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

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

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.

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