What Ever Happened to ‘The Biggest Loser’?

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Our patients often ask us about the Biggest Loser television show. Their questions center around comparisons: “Why aren’t I losing weight as quickly as the contestants are?” or “Why are you recommending that I don’t try to lose 80# all at once? They do that on the Biggest Loser”.

And, as Registered Dietitians, we do the best we can to educate folks about why the Biggest Loser television show has so many flaws when applied to the real world.

But imagine my excitement when I met a researcher at the recent American Society for Nutrition conference who has actually studied a cohort of Biggest Loser participants. At the famous Pennington Biomedical Research Center, Dr Eric Ravussin and his team, study the effect of caloric restriction on physiological processes. One of his postdoctoral students recommended that he study a group of Biggest Loser participants.

The results verified everything that we know about rapid weight loss which can be summed up in one short sentence: Rapid weight loss is very likely to lead to rebound weight regain.

Dr Ravussin put these Biggest Loser participants through lots of physiological testing – from blood tests to time spent in metabolic chambers. And the results, although expected, are still startling.

Let’s say that Jenny is a person who used to weigh 250 pounds and, in a short period of time on the Biggest Loser show, lost 100 pounds so she now weighs 150 pounds. Kate has never lost or gained much weight (was never on the show) and weighs 150 pounds. Jenny and Kate now eat exactly the same diet and move their bodies the same amount too. Extensive metabolic testing shows that Jenny burns about 510 calories fewer per day than Kate. That means that on the same amount of calories, Jenny will gain weight and Kate will maintain her weight. Not fair, is it?

Rapid weight loss produces metabolic adaptations. People who lose a lot of weight quickly burn fewer calories and are hungrier too. This is because of the drop in their leptin levels (a hormone that helps to regulate hunger and satiety) produced by the rapid weight loss. So, in summary, they have to eat less, exercise more and endure more hunger on an ongoing basis. Sounds like a nightmare to me!

Rapid weight loss is a recipe for disaster. We recommend 5-10% weight loss over a 3 to 6 month period. And then we recommend maintaining that weight loss for 3-6 months before you start losing weight again. This gives your body a better chance of sustaining the weight loss for the long term so you are able to get off that awful dieting rollercoaster.

Rather than extreme calorie restriction and over exercising, we recommend focusing on small changes which are sustainable long term. Losing weight that you are not going to keep off is useless. And yo-yo dieting is certainly not helpful for your self esteem either.

So pick a small change that you can start making today. Will you eat more vegetables at dinner? Will you go for a 15 minute walk at lunch time? Will you pack a healthy snack so that long stretches in between meals can be avoided? Will you make an appointment with a Registered Dietitian so you get some individualized support? Think long term and before you know it, those small changes will add up to significant benefits.