Speak Up, or You Will Be the Biggest Loser. And That’s Not a Good Thing.

Rapid weight loss is incompatible with mental and physical health. Period.

I beg to differ with Daily Beast columnist Tricia Romano, who believes Rachel Frederickson’s extreme weight loss on the Biggest Loser is none of our business. And I disagree that her weight is just a tad lower than a healthy BMI. And Rachel’s BL trainer Bob Harper is simply wrong when he assumes that “…when contestants leave home ... they are in charge of themselves.” 

Admittedly, I’ve never watched more than a few minutes of TBL—I found it intolerable. Yet the show is unfortunately quite popular. Many of my plus size patients report being inspired, identifying with the desperate contestants, tolerant of the verbal abuse and crazy diet and activity demands. They're smitten by the fairy tale that rapid weight loss through extreme measures works. And that extreme weight loss equals extreme happiness. Let me inform you otherwise; I yearn to protect you from the damage, both visible and hidden, from this diet mentality.

But first, about Rachel—the latest victim 

My summary of The Biggest Loser.
It was a media frenzy as Biggest Loser Rachel Frederickson returned to the show, 45 lbs below her “healthy” weight of 150 pounds when departing TBL. She weighed in at 105 pounds, a 155 pound total weight loss. And the $250,000 reward money was likely the least of the motivators. If you’ve ever known anyone who’s lived with an eating disorder, you know the situation well. It may start with a seemingly reasonable weight loss goal, typically with a common diet. And then once that goal is met, their goal gets reset. “Just five more pounds”, they think. “Then I’ll be happy/ satisfied/thin enough.” Yet for some, no amount of weight is ever quite enough, and the struggle continues. It moves from perhaps a sincere interest in losing some weight—perhaps at the recommendation of their doctor, even—to something completely different. 

And while it is frequently said that eating disorders are about control, the experience of the eating disorder sufferer hardly feels like being in control. Rumination about food and weight and eating consumes thoughts, and normal life comes to a halt. Social activities are put on hold to accommodate diet rules, and isolation becomes the norm. They may be visibly underweight, or appear to be of average or even over weight. Starvation can occur at any size. Really.

As for the Daily Beast writer’s comment “at 5 foot 5 inches and 105 pounds, Frederickson’s is slightly below the recommended BMI. But she’s also small-boned and lithe”, allow me to respond. For her height, midpoint of a healthy range may be 125 pounds by the charts, but at less than 90% of that weight (under 112 pounds), most women lose their periods. As for athletes (she was apparently a world class swimmer prior to her weight gain) a higher weight range is generally expected as healthy, with increased muscle mass. 

Of course there are small boned, women who were always petite, for whom a lower weight certainly may be okay. Weight, as I mentioned, is not the best measure of health. But a significant weight drop below one’s highest weight, referred to by researchers as weight suppression, may have undesirable effects, including precipitating eating disorders. 

Rachel reports feeling fine, but the evidence tells us otherwise. Exercising 3-4 hours per day strikes me as a big red flag for preoccupation with her weight. It’s not her fault, though. The Biggest Loser promotes rapid weight loss and unrealistic goals. We know from a classic starvation study by Dr. Ancel Keys in 1944 that starvation resulting in even a 25% weight loss—much less than her almost 60% drop in body weight—impacts thoughts, moods, sexual desire, and eating behaviors. All that, in addition to the slowed heart rate (no, it is not an athlete’s low pulse), low body temperature, and abnormal menses. 

Three, maybe four exercise classes a day, is her reported activity, while consuming under 1600 calories from a 'healthy' diet. Excuse me? 'Healthy diet' is a term that simply doesn’t apply to this intake relative to activity. I don’t care how healthy the individual foods are, whether they are organic, whole grain, whatever—there’s nothing healthy here. This is a severely restrictive intake for this level of activity.

It’s none of my business, Tricia? On the contrary. I can’t simply sit and watch and not shout out how outrageous and unhealthy this is. I am not, however, faulting Rachel. The Biggest Loser took a vulnerable contestant—perhaps no different than other contestants—a woman who reports emotional overeating resulting in a 100 pound weight gain following a breakup. They turn out an excessive exerciser, who’s restricting her calories and likely quite unhealthy by many measures. 

Call it the flip side of the same coin—first likely struggling with binge eating now struggling to trust her body and her signals and eat to meet her needs. Are we to view this as success? Not in the least. Were her eating behaviors addressed? Was she given strategies for coping versus using food or food restriction or compulsive exercise? Was she guided to learn to trust her hunger and her fullness again, or simply instructed to count calories? 

A former contestant, Ms. Hibbard acknowledges the unhealthy behavior she and others practiced on the ranch, particularly preceding weigh-ins (similar to what Weight Watchers report). Contestants, she claims, “dehydrated themselves through excessive workouts in warm layers of clothing, drank only coffee because it acts as a diuretic and ate little to nothing.” She adds: “I feel I did a vulnerable disservice by not saying on television the night of my finale. ‘I’m sad, and I’m sick from being on this show’”. (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/09/fashion/Biggest-Loser-Rachel-Frederickson.html?_r=0)

Hibbard might have been late to speak up. But we don’t have to be silent. The impact of a show like The Biggest Loser is dangerous—to its contestants, and to its viewers. It promises health, while causing harm; and it delays and potentially complicates contestants’ preexisting eating disorders. It shames participants through their weight loss struggle, and turns viewers to criticizing the Loser, like Rachel, for whom continued weight loss may feel out of her hands. 

Don’t accept the promise of rapid weight loss, or believe that extremes of eating or exercising will work. Because they never do.

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