As one of the most popular shows on television, The Biggest Loser provides viewers with inspiration and motivation for losing weight, but is the dramatic weight loss based on good nutritional science?
Nutritional science now suggests that people who try to lose massive amounts of weight quickly may be doing more harm to their bodies – and their waistlines – than good.
At the beginning of each season, 16 contestants weigh in. The contestant who loses the least weight each week leaves the show. Whoever loses the most weight at the end of the season wins a cash prize and (supposedly) a beautiful new body.
Getting to the final episode is extremely difficult, as it requires unhealthy calorie restriction and excessive exercise. One contestant claimed she consumed as few as 1000 to 1200 calories and exercised between five and eight hours each day.
The TV show gave scientists an opportunity to understand the effects of crash dieting. Researchers followed up with 14 contestants six years after they appeared on the show. The researchers measured the ex-participants’ resting metabolism rate (RMR), which is the number of calories their body burns while at rest. Somebody with a high RMR burns more calories at rest compared with a person with a low RMR, who burns very few calories.
The Biggest Losers in the study had normal RMRs for their corresponding sizes at the beginning of the season, so each was burning the right number of calories for someone their size. By the end of the season, though, their RMRs had slowed.
The scientists weren’t surprised, as they knew crash diets could slow metabolism, but they were stunned by what they learned next.
The researchers were floored to discover that, six years after their season ended, the contestants’ metabolism never recovered. In fact, their metabolism rates had slowed down even more. All the contestants in the study had gained back most of the weight they lost during the show. A few weighed more after the show than before it.
The scientists were startled when they tested the participants’ resting metabolic rates and found that the contestants who lost the most weight during the competition had the slowest RMRs. One of the Biggest Losers, Danny Cahill, had slowed to the point where he could only eat about the same number of calories as does a woman half his size or he risks gaining weight.
People used to blame dieting failure on poor willpower and a lack of self-control but nutrition experts now hold hormones and homeostasis responsible. Homeostasis keeps your body in a state of balance and weight equilibrium, making you feel hungry, triggering feelings of fullness, and maintaining a stable weight during short periods of hunger. It does this by storing fat to use as energy later. In times of starvation, homeostasis causes your body to store fat every chance it gets.
Nutrition experts know that paying close attention to hunger and satiety signals can help you lose weight without disrupting your metabolism. Eating nutritious foods only when you are hungry and stopping when you feel satisfied prevents your body from overreacting to your diet.
Nutritious food helps maintain a healthy balance of beneficial gut bacteria, which provides a variety of health benefits ranging from good digestion to decreased risk for some diseases. The beneficial microbes also determine whether you are fat or thin by influencing how your body absorbs, stores and expends energy (learn more about how probiotics may aid in weight loss here).
Studies show that lack of diversity in the gut microbiota goes hand-in-hand with obesity, type-2 diabetes, and other digestive conditions. At Natren we believe the best way of maintaining a well balanced and diverse digestive system is by eating a nutritionally-balanced diet, exercising regularly and supplementing with Natren probiotics daily and avoiding crash diets that counteract the natural mechanisms for maintaining good digestive health. The Biggest Loser is interesting television but it is not solid nutritional science. The show’s dietary approach ignores the importance of a healthy microbiota and the proper way to eat when you are hungry. It also imposes a drastic cut in calories for all dieters, regardless of the individual’s RMR and weight history.