March 19, 2009

The Biggest Loser: from reality show to reality?

Okay, I'm wearing the Cranky pants today. (They're always a size too small, hence the crankiness.)

This is the tale of a woman who watched The Biggest Loser and decided to apply it to her own life.

Note: this post is not intended to criticize the Biggest Loser. I have been told, at great length, that a lot of people watch the Biggest Loser and find it inspirational. However, I don't think most people apply it this literally to their lives.

This tale is about a woman who got married, as many women do, settled down, and found herself trying to balance work, family, and a healthy lifestyle. Well, two out of the three, anyway. The weight began creeping up.

(This part I can certainly relate to. The weight creeps up on you like the invasive ivy that your neighbor thought would look really nice planted on their side of the fence. Eventually, you notice it's there and go on an extreme argument with the friggin' neighbor makeover.)

As a regular watcher of The Biggest Loser, she decided to follow their lead. For a full month she lived apart from her family. Aside from her job, her focus was on losing weight.

The husband, and stepson, went to live with his father down the street, and she devoted herself to a rigorous schedule of diet and exercise. Without a recalcitrant teenager it was easier to stock the fridge with healthy foods, and without spending time hanging out with her husband, she had time to concentrate on exercising.

(That part, I don't get. Surely husbands can be trained, with sufficient patience, to exercise? Or at least watch TV while their wives work out? Couldn't she set up the treadmill or weights in the room where they watched TV, and work out while watching reality shows?)

I can't believe Jillian just said that to Tara!

The results, like the results on the Biggest Loser, were impressive. She lost over 13 pounds, and with the increased muscle tone from working out, the overall impression was of a loss closer to 25 pounds. That's pretty good going for 30 days of diet and exercising.

It was great that she lost the fat and gained the muscle. My problem with this is that it was a lot of work for a short-term improvement. Without retraining the people she lives with, the problems that caused the weight gain have not changed. So what's to stop the weight from creeping back? Nothing, so far as I can see.

I can see a wife and mother fantasizing about having the house to herself for a month. But it doesn't seem right to model your behavior after reality shows. They're not really connected to reality.

It's tempting to get all the distractions out of your life and concentrate on what you really want to achieve. But since she clearly has no desire to oust her family permanently (understandably), seems like she put in a lot of effort for a little temporary weight loss.

Can you imagine people imitating the extreme behavior exemplified by reality shows? Survivor as a business model: Can't decide who to layoff? Simple! Strand the whole group on a desert island and come back in a couple weeks to see who's been voted off.

Pick your friends based on how well they dance when paired with real professional dancers!
Look at me, I'm dancing with Tattoo Man!
Photo credit: Tobes501

Want to get a promotion and a raise and fame and fortune? Go into your boss's office and impress him with your tremendous singing ability! This will also have the added side effect of combining promotion with layoffs if you don't sing quite as well as your co-workers.

Your co-workers seem really enthused... about your leaving...
Photo credit: kwalk268

Then again, there's always the Donald Trump approach -- wait, that's not a reality show, is it? Seems like plain reality to me.

Photo credit: w00kie

Um... am I going to get flamed for this post?

Quick disclaimer: I understand that the show The Biggest Loser inspires (some) people to eat healthy and workout regularly. But I think it's most effective when it brings family members on the show to work together at losing the weight. While isolating yourself from the problems that led to the weight gain can help you lose weight, it's not going to do bupkis about helping you maintain the weight loss.

Re-training yourself -- and your family, if necessary -- works.
Extreme makeovers are showy, but don't address the basic problems.

If you don't change the underlying behavior, the weight is just going to creep up again. What's the point?


  1. GREAT post! So true So has to be a lifestyle change that also changes what your internal dialogue is for anything to stick!

    Have a great day!

  2. Well...maybe. Not sure I agree totally. Unless your family is forcing the fat-ridden food down your throat and tying you down so you can't exercise, your still accountable for your own actions, which may mean developing discipline to "resist the force".

    Many a nights I'm cooking salmon and brown rice while my Greedy Family sneers at me as they chomp on greasy burgers. Yes, I started cooking two separate meals. If they won't eat mine I make them something different. But I'll be damned if their desire to bloat their fat cells is gonna destroy all my hard work. felt good to get that out. Thanks for the therapy session. I owe you one.

  3. Well said. It is almost like a yo-yo diet, something that can work short term but won't work effectively long term. If you are married and have kids you have to work together to create better eating habits. It usually starts with who buys the food and who cooks the food.

  4. Honestly, I just find those shows offensive and can't get myself to watch them. The whole point seems to be to humiliate the participants. What's entertaining about that, and how does it truly help them?

  5. I have not been able to train my husband to exercise, but that has not stopped me from doing it. It seems to me that it's better to find a way to work those healthy habits into your day to day life, otherwise you won't keep it up.

  6. I'll be the lone person that actually likes watching the Biggest Loser, I don't like the "game play" aspect of it, I think that whomever has the lowest % that week should go home and I don't think it needs to be two hours long. But I digress, for the most part I am inspired.

  7. For the most part it irritates me. But you get hooked by their life stories.

    And you just explained the huge flaw with that show (the underlying causes not being addressed).

  8. Ok, I can't stand The Biggest Loser (I cannot cope with the "gaming") - and we get to see not only our Aussie version, but also the US one if we choose to plunk ourselves in front of the idiot box for extra hours of tedium... grrreat!

    BUT one thing the show does well is get the participants started on turning their lives around.

    Sure, no-one's REALLY going to be able to live out their fantasy of no external interferences in their weight loss. But after a month of exercise being such a huge part of her life, and eating real food instead of overprocessed rubbish, I wonder if it will really be so easy to slide back into bad habits.

    I mean, you don't let the ivy coming over the fence get that bad a second time, do you?

    My own experience with losing weight is on a medically managed program that had me on ultra lo-cal shakes and bars for the first month. (I started to add in real food again at the third week - one more shake and I would have shoved the box down the dietitians throat!)

    But did that initial weight loss spur me on towards changing my life? YOU BET!!

    I guess it all comes down to how committed you are to change...

  9. The entertainment value of show such as these is the whole car wreck mentality. You sit and watch with your mouth agape that there couldn't possibly be real people like this and then the next group is shuffled in. One of the themes that the show talks about and even the trainers have discussed both on the show and during talk shows is that the majority of contestants will put the weight back on. I agree with Rupal that this needs to be a lifestyle change, but right now it’s a game show.

  10. I've never watched TBL and as another commenter mentioned it's not appealing to me to watch people humiliate themselves for money. It seems to promote extreme weight-loss methods that are not at all healthy.

    I heard Jillian Michaels mention in a podcast that she puts her contestants on 800 calories per day. "Those poor little b@stards" she laughed. SICK! Not to mention the 4 hours of cardio she has them do.

    That said, I think short-term programs (training or nutrition) that are on the extreme side can be beneficial if they are approached as temporary, flexible and experimental. If you learn something and apply it afterward (rather than just reverting back to the old way of doing things) then you've moved forward overall.

  11. I don't watch the show, but I get to follow it on Tom's site and his excellent updates!!

  12. I like to watch Biggest Loser but more for the entertainment and tips.

    When I made my lifestyle change, I took my family along for the ride......rid the house of most junk, switched to complex carbs, less desserts, began family walks etc. Not showing them how to eat healthy, etc would just be stupid ;)

  13. You mean life in moderation *gasp*
    What a new revolutionary idea. We should all try that. I get your point and it is well taken.
    Good post.

  14. I watch and enjoy the show, even with its very obvious flaws. I agree that the show focuses too much on the physical and not enough on the emotional/mental. Jillian tries, but the true process would be too deep for her to undertake.

    That being said, I think that sometimes people need a kick in the pants before making big fundamental changes in their lives. Some or most of the contestants might not keep all of the weight off, but if a small number do, isn't that still a success?

    Of course, taking a reality show and trying to fit it into reality is a bit silly. So I ultimately agree with the post.

  15. I'd love to know if this woman manages to keep the weight off despite a teenager who brings home fast food and a husband who apparently doesn't exercise himself.

    It's interesting to read about Yum Yucky and other people's experiences in feeding one kind of food to their family and eating another themselves. I think that takes a lot of coordination and self-discipline. (I find it hard enough to organize healthy meals, let alone another set of food as well!)

  16. i agree with the little bubble that contesants are put in this little fitness bubble, and we've all seen what happens when they get sent home. Like the father/son who came home this week to their oversized son/brother. how can you inspire people when you've been on the ranch for 10 weeks, and family hasn't seen or heard from you?

    like my blog yesterday, it's all about accountability. i love that word. not diet, not lifestyle.. accountability and awareness.

    with anything, short term goals will have quick results, but it's the lifetime changes you make that will stick with you and give you overall, long lasting success.

  17. Ah, c'mon! What's wrong with watching people humiliate themselves! And I've actually picked up a tip or two from that show.

    Humiliation + tips = great entertainment. I like TBL.

  18. I don't have time for TV (in the time I could be watching TBL, I' know, staying fit), but I'm familiar with TBL and we even have an office version going on where I work.

    I agree that it's the overall lifestyle that needs to change and if the people one lives with are sabotaging that, getting them out of the house for a month won't necessarily solve the long-term problem.

    However, plenty of people have cured addictions by going into rehab, getting away from the milieu that reinforces their problems. If one comes back stronger, all is well. I could see this model applying to fitness/weight loss as well, under the right circumstances.

    So it's possible that the "send hubby and kiddo away" method would work, but it would only be if the family will be supportive of the new lifestyle and if the woman in question is doing things that will create lasting habits and the strength to sustain them.

  19. Great post.

    I watch the Biggest Loser, more as motivation and inspiration that it is possible to lose large sums of weight, but I am also realistic that the show IS NOT realistic.

    I'm pretty sure anyone could lose weight if real life didn't get in the way!

  20. I don't think I could say any of this better than you did-- but, essentially, I agree.

    Personally, I would be offended and chastized if my husband said he had to leave home to achieve a weight loss goal. Does anyone want to feel like they're an impediment to their partner's well-being?

  21. That's a good point, tfh. In the article that I linked to, the husband pointed out that you would need a very supportive spouse to pull off this 30-day challenge stuff. But it's better to be supportive on a daily basis re a healthy diet and exercise routine.

  22. It would be hard even with the support of your partner.
    Being alone for a month would be an super way to go hard core on fintess and diet. I know for me there is currently a bit of an "issue" in our house about whether meking sure our exercise/mellydance commitments to ourselves are more important than time spent with each other when time is tight. It ashouldn't be a "one or the other" thing, but sometimes, you need a bit of a breather for perspective. Sometimes I know I've given up on some needed rehearsals or workouts for the sake of sanity and marital the end, not a real problem, but it can't all be "me me me" when you ahve a partner or family...if you keep juggling a bunch of balls non-stop you end up dropping them. There just really are only so many hours in the day and you have to find a way to work things into your real life in a balanced way, or I agree with'll come creeping back to you, or something else will implode, even with supportive family.
    I commend the lady in the article for doing this, but it'll be more impressive to talk to her in 6 months and find she's found a way to make it work in her real life...

  23. "The Biggest Loser", for me, is like a horrible-yet-fascinating train wreck. Most of the contestants gain a significant portion of the weight back once they are no longer on the show. Nothing that takes place on the ranch is realistic or even doable in real life. Who has the time to work out 6 hours a day? Who loses 30 pounds in a single week and keeps in off?!?!?! Many contestants have also admitted to taking diuretics, starving themselves, and purposely dehydrating themselves before a weigh-in.
    TBL is HARDLY a model for healthy, sustainable weight loss!
    (Having said that, I DO enjoy Jillian and Bob's workout DVDs!)

  24. I liked shows like the biggest loser when I first lost weight, it made me feel like I could do it to (plus it gave me something to watch while I waddled on the treadmill). Now, not as much, for one thing I'm too busy, for the other I don't like the way they drag crap out. But I think everyone in the family needs to eat better, Mom runs the show. My Ex ate horriby and wouldn't accept any changes, in anything....hmmmm, notice he's an Ex now. :)

  25. haha, great post! Reality shows are hardly reality. My husband always gets pissed at the Biggest Loser because people expect to get similar results from him in the real "real world". I think people only go on reality shows to get famous anyway.

  26. Very true. I could probably accomplish a lot if I lived by myself with no obligations (work, family, chores, kid, etc.). Not reality. Vee at

  27. Great post. I don't think I have anything to add. (Except that I hate BL with a fiery passion. Seriously. Especially because I don't they're humiliating themselves; I think they're BEING humiliated by a culture that thinks humiliating fat people is ok.)

  28. I am one of the few that like TBL but being a fitness freak, I understand that what they are doing is extreme & they have started to discuss that more in the past couple of seasons saying that the contestants work out way more than the average person & it is not typical of being at home. I also look for any of the exercises that I can use & wish they would show more of that!

    I do agree that people need to learn how to handle their own personal living situation but I eat completely different from my husband, am a gym freak & he is not etc. and I just do what is right for me.

    As you see these families, you see that most of them are made up of members with weight issues too. My hope is that not only will they learn tools to help them lose & maintain weight, but maybe save their life & a family member as well by bringing home healthier habits.

    I do agree though that you best learn to put yourself first in terms of health & fitness and figure out how to do what is best for you no matter what else is happening in your own home.

  29. Wow...i'd love to get the house all to myself for a month...but I am dang sure I wouldn't be eating healthy and exercising during that time. I'd have to be the one that left and go to some sort of Fat Farm or something, in order to get those good results.

    And yes, I agree with the rest of you who think that w/out a lifestyle change, she's not gonna keep the weight off.

  30. I agree. A lot of my own personal mission of weight loss has to do with making the healthier choices work WITH my lifestyle. Otherwise, what IS the point? I also think it's slightly selfish that she just packed everyone else off, instead of trying to get them to work with her. It would benefit them too! (Though my BF is fairly unmoveable in his ways, so I can see might have to eventually give in and just go it on your own, in your own house)

  31. I've had to go it alone in my house. I cook two separate dinners to. My husband will have nothing to do with exercise or dieting (eventhough he needs it), and my children are two and three years old, they aren't going to eat what i'm eating everyday, and why should they. So, after months of begging and trying to convince my husband to join me i've given up on him and I am worrying about myself for now, hopefully i'll inspire him or something. But, it does make it really hard when everyone is eating pizza and ice cream and you've a plate of veggies and meat.

  32. Go Fritzi!!!

    Maybe when they see how slim and gorgeous you're looking, they'll be inspired to follow your lead?

  33. Love this post, Merry! It's so true that reality shows are so contrived as to be a world away from "reality." I'm glad that that woman found a way to get healthier but I'm concerned that she may now forever see her husband and child as impediments in her healthy lifestyle rather than as supporters. Besides, focusing one's life 100% around losing weight can make for problems more extreme than being a bit heavy would.

  34. I'm on board with you. I'm not a fan of the Biggest Loser because I feel as if it creates an artificial environment for people that all but guarantees results that can't be duplicated under real-world circumstances. So, then, a legitimate question is: "Why denigrate a show that creates so much inspiration for people?" And it's a legitimate question. My answer is: Because "inspiration" is temporary. Inspiration, in this case, is only beneficial if it leads to people making long-term, sustainable life-changes that are adaptable to the real world environment. But this show illustrates unrealistic improvements in a controlled, fantasy environment. In the real world we have jobs, families, social obligations, we may not have the resources for trainers and dietitians and coaches to hold us accountable every day, so we need to make adaptations that can sustain themselves in real life. Losing 10 pounds a week isn't realistic or sustainable, but losing a pound of fat per week, which is healthy and reasonable, JUST ISN'T SEXY ENOUGH FOR PRIME TIME! My hope would be that we could create a format for this type of healthy life improvement that would be inspirational and sustainable. That would be a show worth watching. In the meantime, if this show inspires improvement, even if it's fleeting, then that's a good thing. I just hope that when the inspiration wanes people will find other reasonable ways to continue to improve their health.

  35. i've never watched it... my whole family does stuff together(youngest is my buddy, oldest is dad's)...i do all the cooking. i very rarely do two meals, unless i'm being supernice and cooking them fish, cuz i hate it.

  36. Awesome post, Merry! I think you've totally nailed this. What we see in the media should NOT be taken as a literal translation of how we should act in our daily lives. It's TV for a reason- it's gotta be extreme to be entertaining.

  37. I cant stand BL any longer.
    Was it that different the first few cycles OR did I just not know how much they were exercising/not eating yet?

  38. yeah this story, like Biggest Loser, is unrealistic. Being away from everyday distractions to lose weight, who can do that forever. Although I do not have a teenager, my husband never gets in the way. Every night I go to the gym, while he waits at home for dinner. lol. What will happen when she returns home, like so many of the contestants on Biggest Loser start to return to weight gain when they go home. Losing weight and eating healthy is a marathon not a sprint.

  39. My roommate refused to watch Biggest Loser with me because I would become so irate.

    It's not a sustainable or realistic way of losing weight, not to mention the blatant product placement (since when is Subway a bastion of health?!).

    I'm getting worked up just thinking about it. But yeah, BL exemplifies this disconnect between wanting visible 'Ooh and ahh' results, and actually understanding your body and pursuing health as a way of life (not solely as a way to weight loss).

    It might be inspiring for some, but it certainly doesn't equip people with the resources they need to make lasting, positive and sustainable change.

  40. Merry,

    Enjoyed this post...nice work :-)

    I didn't read all 40 comments, so forgive me if this is all repeat.

    I think that if a person is SO entrenched in horrible habits that small and gradual changes don't gain a toehold, then yes, a complete break with everyday life might be necessary to establish a new routine.

    HOWEVER, most of the time, this is simply not the case. For most of us, small, gradual and sustainable is the way to go.

    Also, missing from TBL: balance. I think it's important, when one is trying to introduce positive change, to not obsess on the area of positive change (in this case, diet and exercise). In other words, introduce other enticements. Always wanted to learn to yodel? Learn to yodel while dropping the pounds, or whatever. Don't just obsess about the areas in which you "fall short".

    Just my 2cs...

  41. I can absolutely understand how isolating yourself from the bad habits of others could bring on weight loss. While there's the possibility of gaining the weight once "regular life" resumes, the jumpstart of having lost those first few pounds might be the encouragement some people need to keep up a healthy lifestyle.

  42. The Biggest Loser is fantastic. I never watch it.

    But I believe that it delivers a great message for obese people - you can lose weight. You are not alone or unique with your problem and your situation is reversible.

    Their methods seem to be absolutely crazy - that's why I never watch it, but at least it promotes hope and encouragement.

  43. It is interesting trying to instigate change when living with teenagers and husbands. I have two teenage sons but have slowly over time changed our eating habits as that is how it happpened for me. I was never a hare in this race, always the turtle, so my family has only had to adapt slowly. I can't imagine trying to make big changes quickly without moving out of home!

  44. Also depends how much weight you have to lose. If you have lots of weight to lose it is much easier to kickstart it by seperating yourself from the problem, building yourself up and then being in a better position to deal with the problem when you get back. Like any development process there are stages... even people dealing with addictions etc can find rehab useful where they can getaway and focus on their issue and then go back in a better frame of mind to deal with the world at large.


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