The Biggest Loser Misses 2 Big Points

Last week a woman named Rachel Fredrickson won The Biggest Loser when she shaved off 60% of her total body weight. I’ll admit that when I first saw the pictures of her 5’4″, 105 pound frame, I was a bit shocked. The transformation was incredible, certainly the most dramatic transformation ever seen on the show. But today I won’t weigh in (forgive the pun) on whether her methods were healthy. Enough has been said on that, by myself included.

I want to talk about the bigger issue of how the show operates, and how we view weight in our culture. The conversations I’ve had about this lately have shown me that the way we talk about the bigger issue when there is an individual person at the center of the fray is really important. So let me first say that Rachel’s story, journey, and body are her own, and I have no right to judge them. Society told her she was too fat, and when she lost a lot of weight, we told her she was too skinny. I’m guessing 10-15 pounds is all it takes to swing that pendulum. We’re ok with the extreme weight loss methods when someone is obese, but we let the stones fly when someone at a healthy weight remains really dedicated. Maybe we feel inferior because all of the sudden, someone who used to be fatter than us is now thinner than us. But that’s a whole different discussion, isn’t it?

American health, beauty standardsWhat really bothered me were the stories that came out after Rachel’s victory from other contestants about their time on the show. After reading about several people who developed eating disorders or were ignored by producers when they needed help, how most of the contestants gain all the weight back after the show but aren’t allowed by their contract to talk about it, I realized something. The Biggest Loser would like you to believe that the show is about health – helping contestants become their best selves – but it’s not. It’s about ratings.

Big news, right? Some of you are probably saying, “duh.” Or maybe you’re ready to jump to the show’s defense. Full disclosure: I am not an avid watcher of The Biggest Loser. I’ve watched 3 or 4 episodes ever, and by no means am I an expert. But I think this much is obvious: the contestant’s health is not the goal. Why am I so sure? Because the show misses two important points.

1. Weight Alone is a Poor Indicator of Health

Most people know how The Biggest Loser works. The contestant who loses the most body weight by percentage wins. It’s as simple as that. But your BMI (body mass index) only rates your health based on how much weight you carry for your height. As a consequence plenty of fit, muscular people end up with a BMI that categorizes them as overweight or even obese, since muscle is considerably denser than fat, while many people with health issues are categorized as healthy. My dad is a good example. He swims, ice skates, hikes, and backpacks. He’s in great shape and he’s never been even close to overweight. But several years ago, he found out his cholesterol was high.

We’re bombarded with the message that thinner is healthier, but some new studies are showing that may not be completely true. Overweight people who work out live longer than slender people who don’t. Nearly half of the obese people in one study qualified as metabolically healthy (they don’t suffer from “insulin resistance, diabetes, low levels of good cholesterol, high triglycerides and high blood pressure”), and had no higher risk of death from heart disease than those at a healthy weight. In fact, a third study found that of 65,000 patients with heart disease, the obese and overweight ones had the lowest risk of early death.

The number on the scale is one indicator of your health, but it’s not the only one.

Health is More than Your Body

The mind-body connection is a powerful thing. As a doula, I’ve witnessed a laboring woman’s mental, emotional, and spiritual condition greatly impact the ease of her labor, for better or for worse. That connection is a huge part of what makes us human. We are holistic beings, deeply interconnected within ourselves. Health is so much more than your physical fitness; it’s your mental wellbeing, your emotional stability, your sense of purpose, your feeling of balance.

As I mentioned, I am not an avid Biggest Loser fan. But in the handful of episodes and clips I’ve caught, I’ve gathered that you can hardly get from commercial break to commercial break without someone breaking down in tears or vomiting. Contestants are barely allowed to speak with loved ones during filming. They’re away from family, separated from the things that give them greater purpose, under the constant scrutiny and supervision of cameras, producers, and strangers. In that environment, when all your energy is poured into the goal of losing weight and the stakes are high, I imagine it’s not difficult to see a measure of success.

But it’s a wholly unrealistic and miserable way to live your life. That’s why so many of them gain the weight back when the cameras and the $250,000 reward are gone. They haven’t learned balance. They haven’t been equipped with the tools to make physical health an integrated part of their lifestyle.

If The Biggest Loser cared about the health of their contestants, they would consider other factors (like those in the metabolically healthy definition) along with the weigh ins. Contestants would be coached on more than burpees and pull-ups; they would be encouraged to find balance, pursue the things that bring them joy, and find the motivation to do it themselves when they aren’t on national television. But some of those things are hard to quantify and they happen slowly. They don’t elicit the level of drama we’ve come to expect from reality TV. It’s hard to compete against other people for the best mental health, or the best balance between physical and emotional well being.

Maybe getting healthier isn’t supposed to be a competition. Maybe it looks different for everyone. The Biggest Loser doesn’t just oversimplify what it means to work toward good health. Producers regularly push their contestants to dangerous extremes in the name of the weekly weigh-in and high drama, and, from what I can surmise, care little for their overall health and long-term success.

That’s the impression I’ve gotten as a relative outsider. What do you think- does The Biggest Loser actually encourage people to get healthier? Do the contestants really know what they’re getting themselves into?


Strong to Live

I grew up in Colorado and was raised with wilderness in my blood. I was 9 when I summited my first 14er, and 10 or 11 on my first backpacking trip. I spent every summer day playing outside with my sister, and every winter looking forward to weekend ski trips with my dad. My mom got me hooked on road biking at 15 and I regularly rode 50 miles in a day, just for fun. I lived nearly 2 blissful decades eating, wearing, and doing what made me happy, with no thought to how I looked.

But in high school I became slowly aware of the fact that I am not built like most other girls… at least, not like the sweet and petite ones I saw in magazines and on TV. I’m pretty tall. I’m curvy. I’m stable. (That’s a nice way of saying that I’m broad and kinda big boned and often intimidating to short men.)

All I wanted to do in high school was draw sailor moon characters, but I was forced by the evil public school system to take physical education classes and grudgingly “participated” in a semester each of team sports, individual sports, and dance. So when I discovered weight lifting my sophomore year, I was enamored. Here, finally, was a sport I was built for, something my body excelled at. I put on muscle easily and was quickly lifting more than most of my classmates. I loved it, and even as I ride up and down the calorie-counting, must-do-more-cardio, nothing-tastes-as-good-as-skinny-feels roller coaster of my 20s, I keep coming back to strength training.

Where Am I Now?

After two babies, 3 years of nearly constant sleep deprivation, and a copious amount of stress eating, let’s just say that I’m not currently the finest specimen of physical fitness. I’m learning to let go of how I look and love my body for what it is, what it does, and what it allows me to do. What I’m discovering, though, is that with the added weight and lack of exercise, I’m feeling weak. I get sick a lot. I eat food that makes me feel like crap but I just keep eating it. I groan like an old lady when I stand up after playing with my kids on the floor. My thighs quake when I squat down to pick something up. My back gets tired after wearing my baby on a short walk. I breathe heavier than I used to.

I don’t care that my arms and tummy wobble, but I do care that I’m limited by my physical condition. I’m not living my best life. I’m struggling with the basic human movements that our ancestors had to perform hundreds of thousands of years ago in order to survive.

Why “CaveGirl?”

Cavegirl mamas wore their babies all day, and their day included about 100 times more work than my day includes. There was no ibuprofen; they couldn’t afford an injury from trying to lift too much weight. Large animals with long scary teeth and huge claws were always hunting them. Cavemen had to be able to sling their kill over their shoulders and carry it back to camp. They had to be strong to live.

I want to be like that. Strong, sufficient, maybe without the cave bears and sabertooth tigers. That’s why I’m coming back to lifting heavy; really researching it, getting rid of my excuses, and giving it everything I have. And here’s the thing: I’m sure my measurements will change. I’ll probably drop some pounds. Honestly, that’s just icing on the cake. I’m not chiefly after a body transformation; I’m on a quest to transform the way my body operates and the way I feel.

Follow along and see what happens.