“Biggest Loser”, Biggest Lie, Biggest Myths. Shame on the NY Times!
(This post is also a podcast episode! Listen here.)
Last week my inbox and Facebook feed was flooded with links to the NY Times article about Danny Cahill and the show The Biggest Loser.
In case you missed the media hoopla: Danny, and most of his fellow Biggest Loser contestants, have been unable to maintain their weight-loss.
A group of researchers has been monitoring them and came to a “conclusion” (can you feel me doing air quotes?) that the body fights back against weight-loss, blah blah, metabolism myth, blah blah.
I don’t want to get in the habit of podcasting about yesterday’s news, but talking about this article does give me the chance to bring up a point I’ve been dying to make, and it allows me to circle back to a few topics from the last two episodes that I’d wanted to elaborate more on so here it goes:
#1 The news is an entertainment business.
It’s not all that different from scripted television or movies. They need to sell headlines and airspace and earn high ratings, but we somehow forget that and treat the news like it’s a non-profit public service. I assure you that’s not true.
Advertisements and commercials are their lifeblood, so they will say or do whatever it takes to grab your attention.
The news is in the business of feeding us exactly what we want to hear, so we love them, tune-in, and click more.
The sensationalizing I can get over. I’m not happy about it, but it doesn’t boil my blood nearly as much as the blatant lack of transparency.
Like most lawyers, I’m all about Freedom of the Press. I buy into that whole “the media is a checks and balances on the government thing”, but the press is not perfect. While they love whistleblowing on a politician’s conflict of interest, they do not report their own.
Most “news” stories bolster the BS one of their sponsors is selling, or it’s designed for a “viral effect” so they can make money on clicks and advertisements.
The other thing that bothers me is that news stories are almost always cherry-picked pseudo-science. They present reasonable-sounding arguments, but their evidence is a quote from a study paid for or that benefits their sponsor, or their evidence is a quote from a professional so-and-so who is either on their payroll or the payroll of one of their sponsors.
Closing this thought out, please remember that everyone has an agenda (including me, I welcome your doubt).
My breakdown of the NY Times article:
Before I dig in, I want to make one quick point: the fact that most of the contestants on The Biggest Loser gain their weight back isn’t new news. The media cycle seems to circle back to this issue every 18 months. “We are all Fat again” was a big story in January 2015.
This article says Danny and the other contestants started the show with a normal metabolism, but that their metabolism slowed down dramatically and never went back up to “normal.”
First, I take objection with the use of the word “normal” here, especially when they say “normal for their size.”
What do they mean by size? Their weight?
Three men can be the same height, the same age, and the same weight, but have a completely different fat to muscle ratio. For example, one guy might be 20% body fat, another 12%, and another 35%. And although they are the same size (meaning height/weight), because their body composition of fat and muscle is different, they would have different metabolisms. Point is, there can be no normal or average here, there are just too many competing variables.
But fine, fine, I’m splitting hairs. Let’s assume that Danny (and the other contestants), had a COMPARABLE metabolism to other people of the same height, the same weight, the same age, the same sex, and also had the exact same amount of muscle and body fat.
The article then says that after the show was over, the contestants had slower metabolisms than when they started.
I’m not sure why this is surprising. Of course it slowed. Several contestants lost 150 or more pounds, which is a whole other person. Being surprised their metabolism slowed after that kind of loss is like being shocked a mini cooper burns less fuel than a 16-wheeler Mac truck.
Danny, specifically, lost 191 pounds. He was 430 pounds when he started, meaning he, quite literally, lost half of himself. He was TWO Danny’s before. Of course two Danny’s are going to burn more calories than ONE Danny. Of course ONE Danny will not burn as much gas.
To be fair, the NY Times article agrees that the contestants reduced metabolism post-weight-loss isn’t all that shocking, but what they say IS shocking is that their metabolism is now “slower than it should be for a person of their size.”
Again I have to take objection with using the words like size and normal, but for argument’s sake, let’s again assume the constants have slower metabolisms compared to the metabolisms of other people who are the same height, the same weight, the same age, the same sex, and have the exact same amount of muscle and body fat.
In episode 5, I said “Research shows that your metabolism won’t slow down unless you’ve consumed less than 50% of your required calorie intake for several weeks but even if one does get to that point” (I think it’s safe to assume the contestants got there), “your metabolism would only decrease by 10% AT THE MOST so you would still lose weight if you maintained a deficit, just at a slightly slower rate.”
Because the NYT article is being so loosey goosey with words like “normal” and “size” it’s impossible for me to tell if the decreased rate they are sensationalizing is this 10% decrease.
Whether it is or is not would certainly be fascinating, but it can be set aside for now because the real heart of the article, the big volcanic explosion, isn’t about a temporary metabolic decrease.
In episode 5, I also said that “numerous other studies confirm that once your weight has stabilized, your metabolism, goes back up to expected levels”
The first keyword here is “stabilized” meaning the person has to maintain the same weight.
Unfortunately, this is not true for the contestants. Most of them reported gaining 15 to 30 pounds immediately after the show ended, partially because they were forcibly dehydrated, or they literally starved themselves before the final show.
Ryan Benson (winner season 1) admitted to starving himself, only drinking water with maple syrup, lemon, and cayenne pepper for 10 days before the finale. He also jogged on the treadmill in a rubber suit and sat in a steam room 24 hours prior to his final weigh-in. Benson admitted he was urinating blood at that point but he was that desperate to win. Benson lost 10-13 scale pounds in 10 days. I say “scale pounds” because he GAINED 32 pounds in FIVE days after.
Similarly, Kai Hibbard (season 3 finalist), who has since become a spokesperson against the show, (“I participated in a myth that hurts people”) admitted that leading up to the finale, she was only eating sugar-free jello and asparagus.
Hibbard has also stated she was dehydrated AT the Biggest Loser Ranch to manipulate the scales on the show and that her losses weren’t always as advertised.
We also can’t sidestep the painful fact that most contestants left the ranch ill equipped for life after the show. Some of the contestants admit this in the NYT article. Danny specifically says he sometimes blacks out only to wake and realize he ate an entire bag of potato chips.
I guess my question is, did stabilization ever happen long enough for their bodies to correct their metabolism (if it’s possible)?
Which brings me to my next issue…
The metabolic studies I referenced previously were done on people who lost weight primarily due to lack of food. Physical movement (i.e. exercise) might have contributed to the total caloric deficit. For example, Many POWs were forced into labor camps and many anorexics still exercise, but overall, the bulk of their deficit was caused primarily from lack of calories consumed.
This is quite a contrast to The Biggest Loser contestants who were starved while simultaneously being forced to endure extreme exercise for 6 to 8 hours per day for several months. Danny, specifically, was tracked at 8,000 to 9,000 calories PER DAY on the show.
Less we forget the Rachel Frederickson controversy in 2014. Rachel (winner season 15) lost 60% of her weight, which amounted to losing ONE POUND PER DAY EVERY DAY for several months. Rachel’s rail thin appearance put the show under scrutiny, especially when Jillian Michaels quit a few weeks after.
Image credit: People magazine
Even more disturbing are recent reports of contestants going to the hospital for dehydration and/or heat stroke.
And before I forget to mention her, Suzanne Mendonca (2005 contestant) is now also pre-diabetic, which is important to keep in mind when I talk about insulin later.
Point is, I think we can all agree that while the show is supposed to be inspirational, in reality it is misleading and dangerous to the contestants participating.
But what about their metabolisms?
The NYT article says Danny’s metabolism has slowed so much that just to maintain his current weight of 295 pounds, he has to eat 800 calories a day less than a typical man his size. Anything more turns to fat.
Again I have to take objection with words like “typical” and “size” but I’ll assume they mean Danny has a slower metabolism compared to other men of the same height, same weight, same age, and have the exact same amount of muscle and body fat as Danny.
But wait, did these other men lose and regain too?
And if they did lose weight, was it “Biggest Loser-style”?
Probably not. So we can’t compare Danny to them because the side effects from losing and gaining, as well as the manner in which it occurred, creates dozens of other variables!
But let’s hold off on that for a hot second while I get fussy over the fact that we aren’t getting a breakdown of Danny’s diet.
Where is his food log? Where are the food logs of the people he is being compared to?
If episodes 1-3 of this podcast taught us anything, it’s that a calorie is not always a calorie and that weight-loss isn’t a straight math formula.
And since when does Science ever have such perfectly round numbers like 800? Bioavailability anyone? This stuff isn’t quantifiable down to such exactness.
AND since I’m already riled up, how could the researches possibly know “anything more turns to fat.”
While, yes, it is true that consuming in excess of what one needs can lead to stored body fat, but not every excess calorie consumed will be.
I’m not just talking about bioavailability but the scientific fact that sometimes the metabolic cost is too high to store the excess.
For example, dietary fat is very easily stored as fat, but calories from carbohydrates are not. They tend to be burned off as heat (a process known as facultative dietary thermogenesis).
Humans are very inefficient at de novo lipogenesis, which is the process of turning sugars into fats. It takes extreme conditions for this to happen in the first place, and when it does, the metabolic cost is around 30%, meaning even if someone’s body was converting 100 extra calories of sugars to body fat, it would take at least 30 of those calories just to make the process happen.
I’ll stop here. See episodes 2,3 & 4 of this podcast for more info.
For arguments sake, let’s accept that the contestants have slower metabolisms than other people now. Why are the researchers only blaming the weight-loss?
Why are they ignoring the possibility that the extreme conditions on the show had extreme physiological consequences?
One point I make on every one of these podcast episodes is that we can’t cheat or out math nature and anytime we try to, we pay a consequence.
As your body loses fat, your hormones change, and hormonal changes cause all kinds of variables and problems, especially when it comes to your body weight.
This I don’t contest.
This is also a medical and scientific fact: Rapid weight-loss can cause a weakening of the heart muscle, which could set a person up for cardiovascular problems. This also means weight-loss could affect how the heart pumps, and that alone would change someone’s metabolism.
Rapid weight-loss can also cause dangerous reductions in potassium and electrolytes, as well as key nutrients if they are starving themselves…
All of these things create a million other variables that create a million other variables that could all have long-term metabolic consequences as well as long-term health consequences in general.
Anorexia in males also decreases testosterone. While I’m not calling the contestants anorexics, their prolonged starvation at the hands of their coaches puts them practically in the same boat, and there it is a scientific fact that decreased testosterone causes all kinds problems, especially in men (although this was mysteriously not in the NYT article either).
The NYT also made a big fuss about leptin, which makes me wonder who is paying these researchers.
Let me explain: Leptin came to fame twenty years ago -- literally, in 1996. For a hot minute leptin was going to be the cure for obesity (and highly profitable for whichever company produced a pill form), because administered synthesized leptin caused weight loss.
But then something unexpected happened: More research revealed that obese people had an EXCESS of leptin rather than a deficiency. The more body fat someone had, the more leptin was present, leading researchers to conclude that obese people are “insensitive to endogenous leptin production.”
That then became the million-dollar question in obesity research, “why are obese people insensitive?”
Researchers at UCSF medical center cracked the code, sort-of. They figured out that insulin was causing widespread leptin resistance.
It would take dozens more podcasts to talk about insulin and how diet, particularly fat and animal foods, affect insulin, but for now: changes in insulin create a million more variables.
There are just too many variables at play here to blame or pinpoint one thing or five things and the researchers fail to acknowledge this basic fact.
The reality to this reality TV show is that the producers and coaches are doing something to people nature had never conceived of and we aren’t even close to beginning to understand the causes and effects of that short-term and long-term.
What we do know is that there is a medically healthy rate you can lose weight, which is 20 to 25 pounds per year, about half a pound per week on average.
I know that most medical professionals will say 1 to 2 pounds per week, but studies of people who actually keep it off? They tend to only lose 20-25 pounds per year.
And Looking back at Meal Mentor data… for members who have lost 75lbs or more, and then kept it off, almost all of them lost about 25 pounds per year.
It really is a marathon.
One last quick note about Leptin: With healthy, slow weight-loss, sensitivity to leptin returns to normal if it drops.
But with the contestants, their loss was radical, and then they regained all the weight, which is a double whammy.
Some obesity researchers believe BL contestants end up with pseudo Cushing's due to the rapid fat loss on the show, which is mostly irreversible.
Cushing’s (also called hypercortisolism) is caused by either excessive cortisol from a medication or from a tumor that produces or promotes the production of excessive cortisol. (Cortisol is a steroid hormone). One of my best friends has Cushing’s and knowing what I know about her situation and diagnosis, this explanation makes complete sense to me and curiously, was also left out of the article.
Then there are also the psychological consequences.
I haven’t had a chance to cover this on the podcast yet, but there are mountains of evidence that when we feel we have suffered we reward ourselves, consciously and unconsciously.
I can’t imagine how the mind would react to the suffering on The Biggest Loser, or what kind of PTSD contestants might have from all the screaming or media attention afterwards.
I keep thinking about Ali Vincent’s heartbreaking post last month. Ali, the first woman to win (winner season 5), said she recently joined Weight Watchers and is now almost back to her starting weight on the show. She went on to say “I feel ashamed. I feel embarrassed. I feel overwhelmed. I feel like failure." which breaks my heart.
Then, too, as I mentioned a million years ago, there seems to be no effort of teaching behavior modification on the show.
In working with hundreds of people through Meal Mentor I can attest real, lasting weight-loss comes mainly from behavioral changes, with having support at home or online through a community as a very close critical second.
Do the contestants have that? Hard to say.
I think it’s also safe to assume that the contestants are losing muscle in addition to fat. Considering their grueling workouts and lack of calories eaten, they would have to lose muscle--the body would have to literally eat itself to stay alive in those conditions.
That in and of itself would change their metabolism, and quite dramatically, especially if they regained their fat but not the muscle loss.
I do find it curious that the show measures based on a SCALE and isn’t measuring actual fat loss. They must know their contestants are dehydrated and losing muscle. There is no other explanation.
Finally, from my own personal journey, I have to say that maintaining has been a thousand times harder than losing.
This is something I said last week to the Meal Mentor Slim Team: weight-loss is not a finish line. Whatever it takes to get you over the finish line, is what you have to keep doing to maintain it. Nothing you do is temporary, unless you only want your results to be temporary.
Losing weight has to be a marathon and not a sprint.
Other beefs I have with the article and/or study:
#1 There is no control group. This alone will set any researcher's hair on fire.
#2 The article says, “There is always a weight a person’s body maintains without any effort. And while it is not known why that weight can change over the years”
So much nope. We already know why weight changes over the years, change in body composition. See the last two episodes.
As for “set weights” there is some research that suggests they exist, but that same research says if you maintain your new weight consistently for a few months, then that weight becomes your new set weight. This applies with gains and losses.
#3 The NY Post added this little lie to their version of the article, “This finding wasn’t surprising... when people skip breakfast, your body automatically conserves energy.” Which is blatantly not true, see episodes 5 and 6 for research.
#4 The NYT article also talked about how people on a diabetes drug who starved if they tried to cut back on 200 calories.
I don’t deny they feel hunger, but one look at the satiety index can explain that. 200 calories of doughnuts isn’t going to fill you up like 200 calories of potatoes.
Finally, there were a lot of great comments to this article in our private member community and I wanted to read a few:
First is Natasha, who herself has lost over 115 pounds and kept it off. Natasha wrote:
“As I read this, I was thinking, ‘because a plant based diet is high in fiber and allows people to eat a relatively greater volume of food, it would help with feeling satiated.’ Weight loss and maintenance seem like very complex subjects. I wonder if similar metabolic studies have been done on people who have lost weight on high-carb diets.”
I couldn’t find any studies but Natasha makes a great point.
You can read Natasha’s story here.
Karen wrote, “The scientists who came up with this ask a lot of questions throughout the article that other scientists have already answered. I think this study is not complete. And they don't say what any of these people's metabolisms are, just that they are "lower than expected". Expected by whom? Someone who is an expert in metabolism? My metabolism is way lower than I expected it to be, but it's exactly what Shortcut to Slim’s research said it should be. The contestants go on extreme diets and do extreme amounts of exercise to lose the weight very quickly. Maybe they now have adrenal issues. I don't think the stats are scary for normal, slow and steady weight loss and eating whole foods...".
Lastly, Skylar, “The Biggest Loser is well-known for its abusive and dangerous weight loss techniques. They induce a severe starvation state for seven months or more. No wonder that might screw up your body permanently. Some people have heart conditions now from it. Saying this applies to anyone who loses weight is stupid and not supported by the science. And they are irresponsible for portraying their study this way because now what point is there for the person who reads this to clean up their diet and exercise regularly? Until there are a lot more studies on normal, non-starvation weight loss, don't take this to heart.”
Exactly MY sentiments Skylar.
This article is full of BS.
The Biggest Loser contestants are made a spectacle on a show that is all-out deplorable and breeds unrealistic expectations while harming the contestants. And while this article exposes THAT truth, it turns around and does the huge disservice of spreading more myths despite volumes of compelling evidence to the contrary, all to feed lots of desperate people exactly what they want to hear, "it’s not your fault. There is absolutely no personal responsibility but one day we’ll sell you a new leptin diet pill, so hang tight!”
If any of the contestants end up hearing this podcast, please email me. If for no other reason so I can apologize, because someone should apologize to you.
As a final sort of conclusion: What we all know but sometimes don’t want to believe is still true: losing weight gradually is the best way. You slowly and steadily gained your weight and that’s exactly how you need to lose it.
Don’t rock the boat. Lifestyle change matters more than anything else! Take it a MAINTAINABLE step at a time.
Losing weight is hard work, but keeping it off is harder.
If you’ve been enjoying this podcast please leave a review on iTunes and share the podcast with your friends.
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