home for the remaining months, showing how difficult it is to adjust to the home environment and what strategies people can use to avoid making excuses, and avoiding codependencies of loved ones.

  • Mary Olguin

    I don’t get weight loss reality TV, excepts for Britain’s Supersize vs Superskinny, because they actually reveal the small habit changes necessary to maintaining a healthy body, and NONE of the main show has to do with exercise, just cutting out processed food and adding more real food. I wish we had American weight loss shows like that. I the American reality weight loss shows do more harm than good because they’re not realistic.

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