Critique Of NY Times’ Article About The Biggest Loser & Regaining Weight

A lengthy long form article from the NYTimes, titled “After The Biggest Loser, Their Bodies Fought To Regain Weight“, has gone viral with its underlying premise that weight loss is futile due to the struggle and eventual failure of people struggling to lose, and keep off, weight.

Like many commentators of the article, I noticed that the article greatly minimized the correlation between the extremely exploitative, unsustainable and compressed timeline of the weight loss method during the show and the eventual post-show regaining of the weight. Furthermore, I also noticed how the article presented pharmaceutical and surgical solutions to the problem it identified while underplaying sustainable and natural ways of weight loss.

The Biggest Loser

For those of you unfamiliar with The Biggest Loser, very overweight candidates go on this dehumanizing reality show where they’re subjected to extreme physical exercises, severe calorie restriction and during it all, are constantly hounded by the trainers for the enjoyment of the viewing public. They’re weighed publicly to see if they’ve met goals and if they don’t, they’re kicked off.

Contestants do lose massive amounts of weight in an almost binge-like manner, where they exercise like mad, calories are severely restricted and every minute of the day is dedicated to weight loss. People rationalize the extreme and exploitative methods of the show by pointing to the slimmed down contestants who made it to the end of show. However, the way those candidates lose massive amounts of weight in such a short time is simply unsustainable as the results of this weight loss study demonstrate.

For the study, scientists followed the contestants of Season 8 over a 6 year period, to observe, track and measure their post-show weight loss.  Almost to a person, the candidates gained ALL of the weight back plus more. It’s actually heartbreaking to read the accounts of people who gained back the weight and I truly feel for them.

So why did the candidates gain back the weight? According to the study, the body’s metabolism, which slows down during weight loss, does not recover leading to the contestants packing on the pounds despite all their heart-breaking efforts to keep it off.

“When the show began, the contestants, though hugely overweight, had normal metabolisms for their size, meaning they were burning a normal number of calories for people of their weight. When it ended, their metabolisms had slowed radically and their bodies were not burning enough calories to maintain their thinner sizes…..

What shocked the researchers was what happened next: As the years went by and the numbers on the scale climbed, the contestants’ metabolisms did not recover. They became even slower, and the pounds kept piling on. It was as if their bodies were intensifying their effort to pull the contestants back to their original weight.”

Critique

What I found rather disingenuous is the short rift that the extreme method of weight loss was given as a reason for post-show weight gain. Nowhere was it addressed that the show, which is really about BINGE-losing weight, and not maintaining a lifestyle that will keep the weight off, espouses a very unsustainable way to lose the weight.

One of the contestants, Mr. Cahill, “..exercised for 7 hours a day burning 8,000 to 9,000 calories a day…consuming many fewer calories than before.”  Do you know what people do on a regular basis for 7 hours a day? A job.

Not only that, but the show then sends the contestants home for 4 months to lose the weight on their own. This was Cahill’s insane routine:

  • Wake up at 5 am and run on a treadmill for 45 minutes
  • Have breakfast – one egg, two egg whites, half a grapefruit and a peice of sprouted grain toast (I eat more than that)
  • Run on the treadmill for another 45 minutes (like a hamster on a wheel)
  • Rest for 40 minutes
  • Ride his bike for 9 miles to the gym (my god)
  • Work out for 2.5 hours (painful)
  • Shower, change and ride the 9 miles back home
  • Eat lunch – grilled skinless chicken breast, a cup of broccoli, and 10 spears of asparagus
  • Rest for 1 hour
  • Drive to the gym for another round of exercise (I have no words)
  • Sometimes, if he didn’t hit his goal of burning 3500 calories a day as per his calorie tracker, he would go back to the gym after dinner

How long can anyone do this? Not very long before collapsing from exhaustion as Mr. Cahill did after the show ended where he was so mentally and physically exhausted that he didn’t move for 2 weeks after the show ended.

One of the commentators from the NYTimes, Justin, perfectly encapsulated my thoughts:

How could anyone possibly think the insanity that goes on on this show would be sustainable over the long term? It’s basically a witch hunt to watch fat people get tortured.

Amen, Justin.

It’s becoming accepted wisdom that weight loss is 80% to 90% diet and the remainder is due to exercise. The NYTimes itself has written about this principle multiple times. This is even more appropriate to severely overweight people who are not supposed to tax their bones, joints and hearts with too much high impact exercise initially in their weight loss journey. In spite of all this knowledge the show The Biggest Loser continues to put its contestants through the ringer when it comes to exercise, which is one of the reasons it’s considered an exploitative show.

The other thing that was mentioned in the article was the effect of hormones on regulating weight, specifically the hormone leptin.

Leptin, which is composed of fat cells, regulates fat mass by regulating hunger – ie leptin controls satiety (or feeling of hunger). Dr Michael Eades, of Protein Power, wrote a clear post in 2007 about the linkages between leptin, a low-carb diet and weight loss that I recommend anyone interested in the topic reads. The crux of the matter is that a low-carb diet, which tends to be high in fats and protein, is wonderfully efficient at regulating hormones that control weight such as insulin and leptin.  Diets high in fats and protein, and low in refined carbohydrates, after a period of adjustment, can keep leptin levels up, so that a person feels satiated and not have the dreaded hunger pangs.

Again, in a very disingenuous way, the NYTimes article quickly includes a throwaway line that references low-carb diets as a method for efficient weight loss:

All this does not mean that modest weight loss is hopeless, experts say. Individuals respond differently to diet manipulations — low-carbohydrate or low-calorie diets, for example — and to exercise and weight-loss drugs, among other interventions.

So they ignore research that shows how low-carb (or diets with minimal refined carbohydrates) positively effect leptin, the hormone that controls satiety, which means that people on low-carb diets experience cravings and hunger far less than people on a SAD or conventional low-fat restricted diets.

Pills, Surgery and Anything But Natural, Non-Commodified Weight Loss Options

Instead, guess what they’re touting as potential solutions to this problem of not keeping off weight, to the joy of the pharmaceutical and surgical industries?

1.) Researchers….are searching for new ways to block the poison in fat. (I wonder what way are those? pill form perhaps?)

2.) They are starting to unravel the reasons bariatric surgery allows most people to lose significant amounts of weight when dieting so often fails.(ah, surgery)

3.) Dr. Margaret Jackson, who is directing a project at Pfizer, is testing a drug that…acts like leptin, a hormone that controls hunger. (Bingo! Pfizer developing a drug that acts like a hormone, but god knows what the side effects would be)

I wrote about the capture of medicine by the pharmaceutical industry in this post a couple of years ago and it’s sad to see it so blatant in an agenda-setting newspaper like the NYTimes.

This article fails to emphasize the unlikely sample group and the incredibly unhealthy and unsustainable way the contestants lost the weight.  It also highlights pills and surgery as viable and sole weight loss options while minimizing dietary ways that people can slowly, healthily and, in a sustainable fashion, lose weight and keep it off.

Have you read the article and if so, what do you think of its conclusions?

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