Does 'The Biggest Loser' Hurt or Help Obese People?

Staff - webmd.com - 01/18/2012
Obesity Trends

Jan. 18, 2012 -- Losing weight and entertaining people at the same time seems like a win-win situation. But such might not be the case for the reality show The Biggest Loser.

Watching reality TV game show contestants sweat, strain, and diet their way to big weight loss may actually lead viewers, especially thin viewers, to more harshly judge all overweight people, a new study shows.

Researchers think the reason is that the show appears to do a good job of convincing us that body weight is entirely within a person’s control.

That sets up the idea that if show contestants can shrink dramatically, everyone should be able to.

The problem with that notion, experts say, is that it just isn’t true.

“The real reality is that significant, sustainable weight loss is not achievable for most people,” says Rebecca Puhl, PhD, director of research at the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at Yale University in New Haven, Conn., in an email to WebMD.

“We know that the most that we can really expect people to lose and keep off over time from conventional weight loss programs is about 10% of body weight,” says Puhl, who studies weight bias, but was not involved in the current research.

“Of course, some people lose more than that, but the vast majority regains that weight within one to five years. We also see this happening on the show -- when people leave the show, many regain the weight back,” she says.

A spokeswoman for NBC, the network that produces “The Biggest Loser,” declined to comment on the study.

Fueling 'Negative Attitudes'?

The show, now in its 13th season, has been a blockbuster success, spawning an online weight loss program, a line of diet and nutritional supplements, and two luxury weight loss resorts.

“It’s great entertainment,” says researcher Robert A. Carels, PhD, a psychologist and associate professor at Bowling Green State University, in Ohio.

“In some respects, it does seem to portray obese individuals in a positive light. You get to see their background stories. They work very hard. You’re connected to the characters.”

“On the other hand,” Carels says, “it might kind of backfire.”

He says his study and a couple of others have suggested that extreme weight-loss shows, which typically show contestants losing hundreds of pounds with several hours of daily exercise and strict dieting, all while they leave their family and jobs for weeks or months, “may fuel some of these other negative attitudes about how controllable weight is.”

Testing Attitudes After Watching Extreme Weight Loss

For the study, which is published in the journal Obesity, 59 college students were randomly assigned to watch an episode of The Biggest Loser or a nature-based reality show, Meerkat Manor, for comparison.

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