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

Study: The Popular Reality TV Show May Reinforce Anti-Fat Attitudes

Testing Attitudes After Watching Extreme Weight Loss continued...

Before they tuned in, researchers tested their attitudes about obesity and obese people by having them answer several computer-based questionnaires.

The students were kept in the dark about the purpose of the study. They were told the tests were measuring how fast they could process the questions.

They were asked, for example, how strongly they agreed with statements like, “Fat people can lose weight if they really want to.”

They were also asked about traits they associated with being obese. Choices included positive things like being honest, sociable, and intelligent. Negative choices included lazy, undisciplined, and unattractive.

A week after taking those initial tests, people were asked to watch their assigned shows. Researchers tested them again after they finished the episodes.

As expected, “Meerkat Manor” didn’t seem to change how students felt about obesity one way or the other.

But researchers say they saw small, but significant shifts in some attitudes after students watched The Biggest Loser.

“We saw an increase in dislike and an increase in perceptions of controllability,” says Carels.

“The dislike seemed to be a little bit stronger in people that were thin and not trying to lose weight,” he says.

Weight Bias Is Tough to Change

Other experts had a different take on the study’s results.

“I think people, by and large, come with negative attitudes [about obesity], and they’re very hard to change,” says Rena A. Mendelson, PhD, professor of nutrition at Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada. “I’m not sure that you can argue that watching the show made them more anti-fat.”

Mendelson has conducted a similar study, presented last year at Canada’s National Obesity Summit, which tested 42 people before and after they watched either The Biggest Loser or America’s Next Top Model.

Her study found no change in viewers’ attitudes toward obesity or obese people after watching either show.

That was surprising, she says. She thought people who watched The Biggest Loser would feel more sympathy and less bias toward obese people afterward.

“I think the real point of their work and our work is how pervasive anti-fat attitudes are; how strong they are and how persistent,” she says.

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