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Let’s eat ice-cream and talk obesity

March 1, 2010

My roommate and I have a Tuesday night tradition, where we make dinner, then sit down and watch the Biggest Loser together. This show is one that benefits from a sort of interaction, being watched by two or more people who can provide running commentary. The show’s message is meant to be clear of its own accord: America has an obesity problem, we must change our habits to fix it. Or on a more personal level: eat healthy and exercise, or you will die.

You see these larger people eating right (with handy promos inserted into the show– eat Lara Bars to lose weight!), taking to the gym and, what do you know, losing 10 lbs a week. This is a show that aims to have a positive message, and has been accepted as projecting one. This seems to be the inverse of the typical reality shows. One that seemingly projects a positive message, but actually has quite a negative one.

I have drunk the Kool Aid myself, my roommate and I have the Biggest Loser Simple Swaps book, we own the Jillian Michaels work-out DVD. After all, don’t we all want to be skinny or svelte? Or failing that, (because of course, the show isn’t about outer beauty) don’t we all want to be healthy?

But, as the oft reported criticisms of the Biggest Loser state, how healthy can losing weight this way be? The record on the show is losing 100lbs in 7 weeks. That is almost 15 lbs a week. Contestants get upset if they lost less than 5lbs. That’s if you’re a woman. If you’re a man, heaven help you if you lose less than 7lbs. The last winner of the Biggest Loser, Danny Cahill, lost 239 lbs over the three month course of the show, going from 430 to 191lbs. Is this commendable, a step towards a healthy America, or a slippery slope heading too fast in the opposite direction?

Rapid weight loss leads to many medical problems, including damage to the liver, weakening of the heart muscle, irregular heartbeat and dangerous reductions in potassium and electrolytes. Many of the contestants have said that they drank as little water as possible, and wore as many clothes as they could when working out. Kai Hibbard was the runner up in Season 3, losing 144lbs. She gained 30lbs immediately after filming stopped purely due to drinking water. Ryan Benson, the Season 1 winner, gained back all the weight he lost and admitted to fasting and dehydrating himself.

Yet the medical supervisor on the Biggest Loser, an associate clinical professor of medicine at UCLA, has said that it is safe, and is a completely different kind of weight loss to starvation. The show’s executive producer says that maybe the format is extreme, but that’s because it needs to be. The country is wrestling with health care issues, and obesity issues, spending billions of dollars. The show acts as a kind of public service announcement, inspiring people to be healthier.

Jillian Michaels, one of the trainers, acknowledges some of the criticisms, calling it “the dark side” of the show, due to the nature of reality television. These people aren’t losing weight to be healthy, but are losing it to win $250,000. While this can be acceptable within the parameters of the show, where they have constant medical supervision, and the help of a multi-million dollar merchandise business upon completion, what is the message that it sends to the viewers watching at home? Lose 15lbs this week, or you’re nothing but a fatty. Even I struggle to defend that.

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