by | May 12, 2016 | 17 comments

If you’ve talked to me about The Biggest Loser, you’ll know that I have always felt conflicted about liking it.  On the one hand, I adore seeing the dramatic life changes the contestants achieve through the 10 week series.  I love that they leave feeling empowered, self-confident, and aware.  I love that they learn that they deserve health and happiness.  I love seeing the struggle, the moment when a contestant is about to throw in the towel but gets pulled through by a coach, the temptations.  On the other hand, though, I know that the dramatic calorie restriction and rapid weight loss is not the best long-term solution for the participants, and that the vast majority of contestants end up regaining their lost weight.  Sometimes, it feels wrong to enjoy watching something that is so dramatically different from my approach with my own clients.

biggest loser logo

(picture source)

Over the past week, there has been a huge controversy over a New York Times article reporting that almost all Biggest Loser contestants regain the lost weight, and that their metabolisms are so damaged that they are forced to eat fewer calories than would be “normal” (read the full article here, and the research report here).  While I could talk for hours about the implications of this report, I will stick to 4 points here:

  1. There are significant problems with comparing to a “normal” expected calorie burn.
  2. Dramatic calorie restriction and ultra-fast weight loss is not the best approach.
  3. Even if the hype is true, the weight loss is still worth it.
  4. A quick note to those who have lost significant amounts of weight.

is maintaining weight loss impossible

There are significant problems with comparing to a “normal” expected calorie burn.

The study is done by measuring the Resting Metabolic Rate (or RMR) of participants, both at the end of Season 8 of the Biggest Loser, and 6 years after the end of the show.  For simplicity’s sake, assume that RMR is the number of calories that your body burns per day at rest, or the number of calories that you need to eat (in the absence of exercise) to not gain or lose weight.  The researchers took the RMR of each contestant and compared it to an expected RMR for someone of an equivalent age, gender, and weight.  They found that the Biggest Loser contestants had significantly lower RMRs than the “normal” or expected.

Here is my issue with this comparison: Every body is perfectly unique, and everyone’s body requires a different set of inputs to maintain balance.  If you have ever tried to track your calories with an online dieting app, and felt disheartened when the app promised that you would “lose x pounds in 5 weeks if you continue eating this way” but the scale didn’t budge, then you understand the problem of comparing to a “normal” RMR.  I guarantee that there are plenty of women my exact age and weight who can eat a different number of calories than I can.  Comparing to an average or a “normal” just doesn’t work.

In fact, we scientifically know that RMR routinely varies by 10-15% per person (all else held equal), and that RMR is actually only one component of the actual calories that you burn in a given day.

metabolic variation

(picture source, which contains another great response to this issue!)

To take this a step further, let’s consider the contestants’ RMRs to start with.  Although this seems a bit unfair or even rude, I would venture to guess that the contestants have always had a relatively low RMR (meaning a slow metabolism), which was one factor that contributed to their obesity in the first place.  You know that guy that can eat all the pizza and beer he wants and still looks like a string bean?  He has a different RMR than the guy who gains weight when he even looks at an order of french fries, and I assume that the Biggest Loser contestants are more like the second guy.  So, when comparing him to an average after he has lost a lot of weight, we would still expect his RMR to be lower than average, because it has always been that way.

Dramatic calorie restriction and ultra-fast weight loss is rarely the best approach.

When I talk to a new client during an Initial Consultation, I often tell him or her that I could help him or her lose 20+ pounds in a month … but that I won’t, because I don’t believe it is a sustainable, healthy, balanced approach.  In very basic terms, our bodies panic when they go from being overfed to being dramatically underfed, and our survival instinct causes metabolic damage that lasts a long time.  If you were truly starving, you would want your metabolism to slow down, so that the fat on your body could help you survive for a longer time.  This is called metabolic adaptation.  Unfortunately, your body doesn’t know that, in 2016, you are likely not actually starving, and that this survival mechanism isn’t helpful.

If, instead, you learn to flood your body with nutrients (through eating all of the vegetables your heart desires, along with great sources of protein, healthy fats, and other options that work for your body), and you make changes gradually over time, you can achieve the results you want without throwing your body into a panic.  (Of course, it will take longer, and you won’t lose 100+ pounds in 10 weeks as the contestants on The Biggest Loser do.  See my post here for a bit more on this).

Contestants on The Biggest Loser often burned up to 9,000 calories per day exercising, and routinely exceeded 5,000 calorie daily deficits (meaning that they burned 5,000 calories more, per day, than they ate).  While I don’t encourage my clients to count calories, and while I believe that the quality of calories is just as – or more – important than the quantity, I believe that a 200-1,000 calorie daily deficit (depending on the starting point of the client) is more appropriate and healthy.  Calories aside, it doesn’t take much common sense to conclude that exercising 8-9 hours per day doesn’t seem like a sustainable, healthy approach. It is easy to see that people’s bodies (and minds!) chose to “rebel” a bit after that brutal regime!

Many argue that the contestants on The Biggest Loser need to lose weight quickly because the extent of their obesity is dangerous to their health.  I understand that, and this is why I still see some value in the show overall.  Dramatic calorie restriction and excessive exercise not only make for fantastic television, but accomplish the goal of getting the harmful weight off quickly – a very good thing for someone whose weight is putting him at severe risk for health complications.  When this comes at the price of metabolic rebound and mental burnout, though, the tradeoff is a tough one.

Simply put, gradual, slow weight loss is better for your body, easier to sustain over the long term, and will cause less metabolic damage than the ultra-fast weight loss promoted by The Biggest Loser and other shows.

one positive change

(picture source)

Even if the hype is true, the weight loss is still worth it.

For a moment, let’s assume that the study is completely true, and that the contestants have damaged their metabolisms so that they can currently only eat 1,903 calories on average instead of 2,577 calories as predicted to be “normal.”  It feels unfair, backwards, and frustrating, to be sure.  We should do everything possible to not incur this reduction.  BUT … it is still worth it.  Those who successfully lose weight have their lives back, their confidence back, their health indicators back.  And it is very possible to create a filling, satisfying, delicious daily plan on 1,903 (or any similar number of) calories.

Looking at the past and wishing things could be the same, or regretting something that happened in the past, is like calling the fire department for a fire that happened 20 years ago … it is simply not worth it (I am pretty sure I heard that analogy from Brian Johnson!).

For many of these contestants, as with many of the clients that come in to see me, losing weight is a medical necessity.  Sure, we all wish that they hadn’t gotten to that point, and didn’t have to go through the struggle of losing weight and then figuring out what works for their bodies to maintain the weight.  Yes, there is a huge need for preventative education and wellness programming, so more of us don’t have to deal with this issue.  But looking back doesn’t help.  Congratulating themselves on taking steps each day to improve their health, and celebrating their journeys each step of the way … that helps.  And every bit of that weight loss was worth it, regardless of any decrease in RMR that results.

not easy but worth it

(picture source)

A quick note to those who have lost significant amounts of weight.

Please, please, please … do not let this article dishearten you.  Your journey has been tough, and you have fought every step of the way.  If you’ve lost weight The Biggest Loser way, The Lyons’ Share way, or any other way under the sun, congratulations.  You have taken a huge step towards better health.  Now, your job is to keep striving every single day.  Yes, it is going to be hard, you are going to have setbacks, and many days, you’ll miss the comfort of the fast food drive through window or the empty ice cream tub.  But you have gained so much more than that, and the strength you’ve shown to get here makes me absolutely convinced that you have what it takes to keep going.  Have hope that it is not your destiny to return to how you were, and that personal responsibility and the actions you take every day have a lot to do with the results you will get.  Fight the good fight.  Do it for you, because you deserve it.

you are so worth it

(picture source)

Now it’s your turn … Any reactions?  Please be respectful if you choose to leave a comment!

17 Comments

  1. Deborah @ Confessions of a mother runner

    Megan nice to see you back blogging! I do also think that there is still benefit to the dramatic weight loss even if they gain some back. No one could sustain the 9 hours of exercise they did on the show but hopefully they learned skills and coping mechanisms they can use throughout the rest of their lives.
    Deborah @ Confessions of a mother runner recently posted…Tour De Cookie-Yes please!My Profile

    Reply
    • Megan Lyons

      Thanks, Deborah! I completely agree that we should appreciate the lifelong lessons they learned as well as just the weight loss. Clearly, what we see on TV isn’t the whole story, but it does at least seem that they are making some good emotional breakthroughs.

      Yes, I blogged 2 weeks ago, too, but it is a far cry from multiple times per week as I once was doing. Business is so busy – a good thing! – but I aspire to get back to it more regularly. I hope you are doing well!

      Reply
  2. Stacey

    Another great blog, Megan. Thanks for the encouragement!!

    Reply
    • Megan Lyons

      Thank you, Stacey! I appreciate you reading!

      Reply
  3. Michael Anderson

    Hi again – and like Deborah said, welcome back 🙂

    First off, I *hate* the biggest loser … because of the obviously unhealthy approach taken, the ‘fat people as spectacle’ mentality I have always felt when I’ve watched, and the usual reality show nonsense. Sure it is great that they might help a dozen people lose weight temporarily … but that is a worse success rate than your average Weight Watchers … 🙁

    I agree with most of what you said, but I am not sure I agree with all of it. I am intrigued by the thought from the report that your metabolic function is altered when you lose weight quickly and doesn’t really recover. Some of the people in the study were 25 – 30% below norm – which does seem like an aberration. Maybe as you say that is just where they always were, but I am not sure.

    I have lost large amounts of weight … twice. Nearly 200lbs at 23, and about 110 at 46. Looking back I can tell that the 200lb loss was *way* too fast, and that much of my success keeping at ~ 190 – 210lbs for most of the following 20 years was related to a mix of ‘exercise and restriction’. As soon as my exercise routine faltered I gained weight, and to lose it again I would tend to restrict while getting back to my exercise routine.

    I am pretty sure my body never truly accepted me as thin due to the constant flow of restriction cycles and mediocre food choices I made.

    This time around, I lost weight quickly again but this time coupled it with a total change in my eating. I am now in the best shape of my life, and I eat 3 healthy meals every day and never stress if I want something ‘unhealthy’, because I try to not obsess over it all. (because THAT is unhealthy).

    I totally agree with you that slow and steady is the (admittedly frustrating) way, that it helps our bodies adapt to change, and overall sets us up for success.

    Thanks for the discussion!

    Reply
    • Megan Lyons

      Thanks for your thoughtful perspective, as always, Michael. While I love seeing the emotional transformations, as I said, your wording of ‘fat people as spectacle’ really makes me sad. I appreciate you pointing out why you dislike the show! And as we’ve discussed, I think Weight Watchers is one of the better mainstream options (aside from The Lyons’ Share, of course ;))

      I agree that 25-30% is a huge difference. I was not intending to argue that none of the contestants have metabolic damage … I see clearly that they do. My points were that a) comparing to an average doesn’t tell the whole story for an individual, and b) I believe there is less metabolic damage if weight loss is done in a slow and steady fashion. Since I know you love this stuff like I do, I will share a few more studies I found interesting:
      This one shows no significant difference in RMR after losing 30+ pounds and keeping it off for a year (we don’t know exact weight loss mechanism, but it wasn’t as dramatic as Biggest Loser)
      This meta-analysis shows 3-5% RMR reduction in those who have lost significant amounts of weight (still not ideal, but far better than 25-30%!)

      As you know, I find your story so inspirational, and I thank you for sharing it here and elsewhere. You are a fantastic model of a healthy (and BALANCED) lifestyle!

      Reply
      • Michael Anderson

        Thanks for sharing the additional studies and the reply 🙂

        I very much appreciate your common sense, realistic and empathetic approach to health and weight loss/control and feel that how your natural personality extends to your practice really makes a great path for success.

        And I agree with you about the BMR questions – I have concerns about the sort of damage that brutal weight loss might do, but at the same time we just got study info (stuff you shared and others) showing how a more gradual approach can lead to truly sustainable weight loss even for people who lost more weight.

        And yeah, in spite of spending much more of my adult life under 200lbs than above it, I don’t think I will ever lose this sense of body dysmorphia. 🙁 Boo …

        But ultimately for me the damage from something like this gets back to all of these types of things – like that Shape magazine controversy with the woman with loose skin after extreme weight loss being asked to provide more covered-up pictures – all feeds into a sense of despair and hopelessness about weight loss and healthy living. THAT can be incredibly destructive.

        Thanks again 🙂

        Reply
  4. Megan @ Skinny Fitalicious

    I’m so glad you wrote this. I lost 80 pounds 6 years ago. I did gain about 10-15 pounds, but it’s all muscle. As far as I’m concerned, this study gives people the impression that they should not try to develop healthy habits.
    Megan @ Skinny Fitalicious recently posted…How To Get Fired From The Blogging CommunityMy Profile

    Reply
    • Michael Anderson

      That, to me, is the biggest problem with all of the nonsense circulating … that somehow weight loss, healthy diet and exercise are not worth it. NO! That is not what people should be learning! Not at all … it is more about how we should be taking a healthy approach to weight loss just like we take a healthy approach to life. 🙂 Congrats on the weight loss and sustaining it.

      Reply
    • Megan Lyons

      Thank you for sharing, Megan. Thank you for giving people hope that it IS worth it! <3

      Reply
  5. Ellen

    I hated The Biggest Loser so much and blogged about reality plenty. When Jillian Michaels was talked about in AFAA’ magazine being a great trainer l laid into them so intensely that I got a call from AFAA president.

    Yes I knew most of the show was for ratings but when your clients want to do that unrealistic weight loss I dropped AFAA as my certification being a trainer. .

    Reply
    • Megan Lyons

      I really admire the way you stick to your beliefs and principles, Ellen! You truly stand up for what you believe in!

      Reply
  6. Andy

    I’m not a huge fan of The Biggest Loser either. The minute I heard the trainers barking negative and fat-shaming statements at the contestants, I knew it wasn’t for me. For all we know, the “abusiveness” of the trainers were all edited for the show. It’s reality TV after all. But I simply can’t stand seeing shows where people who want to positively change their life are deliberately put down by others for the sake of ratings. I can only hope that the contestants learned a lot from their journey and apply them to their lives even without the cameras watching.

    Reply
  7. Lynne

    I totally love this show. Thanks for simplifying some things.

    Reply
  8. Adam Wills

    Great article , One of the most important ways of maintaining weight is to go for a regular schedule of exercises and diet.A regular schedule of walk, run or jogging will also help you to maintain your weight.

    Reply
  9. Ashley Nicole

    Hello Megan,

    Another helpful post here. I support your take on gradually changing diet and lifestyle to loose weight. Each one of us is unique so what works for some may not for others. Best goal I suppose is to just focus on health and not just weight loss. Thanks for sharing!
    Ashley Nicole recently posted…Best Cruiser Bikes Review 2018My Profile

    Reply

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Megan Lyons Headshot

Hi! I'm Megan Lyons,

the voice behind The Lyons’ Share. I love all things health, wellness, and fitness-related, and I hope to share some of my passion with you. Thanks for stopping by!
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