The Biggest Loser
How realistic is realty TVs The Biggest Loser? Former contestant, Kai Hibbard, and top nutrition experts weigh in with their diet tips and weight loss secrets.
By Michele Meyer
It's bad enough weighing yourself in the privacy of your own bathroom. But week after week, Kai Hibbard and her fellow dieters marched onto the scale of NBC's hit show The Biggest Loser—all before a gigantic audience holding its collective breath.
And results were breathtaking. Many losers dropped double digits weekly—Hibbard herself averaged just under a 10-pound loss per week, for a total of 118 of her 262 pounds in three months—inspiring viewers who struggle with their own weight.
Yet Hibbard, a military wife from Alaska, says her dramatic weight loss in the show's third season was not something most nutrition and fitness experts would consider healthy, an important point that she and other contestants have talked about in the press. "I helped perpetuate a myth that's dangerous," she confessed on CBS' Early Show.
On camera, Hibbard says she and fellow competitors ate sensibly. But off camera, they lived on black coffee and sweated in multiple layers to shed water weight and "trick" the scale. "The Biggest Loser isn't a weight-loss camp that happens to be filmed for TV. It's a TV show that's made to look like a weight-loss camp," says Hibbard.
NBC's response to these and similar claims? "Our contestants are closely monitored and medically supervised. The consistent Biggest Loser health transformations of over 200 contestants through 10 seasons of the program speak for themselves," says a network spokesperson.
To be sure, the reality show and its companion books and videos do offer safe and effective ways to maintain a healthy eating and exercise plan (see below), but the results take time, requiring a slow-and-steady approach that is at odds with the dramatic weight loss and workouts shown on-screen, which downplay how difficult—and dangerous—it can be to drop so much weight in so short a time.
One: The Diet
On the plus side, the show features segments where contestants learn how to prepare delicious food in healthy ways, tactics that should lead dieters to shed 1/2 pound to 2 pounds weekly.
That's healthy, says Cassie Vanderwall, a clinical dietitian and National Academy of Sports Medicine-certified personal trainer at Chicago's Rush University Medical Center. But she also points out that viewers who try these approaches simply won't see the thrilling 5- to 20-pound weekly weight loss shown on TV. "People will get extremely discouraged when they fail to get the same results, and will write off a healthy diet as another fad in their collection," she says.
Two: The Workout
Skepticism about the show's drill-sergeant trainers is logical, given that the participants exercise until and after they retch.
"Unlike on a TV ad, there's no message at the bottom of the screen warning, 'Don't try this at home,' " Vanderwall says. "Such workouts could put people with heart problems in the grave." The rapid rise in exercise intensity puts contestants—and their imitators—at risk of permanent damage to their backs, knees and hips, says Colleen Greene, a certified personal trainer at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. "I'm sure it's good TV, but they're doing drills done by elite athletes. It's OK if you're training for the NFL, but for the rest of us, it's not safe."
Three: The Support
Contestants have another advantage over viewers: They support and egg each other on. They also escape the pressures of home, where family, friends and co-workers may feel threatened by their transformation. The program also breezes over the time constraints and emotions that feed overeating. "It all but ignores behavioral and mental health," Vanderwall says. "Those are the legs holding up the table of permanent weight loss, along with physical and nutritional health. Without them, the table collapses. If the underlying emotional issues—grief, stress or anger—aren't addressed, you won't be able to keep the weight off."
Loser's Winning Tips
- Make peace with your plate: Your food should form a peace sign, with starches (pasta, rice or potato) and meat composing smaller parts and vegetables and salad the larger ones.
- Eat more often, not less. Strive for three small meals plus two or three snacks daily to boost energy and metabolism and squelch cravings.
- Count your way up the food pyramid, starting with four daily servings of fruits and vegetables and three of protein (yogurt, fish or legumes, such as chickpeas, black beans and lentils, or 1 cup of low-fat dairy). Add two servings of whole grains and 200 calories of sugar-free sweets, reduced-fat cheese, condiments, avocado and reduced-fat nut butters.
- Keep a daily food, fitness and feelings log. It holds you accountable—and reveals what's helping or sabotaging your efforts.
- Sweeten the dessert deal: Sprinkle cocoa on sugar-free chocolate pudding, or whip low-fat cottage cheese and almond extract together, then freeze it. If water bores you, add Crystal Light.
- Eat a rainbow. Strive to include fruits and vegetables that are red, orange, yellow, purple, light green and dark green weekly.
- Feel hungry? Make a protein scramble: egg substitute, reduced-fat cheese, tomato, spinach or whatever vegetables you have on hand.
- Investigate before you dine out: Many national chains offer nutritional information online. "That's a real eye opener and may make you think twice," says Erica Wald, RD, manager of the University of Michigan's weight management program in Ann Arbor. Ask restaurants to skip bread and bring a to-go box right away so you can put half your food aside for another meal.
WORK OUT WITHIN REASON
- Get a physical from your primary care doctor before embarking on any new fitness program.
- Consult a pro to assess your fitness, tailor a program to your needs and return to check up on your form and progress. Personal trainers should be certified by the American College of Sports Medicine, the American Council on Exercise or the National Academy of Sports Medicine. Or ask your doctor for a referral when you get your physical.
- Let your body adjust to exercise before amping up intensity, says Colleen Greene, an American Council on Exercise-certified personal trainer at the University of Michigan: "I wouldn't start out running. I'd start out walking." Unlike the show, The Biggest Loser books and DVDs urge exercisers to stop at any discomfort or pain, Greene says. "Trainers also talk about form and technique, gait and stride and what muscles they're working."
- Drink water while sweating—6-8 ounces every 15-20 minutes during your workout.
- Once you reach your goal, buy some clothing too costly to grow out of. You'll want to keep on track rather than replace them.
- If you're tempted by food cravings, distract yourself: Read, exercise, walk your dog or treat yourself to a manicure. Visualize pushing all negative thoughts through your hands when you lift weights and through your feet when you walk or run.
- Focus on other benchmarks: Tracking improvements in blood pressure, cholesterol levels, body fat percentage and heart disease risk is more important than just watching numbers on the bathroom scale.