There Are No Winners with 'The Biggest Loser'
When the long-running TV game show relaunched in January, it promised a kinder, gentler version suited for the current health climate. It didn't deliver.
On a chilly morning last October, Jim DeBattista, 47, came trundling across the finish line of a one-mile run looking gassed. DeBattista, a youth football coach from Philadelphia, is a contestant on The Biggest Loser, the infamous weight-loss game show that rebooted on January 28 after being abruptly canceled in 2016. The mile run is one of many fitness challenges contestants tackle, and DeBattista is dead last. There is good news, though. His time has improved the most among all the players since their last mile run two months earlier, from 20 minutes to around 13, which has helped move him a little closer to the show’s $100,000 grand prize. When he hears the results, he gives a little fist pump. DeBattista may have lost the race, but he wins the day.
I’ve come to check out the new Biggest Loser, which purports to have been “re-imagined for today’s audiences” by taking “a holistic, 360-degree look at wellness,” according to a press statement circulated a few months before its premiere. That could just be marketing boilerplate, but it’s in sync with a fast-changing fitness industry that has recently been retooling itself to be more inclusive, less abusive, and more focused on whole health than looks and performance. Or so its proprietors would have you believe.
The episodes were being filmed just a few miles from my home in Santa Fe, on a 2,400-acre recreation complex called Glorieta Adventure Camps. The run ends on a grassy campus at the center of the facility. Nearby is a large man-made lake surrounded by clusters of outbuildings. Piñon- and juniper-studded hills laced with hiking trails rise in all directions under a cloudless sky. As the contestants race toward the finish line, the show’s two new trainers—Steve Cook, 33, a former bodybuilder from Utah, and Erica Lugo, 33, a single mom who runs EricaFitLove, an online personal-training business—pace them, shouting encouragement.
The show’s new host, former trainer Bob Harper, stands nearby, ready to announce the results. At 54, he looks like a pillar of health, especially for a guy who almost died a couple of years ago. In 2017, Harper had a heart attack midworkout at a gym in Manhattan. He went into cardiac arrest, but a doctor happened to be at hand and initiated CPR, saving his life. His close call, Harper later told me, increased his empathy for The Biggest Loser contestants—after his heart attack, he says, he “couldn’t walk around the block without getting winded.”
In keeping with his newfound feelings of empathy, the revamped show is what he calls a “kinder and gentler” version of the original. Gone are the infamous temptations, demeaning stunts like digging through piles of doughnuts for a poker chip worth $5,000 or being forced to carry around a slice of cake for a day. When Harper’s not lording over the weigh-ins with wizened commentary, he gathers the contestants for heartfelt therapy sessions. At the end of each episode, contestants are no longer dismissed by a group vote, as in the original, but are let go based on the percentage of their weight loss that week. Those who are sent home are set up with an aftercare program that includes a one-year Planet Fitness membership, a personal dietitian, and access to a support group.
When The Biggest Loser reboot aired earlier this year, its most striking quality was not what had changed but how much had stayed the same. I watched the premiere with a mix of disappointment and dismay as the contestants grunted and cursed their way through workouts, barfed into buckets, and got yelled at by Cook and Lugo. There was virtually no mention of diet, stress, sleep, meditation, or any other staples of the wellness revolution. Instead, in the first episode, the contestants were told by Harper that they had, variously, Type 2 diabetes, sleep apnea, high cholesterol, and a “90 percent chance of dying from an obesity-related complication.”
The public response to the revised show has been less than kind. “The Biggest Loser is a vile fat-shaming shit-show that science (and human decency) says never should have been reborn,” tweeted Yoni Freedoff, a family-medicine doctor and an obesity expert in Ottawa, on January 28. The next day on Jezebel, Kelly Faircloth wrote: “The Biggest Loser is an amazing illustration of how… America treats fat bodies as grotesque or tragic failures and exploits them for entertainment.”
On the New Mexico set, when I asked what had changed and improved since the original, there was almost a winking acknowledgment from Harper and others that, hey, this was cable TV. While they had abandoned or toned down the show’s uglier antics, why would they alter a formula that worked? “We have weigh-ins every week, just like we did before,” Harper told me enthusiastically. “I mean, The Biggest Loser without a scale is like American Idol without a singer.”
When The Biggest Loser debuted in 2004, obesity was being branded as a public-health crisis in most developed countries. By the early aughts, two-thirds of the adult U.S. population was overweight or obese. In May 2004, the World Health Organization released its Global Strategy on Diet, Physical Activity, and Health to address the “growing burden of noncommunicable disease,” of which being overweight and/or obese was listed as one of the top six causes. Much hand-wringing ensued about how, exactly, to overcome this rising trend, but one thing seemed indisputable: losing weight was paramount.
At the time, diet culture was going through its own transformation. Carbohydrates were out; dietary fat was in. Low-carb diets had been around for a while—the Atkins Diet, perhaps the best known, first appeared in the 1970s. But popular interest in this new paradigm surged after Gary Taubes’s story, “What if It’s All Been a Big Fat Lie?,” appeared in The New York Times Magazine in 2002, challenging, if not upending, the low-fat dietary standard that had been promoted by doctors and medical associations since the 1960s. Other fads were also underway—Loren Cordain’s The Paleo Diet was published in 2002, followed by The South Beach Diet in 2003—but the pitch was always the same: if we just ate the right stuff, like, say, bacon and eggs, the pounds would melt away and good health would return.
Into the fray came The Biggest Loser. Plenty of weight-loss programs teased us with dramatic before and after images, including Weight Watchers, Nutrisystem, and Body for Life. But no one had showcased those transformations on television while we watched. As the origin story goes, around 2003, J.D. Roth, at the time a 35-year-old reality-TV producer, approached NBC with the idea of a show about obese contestants transforming themselves into thin people by burning off huge amounts of weight. How much weight? the network execs wanted to know. “A hundred pounds!” Roth told them.
Prevailing medical wisdom advises that the most weight it’s reasonable and responsible to lose is about one to two pounds a week. But The Biggest Loser participants lost much more—in some cases, more than 30 pounds in a single week. The dramatic changes were driven by calorie-restricted diets and unrelenting exercise. The show enlisted a pair of charismatic trainers—Harper and Jillian Michaels, the fiery fitness coach from Los Angeles—included plenty of real tears, and featured humiliating challenges that made fraternity hazing rituals seem quaint.
Critics were appalled. “There’s a loathsome, mock-the-fatty undertow to The Biggest Loser,” Gillian Flynn wrote in Entertainment Weekly when the first season premiered. “But what’s the point of making them squeeze in and out of car windows too small for them? Or forcing them to build a tower of pastries using only their mouths?” (When reached by Outside, NBC Universal declined to comment on past or current criticisms of the show.)
The point, of course, was ratings. Audiences, as well as the show’s participants, seemed willing to shrug off the abuse, given the end results. The first season’s winner, Ryan Benson, who worked in DVD production, shed an astonishing 122 pounds during the six-month production, going from 330 to 208. Some 11 million viewers tuned in to watch the season-one finale, according to Nielsen ratings. The program was a hit and would carry on for 17 seasons, making it one of the longest-running reality shows of all time.
Things changed in the early 2010s. In 2014, Rachel Frederickson won the 15th season after she lost 155 pounds—60 percent of her body weight, since she started the season at 260 pounds. When she appeared in the finale, she was unrecognizable next to the hologram of herself from the first episode. According to her new body mass index of 18, she was, in fact, clinically underweight. Many viewers were aghast. The show seemed to have become some sort of dark, dystopian comedy.
Audience numbers had been slowly shrinking since The Biggest Loser’s peak viewership in 2009, but between 2014 and 2016, they dropped sharply, from about 6.5 million to 3.6 million average viewers per episode. Then, in May 2016, the show was dealt a nearly fatal blow. Researchers from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) released a study that followed 14 former Biggest Loser contestants over the course of six years. The participants had gained back most of the weight they lost on the show, and in some cases, they put on even more. Almost all had developed resting metabolic rates that were considerably slower than people of similar size who had not experienced rapid weight loss. Although, on average, the participants managed to keep off some 12 percent of their starting body weight—which makes the show a success relative to most diets—the study indicated that the kind of extreme weight loss hawked by The Biggest Loser was unsustainable. It was also potentially dangerous, given the risks associated with weight fluctuation. (NBC Universal declined to comment on the results of the study.)
The study may have emboldened former contestants to speak out about their experiences on the show. In an incendiary New York Post piece published shortly after the NIH study appeared, several contestants alleged that they had been given drugs like Adderall and supplements like ephedra to enhance fat burning. Reeling from controversy, and with ratings down, The Biggest Loser quietly vanished. There was no cancellation announcement. It just didn’t return for season 18.
The Biggest Loser may have imploded on its own accord, but it may also have suffered collateral damage from a cultural shift that was undermining its entire premise. Even as the show was gaining popularity in the mid-aughts, health researchers and activists were questioning the effectiveness of a conventional diet and exercise—long assumed to be the unassailable solutions to weight problems. Maybe we were going about this all wrong; maybe our body weight wasn’t the issue. The problem was our obsession with losing it.
Uncoupling weight and health is a tall order. It’s a medical fact that body fat can infiltrate organs, especially the liver, where it disrupts insulin action. Diabetes and cardiac-risk factors soon follow. But that doesn’t always occur, and since at least the mid-nineties, there has been ample evidence that there are individuals who, while still at heightened risk for cardiovascular disease, are what researchers call metabolically healthy obese—that is, fat but fit.
The idea that being fat might not be so bad—or at least less bad than our frenzied efforts to be thin—has been around since the fat-acceptance movement of the sixties. More recently, movements like Health at Every Size, or HAES, which grew quickly during the nineties, have leveraged a growing mass of research suggesting that body size in itself poses fewer health risks than some popular approaches to weight loss. HAES proponents point out that, while body fat correlates with poor health, the role of weight itself as the sole cause of chronic disease is exaggerated. What’s more, they argue, weight cycling (losing fat and then regaining it) tends to result in more problems than remaining at a higher but stable weight. Hardcore diets and draconian exercise regimens can also lead to eating disorders, body dysmorphia (hating the way you look), and risky interventions like using weight-loss drugs.
“There is such a sharp disconnect between what we know from scientific research and what is transmitted to the general public,” says physiologist Lindo Bacon, author of the 2008 book Health at Every Size. “It’s appalling, and I think The Biggest Loser represents the worst of it.” HAES has plenty of critics, who contend that the movement attempts to normalize obesity and therefore poor health. But the larger point may be this: losing weight can be so difficult that it often thwarts efforts to develop better habits, like eating nutritious foods or being regularly active.
It took a while for market forces to catch on. Many folks still put their trust in diet and exercise programs to get and stay fit. But the myth of transformation was largely created by marketing agencies—that is, before the government stepped in to enforce more transparency in advertising. The diet industry has been slapping disclaimers on products since 1997, when the Federal Trade Commission required Jenny Craig to inform consumers that dramatic weight loss “wasn’t typical” for those using its program.
But such caveats hardly slowed down the industry. The diet business doubled between 2000 and 2018, according to the market-research firm Marketdata. By 2018 it was generating around $72 billion a year. It took a whole new generation to realize that none of it was working.
“Terms like ‘diet’ and ‘weight loss’ just aren’t cool anymore,” says Kelsey Miller, author of the memoir Big Girl and creator of the Anti-Diet Project column, which launched in November 2013 on the online publication Refinery 29. “People were ready to hear something that wasn’t about changing their bodies or manipulating their bodies but rather accepting their bodies. A lot of beauty standards were ridiculous, and we were starting to listen to this rational part of our brain that was saying, Let’s just drop all this nonsense.”
The market began to tilt in the 2010s, and many weight-loss companies struggled to stay relevant. Dieting had left such a wide wake of disordered eating, stress, and anxiety—along with more intractable issues like anorexia and bulimia—that many people started to reject the approach altogether. (One popular recent book is Caroline Dooner’s The F*ck It Diet.) The anti-diet movement champions intuitive eating, which lets natural hunger and satiety signals guide food intake as opposed to calorie counting and macronutrient experiments. Weight Watchers, which essentially created modern diet culture back in 1963, rebranded itself as WW, a wellness company, in 2018.
When the body-positivity movement gained momentum around 2013, largely thanks to social media, it spread the message that teaching overweight people to hate themselves as a motivator was a bad idea. One reason the rebooted Biggest Loser has met such strident blowback is that it brazenly reinforces those prejudices. Shaming and scaring overweight people about their weight has been shown to exacerbate issues like overeating and depression, not resolve them. The show also reinforces weight bias. In one small but well-publicized 2012 study, viewers who watched only a single episode of The Biggest Loser came away with increased negative opinions about large people. In 2019, scientists at Harvard published research that looked at public attitudes toward six social factors—age, disability, body weight, race, skin tone, and sexuality—and how they changed over time. Their results concluded that when it comes to implicit (or relatively automatic) biases, body weight was the only category where people’s attitudes worsened over time. However, explicit (or relatively controllable) biases improved in all six categories. Because lower body weight also tends to correlate to higher levels of socioeconomic privilege in the United States, fat shaming functions as a kind of classism.
Still, there have been noticeable changes in some public opinions, thanks to influencers, models, athletes, and brands that have taken a more weight-neutral position. When Ashley Graham became the first plus-size model to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit edition, in 2016, the photos of her were heralded as a victory for body positivity. In January, when Jillian Michaels made a comment expressing concern that the pop singer Lizzo might develop Type 2 diabetes, she was swiftly denounced for “concern trolling” and body shaming. Lizzo responded that she “had no regrets” and “deserved to be happy.” She probably was. She’d just won three Grammy Awards and was on the cover of Rolling Stone.
During my second visit to The Biggest Loser set, I watched the contestants grunt through a Last Chance Workout—the final fat-blasting gym session before the weekly weigh-in. The high-intensity circuit involved treadmills, rowing machines, battle ropes, free weights, and other torture-chamber accoutrements. The trainers barked. The contestants slogged away. I didn’t see anyone throw up, but they looked like they were about to.
This scene wasn’t a one-off: workouts and fitness challenges fill most of the show. It’s easy to see why they’re the most prominent. Who wants to watch people eat a salad or sleep really well when you can watch them doing box jumps until they crumple?
If dieting has fallen out of favor in recent years, so, too, has our frustrating and often fruitless attempts to sweat our way to thinness. Physical activity has many extraordinary benefits and is arguably the first line of defense when it comes to personal health. But research has taught us that working out is a weak strategy for sustainable weight loss. In 2009, in the wake of several prominent studies, a Time magazine cover story blared, “Why Exercise Won’t Make You Thin.” Ultimately, this wasn’t an argument to stop going to the gym, but it was a reason to stop flagellating yourself in a quest to shed pounds.
Part of the problem is that many people understand weight loss to be a thermodynamic issue. This may be fundamentally true—the only way to lose weight is to burn more calories than you consume—but the biological reality is more complex. Researchers have shown that the more aggressively we take weight off, the more fiercely our body fights to put it back on. One of the insights provided by the 2016 NIH metabolism study is that such metabolic effects persist for years after the initial weight loss; the body lowers the resting metabolic rate (by as much as 600 calories a day in some cases) and reduces the production of leptin, a hormone that helps us feel full. “The metabolic slowing is like tension on a spring,” says Kevin Hall, a senior NIH researcher who led the study. “When you pull on the spring to stretch it, that’s the lifestyle intervention, the weight loss. The more weight you lose, the more tension there is, pulling you back.”
A popular theory suggests that we have a body-weight set point that works like a thermostat: your brain recognizes a certain weight, or weight range, and adjusts other physiological systems to push you there. How, when, and how permanently that weight is set is a matter of much debate. It’s fairly well understood that genes play a significant role in determining our body mass—some of us simply put on weight easier than others—but around the late 1970s, the average weight of Americans began to climb significantly relative to previous decades. It wasn’t our genes causing the uptick.
One of the thorniest problems in obesity research may be that we live in bodies engineered for a very different world than the one we inhabit now. Scientists often refer to our modern surroundings as an “obesogenic environment,” where a host of factors, including food supply, technology, transportation, income, stress, and inactivity, contribute to weight gain. For many years, the weight-loss industry has convinced us that, by disciplining ourselves to embrace the right diet and exercise, we could whittle ourselves back down to a more socially acceptable weight. But it has failed to produce the kind of health outcomes we might expect. The reality is that the twin forces of genetics and environment quickly overwhelm willpower. Our weight may be intractable because the issues are so much bigger than we realize.
When I talked to trainer Erica Lugo on The Biggest Loser set, she seemed less fixated on weight loss than she’s portrayed to be in the show. “The fitness industry is so hung up on being a certain size or having a six-pack, and I’ve struggled with that on the show a couple of times,” she told me. “Fitness is a mindset. I want people to know that, and I want everyone to feel accepted. I don’t want them to be embarrassed or feel like they can’t do things or even try.”
A few weeks later, while I was watching early episodes, something surprising happened. While I fully understood how the show can manipulate my emotions, I still found myself caught up in the stories. I got misty when 400-pound Robert Richardson was sent home in the first episode because he had “only” managed to drop 13 pounds in a week. When Megan Hoffman, who’d been struggling since the start, started flinging tractor tires like a beast in the second episode, I was thrilled. By episode seven (of ten), the show hits its emotional peak when the five remaining contestants get video messages from home. The stories are human and relatable—a son with a recovering-addict mother, a distant husband wanting his wife to “get healthy.” The message is clear: gaining weight may be as much psychological as it is physical.
Despite The Biggest Loser’s wellness head fake, and regardless of its woefully outdated tone and thinly veiled fat shaming, I now understood why, for its millions of fans, the show was a beacon of hope. How many of them, when faced with unrelenting negativity about their weight, yearned for inspiration and motivation, for agency, for the belief that they could reclaim ownership of their bodies?
I wasn’t sure how to reconcile this in our bold new world of woke fitness. How could you endorse a show conveying the idea that self-worth was tied to BMI? On the other hand, anything that prompted positive change, no matter how small, seemed like a step in the right direction. Obesity never warrants discrimination, but acceptance and compassion shouldn’t eclipse concern for health risks either—a recent report in The New England Journal of Medicine concluded that, by 2030, nearly 50 percent of Americans will be obese.
About a month after the show wrapped, I talked on the phone with contestant Jim DeBattista, the youth football coach. I wondered how his experience had been and how he was doing now that he’d been home for a while. “It’s going great!” he said cheerfully. “My big goal was to make this work after the contest was over. I knew I wasn’t going to be living in a bubble. But so far, I haven’t put any weight on, and I’m eating more and working out less.”
I asked what had been his biggest takeaway. “You have to surrender your old habits,” he said. “The old me led me to be almost 400 pounds. I had to completely change who I was, and the show helped me do that. I can’t lie. Now when I see a Dairy Queen, I hit the gas.”
The new Biggest Loser wants us to believe that the journey of transformation is internal and individual, that we can shape our bodies to our will. But what if it’s not us we need to transform but the world we’ve built? Real wellness—regular movement, nutritious food, social connection, access to health care, and quality rest and relaxation—can’t be at war with the way we live. It has to be baked into our lives, our schools, our work, and our cities. It may not prevent us from getting heavier, but it would certainly make us healthier. And that would be a big win for everyone.