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.
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:
- There are significant problems with comparing to a “normal” expected calorie burn.
- Dramatic calorie restriction and ultra-fast weight loss is not the best approach.
- Even if the hype is true, the weight loss is still worth it.
- A quick note to those who have lost significant amounts of weight.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Now it’s your turn … Any reactions? Please be respectful if you choose to leave a comment!