Tuesday 12 December 2017

Shape up: Who is the real biggest loser?

You must remember that reality weight-loss TV shows are first and foremost that -- TV shows

Library image. Photo: Getty Images
Library image. Photo: Getty Images

Damien Maher

Reality shows such as 'The Biggest Loser' franchise keep people glued to their screens -- but what exactly is the health message emanating from 'health shows' such as these?

'The Biggest Loser' is a massive ratings winner and thanks to its best-selling cookbook and workout DVDs the show brought in over $100m (e74m) in the US last year. CBS News in America recently ran a story where a former finalist on the show made disturbing claims about the show's truthfulness and its treatment of participants.

Kai Hibbard was grateful for the opportunity to participate initially in the show, because she felt that anything that inspired people to get off their backsides and do something was good.

However afterwards she felt she needed to take responsibility for the fact that she participated in a myth that can end up hurting people.

"People ask me, 'why can't I lose 12lbs in one week?' like I did. Well I didn't; it didn't happen; it's TV. I need to take blame and responsibility for a myth that's dangerous.

"A week is not a week on TV. Most of the times the weigh-ins were longer than a week."

Setting goals like trying to lose between seven and eight pounds a week (3.2 and 3.6 kilos respectively) is setting unrealistic expectations if the goal is to make it a health show.

Humans burn fat at a rate of about one to two kilos a week, according to Jenny O'Dea, an associate professor of health and nutrition education at the University of Sydney. Any more than that and the body is eating its own muscle mass, water, bone density and liver glycogen: "You are risking heart failure, heart attack and kidney failure.''

People have to remember that these shows are not weight-loss camps that happen to be filmed for TV. It's a TV show that's made to look like a weight-loss camp. Kai said that there was pressure from everyone to make sure you had as big a number as possible every week.

"Before I went on the show I never learnt how to dehydrate myself to manipulate a scale and I left knowing how to do it better than some of the fitness competitors I know."

When Kai finished with the show her sense of self-loathing increased the more weight she dropped: "I found myself considering coffee a meal."

When her hair started falling out, her family sat her down and her mother and best friend, both registered nurses, advised her to talk to a personal trainer to teach her to eat healthy, which is what she did.

"I participated in something that is harmful to so many people. I have the responsibility to make things better."

Kai's experience in the show left her with a bitter taste in her mouth. The same may be said by many who embark on a new fitness regime orchestrated by producers that benefits ratings but teaches little in the way of health.

We are all unique and so programmes should be customised based on an assessment. Roger Williams, in his book 'Bio-chemical Individuality', analysed a number of cadavers and found that our organ size and our composition of fats was individual to each other. So if you are not assessing through the right means, you are merely guessing in your programme and nutritional designs.

If the powers that be at TV studios want to educate the nation about obesity and the need for health, then they should alert people to the fact that weight loss is not a good indicator -- what's important is the constitution of your body, not what it weighs.

The gold standard for measuring body composition in obese clients is imaging techniques such as a DEXA (Dual Energy X-ray Absorptiometry) scan or a CAT scan. A DEXA scan can be used to determine the quantity of fat, lean soft tissue and bone mineral. They can also show how much fat is in a particular area of your body.

In terms of these TV shows, another thing to bear in mind is that obese individuals are at a higher risk for diabetes. Therefore they should be given a fasting blood glucose test to measure the length of time glucose stays in your blood stream.

This test is essential because your ability to lose weight will be influenced by how well your body is working.


Weighing people is not the solution. Think about it -- if contestants on 'The Biggest Loser' gain muscle (which, as Tufts University confirmed, is a leading marker for longevity and it increases metabolism) they get penalised, as muscle is more dense than fat.

When you gain muscle you may drop several dress sizes but your weight could remain the same. Penalise someone for gaining muscle? Well considering that it is a factor for you living longer -- does that make sense?

Contestants who gain muscle should be rewarded, not penalised, under the current system. It sends out the wrong message to the nation. A baying crowd is great for the TV ratings but not for educating people.

Weight loss should be renamed fat loss and it is a journey, not a TV game or a destination. It is about increasing self-awareness, increasing your knowledge of nutrition and changing your lifestyle habits.

You need to make health a part of your life. Nobody gains 30kg in eight weeks, so why would you think you can lose it in that period of time?


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