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Biggest Loser a Loser?

May 24, 2016 | Leave a Comment

Several clients have emailed in regards to the New York Times “Biggest Loser” article.  If you are unfamiliar with the article, you can check it out here: 

Most of the concerns were asking my input on the article and if the ever popular “Biggest Loser Challenge” in the workplace is safe and a still good idea.  Having the opportunity to personal train actual Biggest Loser contestants in the early episodes once they were kicked off the show and eligible for the second place prize, I have plenty to say about the article.

Let me first begin by addressing, challenges within the workplace, I think Biggest Loser Challenges can be fun and safe.  Some key things to keep in mind are:

  • Educate employees on healthy weight loss (I’m available for seminars and webinars to help with this)
  • Have employees sign a waiver. Some people can get a little too competitive so even with the encouragement of a healthy weight loss challenge, having a waiver signed is still a good idea to cover all bases
  • Don’t run the challenge too long where employees burn out, but not too short where people crash diet.  Aim for an 8-12 week time frame
  • Don’t make the incentive prize too large.  This is where I see issues with employees going to extreme lengths to lose weight.

My last point brings me to the article.  We have to remember the Biggest Loser show is Reality TV; TV being the key word.  It’s great the show has motivated thousands of people over the years to lose weight, however, thousands have also been discouraged when we can’t seem to achieve the same results contestants do on TV.  With $250,000 at stake, contestants are willing to do whatever it takes to win the prize money. To win the money, you have to lose the most weight.  It does not matter if that weight is fat mass or lean body mass (muscle mass).  

To make sure we are all on the same page, muscle does not weigh more than fat as many still believe.  A pound is a pound; muscle is denser and takes up less space than fat.  Muscle is also more metabolically active meaning it burns more calories than fat, which yes, is a good thing in real life. On TV, this does not matter, pounds are the only thing that matter on the show and it doesn’t matter if those are fat pounds or muscle pounds lost.  In the real world, a good trainer or nutritionist/dietitian would hopefully never try to pull muscle off your body.  When $250,000 are at stake and the nation is watching, this goes out the window.  I’m embarrassed to say, I know this first hand.  One contestant I worked with was a former collegiate football player.  He had a ton of muscle mass and yes obviously plenty of fat mass too.   We did everything we could to break down his muscle mass along with his fat mass to get him to shed any amount of weight possible.   

Let’s dig into the actual research article that was used for the New York Times magazine article:   

  • Not once in the article is it mentioned only 14 contestants participated in the research study.  14 is a small sample size considering the show has aired for almost 12 years.
  • RMR (resting metabolic rate) can be lower or higher depending on if a person is currently restricting calories or eating in a surplus.  If participants knew they were going to be weighed for the study they were probably actively trying to lose weight for the weigh-in, thus resulting in a lower RMR at the specific point in time.
  • NEAT (non-exercise activity thermogenesis) or physical activity usually shows greater decreases than RMR and in the study there were no changes reported to actual physical activity. Physical activity actually went up and RMR went down.  Again, leading towards the idea that participants were probably trying to lose some weight before they had to weigh in.
  • At the end of the day, total energy expenditure is what matters, not the resting metabolic rate which was measured at one point in time.
  • The study also did not specify if contestants weighed themselves, if they were clothed, etc.  So there could be a lot of variation in numbers if contestants were given a scale and just told to ‘weigh-in’ at home.

The contestants on the show lost a lot of weight and many times in unhealthy ways because it’s reality TV.  Of course, some of them put weight back on after the show because contestants were most likely not educated correctly on proper and healthy weight loss.  While the article was not a bad research article, it left out some important details.  Even more importantly, the New York Times article really only gave us half the truth.  There are plenty of people who have lost a lot of weight and kept it off.  Don’t become discouraged on your workplace competitions because of one article, just make sure you are providing employees with education and resources on how to healthfully lose weight.


 written by: Gina Starnes, The Cornerstone Insurance Group, Total Wellness Director


Aragon, A.  AARR: Alan Aragon’s Research Review. 2016 April 1.

Fothergill E, et al. Persistent metabolic adaptation 6 years after The Biggest Loser competition.  2016 May 2.

Posted in Blog, Wellness

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