Biggest Loser Backfire

by in Health & Fitness, Musings February 5, 2014

In case you missed it, the winner of this past season’s Biggest Loser was announced last night — Rachel Frederickson, who lost a total of 155 pounds, walking onstage carrying a whopping 105 pounds on her 5’4″ frame.

I never used to watch Biggest Loser.  In fact, I avoided it because I didn’t care for the premise that contestants be isolated onto the Biggest Loser “campus” and spend every waking moment working out and fixating on extreme weight loss.

This past year, I made a point to watch…because a number of my clients and prospects would make comments like, “I wish I could just go on Biggest Loser and drop the weight like they do,” or “If only I could do a quick start, like on Biggest Loser, that would really get me going.”  So, in the name of ‘research,’ I made a point to DVR the episodes each week and watch them through.

It’s easy to get caught up in the emotional drama that is replayed every episode about the contestants’ WHYs:  WHY they gained the weight, WHY they couldn’t ever lose it once they gained it, WHY they need to be on Biggest Loser now, and WHY they deserve to be there, on this campus, focusing on only one thing in their life: weight loss.  Television and reality shows like this draw us in with the use of drama…even though we know it’s “just TV.

So…I have been following along with the rest of you, watching the transformations of each and every one of the contestants, and when the final episode with the triathlon ended a few weeks back, my husband and I predicted the winner would be either Rachel or David Brown.

Last night, within minutes of seeing the three finalists, my original misgivings about the premise of the Biggest Loser show were reinforced – times TEN.

Of the three finalists, I first had concerns when I saw Bobby Saleem who, along with David, lost just over half his bodyweight.  His reaction to his final weigh-in?  “I’d really like to be in the 160s…but I’m happy with this number.”  Onstage, he looked a bit too thin to me, with no real muscle definition like someone his age should have.  Compared to how he came onto the show, of course it was a huge change.  But that comment?  It sent a little bell ringing off in my head…after all this change, all this improvement, all this weight loss…he was still not happy.  He wanted to take that scale weight down.  He had a number in his head – regardless of whether or not it was the right number for someone his height, and regardless of what he looked like in the mirror – and he was somewhat fixated on that, so nothing else was quite good enough.

David’s transformation and attitude was much more palatable.  Through his actions and words, he communicated that he learned a lot about himself and what he was capable of over the course of those months.  He very humbly accepted every day as another day to improve, and to learn how to carry on in a healthy way for himself and his family when it was time to leave the campus – back in “real life.”  While he wasn’t the winner of this season’s Biggest Loser, I think he was the Biggest Winner.  He figured it out.  He identified that once he took healthy control of his choices, he was taking control of his health and his life.

And then there was the season’s winner, determined solely by the numbers on the scale.  By losing 155 pounds, this 5’4” woman lost 60% of her starting bodyweight.  Rachel, who we had come to love and admire for her spirit, her determination and her resolve…she comes on stage looking fragile, gaunt, and skeletal.  There is no sign of the strong swimmer athlete.  Just a really skinny girl with some makeup on.

What happened?  I will tell you what I predict, and this comes from someone who has been down that road herself:  In the attempt to regain control of her life through weight loss and potentially win a quarter of a million dollars, I speculate that Rachel actually lost control.  She lost control of her vision, of her perceived reality, and of her self-image.  And chances are, while it’s glaringly obvious to the rest of the world, I can guarantee you that Rachel doesn’t see it.

Each and every one of these contestants at one point had an unhealthy relationship with food – and that is what got them to the point they were at in the beginning of the season.  As viewers, we are not privy to much of the conversation (IF there was ANY) with contestants about food, outside of Dolvett’s advertising various little snacky ideas for a few of their major sponsors, or one or two cooking sessions with the trainers.  No one ever really addresses their food issues, or educates the contestants with any real focus on daily nutrition, food as fuel, or how to deal with their emotional connections with food.

As a result, someone like Rachel – a strong-minded, intelligent, independent spirit – figures out a way to “win” against the food monster that raged in her past…she began to demonize food.  Mentally, she took control and turned FOOD (and probably working out, too) into the problem, and then began to exercise CONTROL over the problem.

Once she left campus, there was no one left to coach her, to be a sounding board, or to work with her on maintaining appropriate portion control.  We’ve all been guilty of this, at one time or another – after all, “if one aspirin works, two will work better, right?”

For someone who demonizes food, it’s the exact opposite.  “If I eat one X and one Y for each meal and lose a pound a week, then if I eat ½ of X and ½ of Y, I should be able to double that weight loss”…and so on.  We cut down, cut down, and cut down again…and if it gets to where we still feel like we aren’t meeting our goals, we start throwing up what we have just eaten, just to be sure we are still in control of our intended outcome.

With extreme weight gain, and subsequent weight loss, each of these contestants will probably be HYPER-aware of food and their relationship and/or control of it in their lives.  I doubt that Rachel is the only one who has taken it to this level…she is just the most visible.  After all, there was a prize of $250,000.00!  That’s a lot of money.  That’s a lot of reason to go into overdrive.  And that’s a lot of reason, in conjunction with her competitive spirit, I believe Rachel went as far as she did – even though she probably can’t recognize it right now.  She will.  I hope.

Eating disorders are an illness.  It dismays me to realize how many women and girls watched Biggest Loser this season or any other season and saw what we saw last night as a “victory” or a “winner.”  Sure, Rachel won a bunch of money…but at what cost?  She is still struggling with food.  She is still trying to control other facets of her life through her control of food and exercise.  And yet, the SCALE proclaimed her the WINNER.

This is such a complex issue.  I could go on and on but I won’t.

Every day I work with people who have fat to lose, who are struggling to maintain their health, who have twisted perceptions of their bodies – in women, in men, and yes – in children, too.  And this work is about SO MUCH MORE than the scale!

The bottom line:  Focus on health…not the scale.  The numbers on the scale do not determine your worth.  Your overall health and well-being should be number one priority.  You’ve got to live in that body for the REST OF YOUR LIFE!  Treat it well.  Keep it healthy.  Move each day.  Eat the rainbow.  Make sure you are getting enough sleep.  Keep it all in perspective.

This issue will come up in this blog again.  I have history with these issues too.  I will share.

In the meantime,

Peace out.