The Biggest Loser Isn't Realistic

Real Weight Loss Happens Slowly, or You'll Regain the Weight

3 min read

The Biggest Loser is the newest TV survivor show. For nine weeks, a dozen people are vying for the biggest weight loss -- huffing, puffing, starving, sweating, swearing. And yes, they're losing weight.

The two teams' strategies: The low-key Blue Team has group therapy, eats six small meals daily, and exercises some. Just the opposite for the Red Team: They're exercising round-the-clock, sleeping little, eating little -- prodded by their drill-sergeant style trainer.

Glass-fronted "temptation refrigerators," stocked with pizza, beer, cakes, pies, are dangerously close by. Can these 12 people resist their biggest temptations for $250,000? Yes, they can.

First week, the Red Team won, losing 74 pounds total -- with one guy losing 20 pounds. Dana was voted off the Blue Team; her loss was only five pounds. (However, at 167 pounds, Dana started out less overweight than most contestants. Dana lost another 15 pounds later.)

It's reality TV. But realistic? Are aggressive weight loss tactics a good or bad thing?

"I don't believe in such a thing as jump-starting a weight loss plan, not even for motivational reasons," says Jody Wilkinson, MD, director of the Cooper Institute Center for Weight Management.

"There are some people who respond very well to that approach, but only a very small minority," he tells WebMD. "For people who don't have much weight to lose -- who have some motivation and readiness -- an aggressive approach can work. But that's the exception rather than the rule."

Weight loss is a three- to five-year process, says Wilkinson. "For lifestyle to change and physiology of the body to change, it truly is a long-term process. We recommend losing 1% of current body weight every week. Otherwise, body chemistry gets out of disturbance, and you lose only water weight and lean [muscle] tissue, which causes your metabolism to drop, making it even harder to lose weight."

The human body is really not designed to lose weight, Wilkinson explains. "Storing energy, gaining weight, is the body's survival mechanism. In primitive times, people who could do that were the ones who survived. Anytime the body senses it's losing weight -- regardless of how overweight you are -- it doesn't want to lose weight and triggers all sorts of responses that resist weight loss."

He applauds the program's efforts to show one thing -- that people need to change their ways if they're going to lose weight. "But even if we use very aggressive jump-start ways to lose weight -- but don't help people make better choices in lifestyle and diet -- it's not a solution. If those changes don't happen, it really doesn't matter how you go about losing weight, whether it's quick or slow. You will regain the weight."

"I was horrified and disappointed," says Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD/LD, director of nutrition for the WebMD Weight Loss Clinic. "The tactics they use are not realistic. It's just high drama, and it's very embarrassing, watching these fat people get weighed wearing skimpy clothing. ... It's a humiliating display of flesh."

"What they're doing in this show is starving them, working them at a pace they cannot sustain," Zelman tells WebMD. "They'll be eating fried chicken later, after the show's over. We would have taught them to make oven-fried chicken. I'd stake my life on this: Whatever weight these people lose, they'll gain right back."

The program's best offering: the group therapy session, says Zelman. "They brought up some very realistic emotional issues, the pain and agony of being overweight. That's the only positive I could find. A viewer can see themselves in that. It's hard being overweight."

"Enlisting support of friends and family is very important," Wilkinson tells WebMD. "Most of us really don't understand how difficult it is to lose weight. We're really blinded to the discrimination that overweight people feel. I have to work fairly hard to maintain my weight. People say to the overweight person, 'If you did what I did, you wouldn't be overweight.' That's not true. They have to work twice as hard to lose and to maintain the weight loss."