The Biggest Loser has been a subject of controversy since its inception, beginning with the somewhat spiteful jab at its contestants in the title. Though it is inspiring, or at the very least entertaining, for people watching to see contestants make a drastic physical transformation, it is probably a difficult psychological experiment to go through.
One of the most remembered examples of someone crossing a line from "health regimen" to "alleged eating disorder," was the winner of season 15, Rachel Frederickson, who won after losing 155 pounds. Frederickson went from 260 pounds to 105 pounds for the season finale, and the change was alarming. Trainer Jillian Michaels, who had worked on the show for ten years, left soon after the season ended, and her reaction to Frederickson's weight loss was much discussed:
Both Michaels and fellow trainer Bob Harper look horrified, and later blamed Frederickson's trainer, Dolvett Quince, for driving her past the point of safe weight loss for the sake of winning the competition.
Now a new study suggests that going through The Biggest Loser challenge, and winning, may be the worst thing for long term weight loss. Led by Dr. Kevin Hall, a metabolism expert at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, the study followed what happened to the bodies of 14 contestants from Season 8.
Basically, their metabolisms were wrecked. Most of them have gained their weight back, in some cases, gained even more. Most reported that their weight gain happened too quickly to be caused simply from sliding back into old habits, though it was difficult to convince people around them that something extreme had happened to change their very make-up.
Scientists measured chemicals in the contestants' bodies, and the number of calories those bodies burned vs. what they should normally be burning according the average for their body type. Jezebelbreaks down the discoveries:
When contestants began the show, their resting metabolism (meaning the number of calories they burned daily) was normal. While any dieting regimen will result in a decreased metabolism, the contestants changes were so radical that it was virtually impossible to eat so little that the body could maintain its current weight. Even more surprising was that in the six years following, their metabolisms never recovered—in fact, they became even slower.
Season 8’s winner, Danny Cahill, began the show weighing 430 pounds and ended at 191 pounds. His was the biggest weight loss in the show’s history, and now, he weighs 295 pounds. According to the study's measurements, he burns 800 fewer calories per day than a man his size should. Cahill told The New York Times, "All my friends were drinking beer and not gaining massive amounts of weight... The moment I started drinking beer, there goes another 20 pounds. I said, ‘This is not right. Something is wrong with my body.'"
There are detractors who warn that the sample size for the study is too small to draw any conclusions. 14 people isn't really enough to make a definitive statement on the show, or its success rate. However, if there is no underlying medical reason for your size, it seems like common sense that losing the equivalent of half your body weight, or more, in the duration of a reality TV cycle would be dangerous.
Our society puts constant pressure on people to be thin, to push themselves harder, and abuse themselves in pursuit of an elusive physical perfection. Though there are likely contestants who feel positively transformed by their experience, many more are also discovering that the opportunity for change they were offered was as much of a myth as the perfection we're told to chase.